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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  The Bare Truth
News & Columns

The Bare Truth

News: Empty lots and vacant storefronts'and there’s nothing the city can do.

By Jonah Owen Lamb
Posted // August 8,2007 -

In 1900, when Salt Lake City’s population was just over 50,000, downtown thoroughfares State and Main streets were lined with shops. Horse-drawn carriages and crowds filled the wide sidewalks of a bustling city center.

Today, the city has a population of more than 180,000, yet downtown is a shell of its former self. Empty lots, empty storefronts and surface parking take up much of downtown. The once-bustling sidewalks are mostly bleak and bare.

Of course, Salt Lake City’s inner decay is a common affliction among America cities. Automobiles, suburbs and malls sucked life from city centers across the country.

A revitalization of Salt Lake City’s core is underway. The joint private and public plan is optimistically dubbed “Downtown Rising.” The plan’s ambitious goal is to reverse the exodus from the city’s core. Thus far, $1.5 billion has been invested in building projects, according to the project’s Website, DowntownRising.com. A statement in Salt Lake City’s draft transportation plan illustrates the hope for downtown’s future: “Imagine an energetic downtown where watching and wandering is part of the fun.”

All these plans sound grand, but a walk through downtown is not so heartening. City Weekly counted more than 39 empty lots and an equal number of surface parking lots in the “core” defined by Downtown Rising—a quadrant bordered by 600 South to South Temple and 300 East to 500 West.

These holes in the landscape make the city’s “core” about as lively as the Kalahari.

“Ideally, we would have no gaping holes along the street front downtown,” says Alison McFarlane, an economic adviser to the city. “A truly urban environment is a very dense, vibrant, compact area. And the more development and infill you have, the more dense and exciting that area becomes.” The main roadblocks to creating a vibrant city center, she says, are property owners who often simply sit on their property, waiting for the right time to sell.

While most involved with downtown redevelopment agree the area looks empty, there are currently 42 projects underway, according to Downtownrising.com. Urban planning experts say Salt Lake City has few tools at its disposal to rebuild a suffering downtown. The most obvious—if blunt—tool in the past was condemnation, widely used during the heydays of urban renewal in the ’50s and ’60s. Today, the use of eminent domain to foster development is not politically feasible, say city planners. And incentives like grants and loans for new businesses can do only so much to create development without the cooperation of landowners.

In the end, say developers, the city must let the market do its work, even if that means that downtown stays empty.

D.J. Baxter, the director of the city’s redevelopment agency (RDA), a property-tax financed body that works to bring business downtown, says the situation is not black-and-white. He’d love to see all of the empty lots filled, but there is little the city can do to force development.

“When you have a free-market economy, you can’t just wave a wand and say, ‘We want all of this to go away,’” says Bob Farrington, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, a Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce-affiliated nonprofit. There’s no law that says owners have to develop, even if their empty lots are bad for the city, says Farrington. “This is where the private market and community objectives sometimes butt heads.”

Downtown property owner Vasilios Priskos, owner of InterNet Properties, is on the developers’ side of this argument. “I really believe in supply and demand. Development just so we don’t have broken teeth in our city is an unfair proposition,” he says.

The vacant land in the city is an asset, not a detriment, says Priskos. If a company wants to build its headquarters here, plenty of room exists.
Empty land may be an asset, but the numbers belie his claim that demand is low. According to a report by Commerce CRG, a real-estate information firm, high demand exists for both office and retail space. Vacancy rates for class A office space (the best) in downtown are 1.39 percent; for class B, it’s just over 9 percent. Retail vacancy rates in the northeast part of Salt Lake County are 4.45 percent. The national vacancy average is 14.2 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Whether the market or the property owners at fault for the city’s empty lots, the city could do more to discourage “land banking” owners from sitting on their property until selling becomes lucrative, Farrington says.

{::INSERTAD::}“If you can’t force someone to redevelop, at least you can set a higher standard on appearance while they wait to redevelop,” says Farrington. The city’s current lax approach to enforcing better upkeep of empty buildings allows properties to sit in disrepair, which harms the appearance and value of the neighborhood.

The city’s current zoning discourages property owners from tearing down buildings and replacing them with surface parking. But, beyond that, “there’s nothing we can do about land banking,” says George Shaw, Salt Lake City planning director.

The city hasn’t always been so reticent about forcing certain development. In the mid ’90s, the RDA tried condemning the Flower Patch, a downtown florist, on behalf of Earl Holding’s Grand American Hotel project. Such cases reveal a double standard where the city is concerned, says florist shop owner Tom Gordon. So, when the city says it can’t do anything, it’s just not true.

“If their hands are tied, then they should keep their noses out of it, and there should be no threat of condemnation,” says Gordon. “If the city or RDA has the power of eminent domain, then market forces don’t take place.” 

In the meantime, if you want a city center that looks alive, you’ll have to find some photos from 1900.

 

 
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