With candidates for Salt Lake City mayor rushing to make their views known on the proposed Main Street sky bridge, the city’s planning commission is asking whether or not politicians are the best people to decide.
Until the Salt Lake City Council amended city planning documents this year to open up the possibility of a sky bridge connecting halves of the LDS Church’s proposed City Creek Center mall, such decisions would have been up to the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.
But in rewriting an earlier ban on Main Street sky bridges, the city council made itself—to use George W. Bush’s term—the decider.
“Before, there was a discrete separation between the two, the city council and the [planning] commission,” said Prescott Muir, a planning commissioner. “Typically, the planning commission deals with the nitty-gritty implementation of land-use issues; the council sets policy.” Decisions about whether a particular land use would be permitted were left to the commission.
“Is it a one-time deal, their weighing in and reserving the ultimate authority to judge the merits of a specific application?” Muir asks.
The planning commission isn’t sure whether the city council has taken back for itself power to decide just for this one instance, just for sky bridges or for a larger variety of projects. In a letter asking the city council to remove the power-grab sentence from its revised master plan, planning commissioners wrote that they worried the change could weaken the commission and open land-use decisions to political pressure.
“With final approval having transferred to the hands of [the] City Council, the Council … has assumed a greater role than traditionally precedent for a politically elected body in determining intricate components of land use,” the commission’s letter said. The change, “undeniably diminishes the historic role” of the commission.
The letter voiced confidence the current city council would examine the sky bridge issue appropriately, but asked the council reconsider “to send a message to future City Councils about the importance [of] land use decisions isolated from influence of politics.”
Jill Remington Love, council vice-chairwoman, said the council understands the planning commission’s concerns but insists there is nothing to worry about. The planning commission, she says, remains “the design review board for the city,” and the council doesn’t intend that to change in most circumstances.
The council intends only to assert control over City Creek. “At the end of the day, we thought this project is so significant, it’s such a huge diversion from our master plan, we want final design input,” she said. “I don’t think we are going to make a habit of it.”
City Councilman Dave Buhler, a candidate for mayor, said the sky bridge had become too political to be left in the hands of an appointed body.
“There was a lot of discussion [on the city council] about if the planning commission should make the final decision,” he said. “Ultimately, the city council felt like this looks like a hot issue. It’s tempting to say, ‘Throw the hot potato and let [the planning commission] deal with it.’ I felt like we ought to be willing to take responsibility.”
Not surprisingly, the view that elected officials should reserve the right to make land-use decisions was shared by others seeking to become the city’s chief elected official.
Mayoral candidate Ralph Becker, a professional planner and former Salt Lake City planning commissioner, said the public planning process is ultimately political, including at best, the synthesis of community desires through public input. Personally opposed to sky bridges downtown, Becker nonetheless endorses the process the city council is using to determine if a sky bridge is allowed as part of City Creek. The council’s ordinance theoretically allows a bridge only if developers mitigate potential downsides, such as reduced street-level pedestrian traffic.
Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, another candidate for mayor, agrees, “You can’t take politics out of planning.” She said the city council should reserve the right to weigh in on large issues, without reducing the planning commission’s contribution.
“We’re talking about a multimillion-dollar development and a fragile arrangement with retailers we want back,” Wilson said.
It is, of course, the multimillions of development dollars that the planning commission fears might unduly influence planning, if planning decisions are put in the hands of elected officials.