Imagine if an exact replica of two blocks of downtown were re-created, turned upside down and placed on stilts directly above the two city blocks it was based on so you could look up and see a mirror image of the city above you. Now, just to up the ante on this bizarre cityscape, imagine that there’s also a lovely city park on top of the upsidedowntown hanging in the sky.
This bold urban plan, called “Upsite Town,” was one of the more than 180 designs submitted to a competition supported by the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency and the Downtown Alliance. The competition will award cash to the winning ideas, which might also guide the city to the kind of plan that will dynamically link City Creek Center with the “cultural corridor” of downtown—the area surrounding various arts venues in downtown Salt Lake City, including the site of the proposed Utah Performing Arts Center.
The competition brings the wild and the weird imaginations of planners and architects from as far away as China and Thailand to give two blocks of Salt Lake City an extreme makeover. The ideas vary from practical to practically insane, but all will be considered by a panel of judges that includes architects as well as local government leaders, such as Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.
“Some [designs] incorporate social media into their plans to make them interesting, some integrate living walls and vegetation,” says Heather Wilson, event organizer and executive director of the Utah Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “As many people have entered is how many ideas we’ve got.”
The SixtyNine Seventy Project focused on the blocks bordered by West Temple and State Street between 100 South and 200 South, not counting State Street itself. The area has a number of publicly owned lots, alleys and streets that could use a little gussying up. Wilson says that by focusing on these small connecting spaces, the city can craft a design that gives the area a distinctive character and makes it a destination.
Greg Walker, chairman of the Young Architects Forum, the main organizing force in the competition, says the genius of the competition is recognizing what Salt Lake City’s downtown has going for it and making it part of a cohesive experience.
“The issue isn’t that we need more stuff, it’s just that we need to make all that stuff work together,” Walker says. “It would be nice to walk out of the Beerhive and go through the porous part of the block and find yourself in the middle of something unique, instead of just a giant parking lot.”
The competition’s panel is currently deliberating on the entries and will pick two winners, each to receive $40,000. On May 10, a number of finalists will have their designs selected and the public will have an opportunity to vote and select a people’s choice winner that will be awarded $40,000. While the city is involved as a supporter of the competition, the prize money is provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Zion’s Bank and other donors, including some of the major investors in the City Creek mall development.
Though just three of the designs will take home prizes, elements from all the designs might spark ideas for future downtown redevelopment.
Gregg Pasquarelli is an architect and founding partner of SHoP Architects of New York City who’s been in the business for decades and has participated in dozens of competitions like these. He says they always bring an influx of ideas and inspiration to city planners.
“It brings different ideas from all over the world here, and it also exposes people to what’s possible,” Pasquarelli says. “Sometimes, people look at a parking lot or an alley and say, ‘Oh, this is always just going to be a parking lot or an alley,’ when someone else would say, ‘That could be an incredible park or this incredible gathering space.’ ” Many designers seem to have been intrigued by the somewhat unusual grid design of Utah’s capital city, with its wide streets that were originally meant to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and wagons, but now leave the city’s thoroughfares intimidating to pedestrians. Several designs suggested closing off Main Street to automobiles and creating a pedestrian mall. One floated the idea that hanging gardens and parks should be constructed on top of the city buildings in the downtown area to create a walkable green space above the city streets.
Other designs engage people as the social creatures they are, with booths where people can stop and take pictures or videos of themselves and upload them to social media sites like Twitter and YouTube. Another seeks the creation of a giant nursery in a public space that would be cared for, watered and maintained by residents and visitors.
The competition is all about brainstorming ideas, but local government movers and shakers are paying attention.
McAdams likes the idea of designs that promote walkable mid-block pathways, but wants a design that isn’t simply unique but will make the area a destination. “These blocks I see as the art center of the city,” McAdams says. “Maybe, during the day, it’s a destination and, in the evening, it’s the heart of our nightlife.”
One of the areas the competition targets is Regent Street, which runs north and south between 100 and 200 South. It is a thoroughfare, McAdams says, that many residents don’t feel is safe to walk along. He was intrigued by ideas that suggested making it an open area, perhaps with a rock-climbing wall running along the street.
“I don’t know that I’d be climbing, but I would sit there on my lunch break and watch people climb,” McAdams says. “So it’s pulling in a bit of Utah, embracing who we are and making it a destination and a unique place.”
After the visionaries are awarded for their creativity, it will be up to local government to decide how— or if—to use the ideas. But for the SixtyNine Seventy judges, the competition offers its own reward by focusing the city’s attention on its oft-overlooked but crucial arteries and public spaces.
Wins Bridgman, a judge and veteran architect of Bridgman Collaborative Architecture in Canada, says these connecting alleys and blocks are important because they are the spaces Salt Lakers share even though they spend their time in separate homes and offices.
more about how you get from one place to another,” Bridgman says.
“Another way of saying it is this is discovering a new public realm in
Salt Lake City.”