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News & Columns

Town Crier

By Holly Mullen
Posted // August 20,2007 - /
Two weeks ago, I posted a comment on my blog (mullentown.com) headlined: “If You Were the Architect.” I solicited ideas from bloggers on how they would fix downtown Salt Lake City. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

Salt Lake City Councilman Søren Simonsen, who represents the Sugar House area, jumped right in. Simonsen is an architect with a keen interest in historic preservation. But he also is a big fan of Scandinavian urban design, which yields clean, walkable cities.

I liked Simonsen’s post so much I’m printing much of it here.

“If I Were the Architect” by Søren Simonsen:
“Interesting thing is, downtown is exactly what we’ve asked for. Our codes, ordinances, zoning, etc., all tell developers and property owners exactly what to build. And that’s what we’ve done over the past 30 or so years.

“We’ve become our own worst enemy when it comes to creating a bustling downtown. Our downtown has more than 75 million visitors each year (considering employees, residents, tourists and other visitors), and you’d never know to walk the streets on any given evening. If you want an active, vibrant place, then go take a few pictures of places you’d really like to emulate (Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Portland; Boulder; San Diego; Rome; Oslo; Stockholm and London are some in the United States and abroad that capture my fancy), describe in writing what you see, and put that into your zoning ordinance and development codes.

“I know as well as any that it’s not quite that simple, but in some ways it is. I’ve been talking about this with civic leaders for years. I got so frustrated that I ran for City Council and won.

“Downtown housing is a start. We’re seeing some fruits of these labors. Downtown will never provide housing for every individual (like the masses that will always want to live in the suburbs just because they want to live in the suburbs) but we should recognize a growing population (even a diverse population, including families) that does want to live downtown and make sure we have the right amenities and affordability to support this lifestyle. Even if we captured just 2 percent of the annual new-housing market for the entire state, that’s about 1,000 new residents downtown each year. Not bad by any standard.

“Next, we need to work on getting businesses that close at 5 p.m. off the street (or at least off most of them). The corollary to this is getting the vibrant retail businesses off of upper levels and back on the street (i.e., ZCMI Center, Crossroads Plaza, The Gateway and, coming soon—City Creek Center). Of course, what landowner wouldn’t want to capture such a large portion of the lucrative retail market? But doing so means the market is not distributed among other downtown properties. This is not only harmful (as we’ve seen), but is also inequitable. The concentration of these retail-activity generators will continue to erode the vibrancy of the downtown in disturbing ways.

“We need to quit demolishing historic buildings while 75 percent of our downtown lies in fallow ‘grayfields’ (parking lots). Even if some older buildings currently on the chopping block (First Security/Deseret Building, Montgomery Ward/Bennion Jewelers, Tribune Building, etc.) are less than ideal for Class A office space, we have a lot of other needs besides Class A office space. We should focus development on filling in the ‘gaps’ where the parking lots are now to create a complete urban framework and ‘fabric’ that lends itself to a diverse and continuous pedestrian experience.

“Finally, it’s time that we treated the street—these great, wide streets that Brigham Young envisioned as public, social spaces—as just what they were intended to be. Whether you think our wide streets are an asset or a liability, there is clear evidence that we have nothing when we allow development to turn its back to the street.

“Take a look at the Wells Fargo Building, One Utah Center, The Gateway, First Interstate Bank, and the City Creek Center. All treat the street as mere ‘utility’ to carry the cars zooming in and out of their respective parking structures. A proper urban-design element to create vibrant streets will require, among other things:

• Frequent doorways that allow people the choice to permeate between building and street. This means not just one or two doorways per block, but more like a dozen. If you don’t think it can be done, just walk up Rio Grande Street inside The Gateway and count the entrances. They are all there. It’s done all the time, just not always in the right places.
• Windows and other openings that you can actually see into and out of. This means no mirror glass, obscure glass or false windows, and definitely no walls with mostly no windows.
• Floor levels inside the building that match the sidewalk outside the building (which reinforces the previous two points); and
• Pedestrian-oriented signage (blade signs), canopies and awnings. (You mean there’s a way to control sunlight other than mirrors and tinted glass?)

“Here’s to progress.”
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