Politics | Mr. Ralph’s Neighborhood: City Weekly reads Ralph Becker’s “blueprints” so you don’t have to | Miscellaneous | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Politics | Mr. Ralph’s Neighborhood: City Weekly reads Ralph Becker’s “blueprints” so you don’t have to 

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Anyone who voted for mayor-elect Ralph Becker knew he was the man with the plan. He ran as “Blueprint Man,” after all. But how many actually read his blueprints?

City Weekly has read them and found a few surprises probably missed even by Becker’s biggest supporters—like the line where everybody will be mowing their lawns using electric mowers. Or the idea that new subdivisions should be required to install charging stations for our future electric cars.

You can’t say you weren’t warned. It was all there in the “blueprints” Becker kept yammering about on the stump—scads of plans he posted on the Internet during his campaign.

The blueprints suggest any voters who thought they were electing a Rocky-lite are in for a surprise. Becker may lack his predecessor’s bombast, but the Becker years are likely to be at least as progressive—and no less controversial.

You thought Rocky was fun on the environment? Try this Becker idea: a study to determine if TRAX can be powered with an array of solar panels spread somewhere on Salt Lake City’s west side. The Becker blueprints also call for the city to buy patches of green, forming a path from the Great Salt Lake to the Foothills, and a planting program to double the number of trees in the city.

At his core, Becker is a city planner and his “vision for a great American city” is a lot about reshaping Salt Lake City’s neighborhoods. After wading through page after page of Becker “blueprints,” and a 180-day “action plan,” Becker’s future Salt Lake City can be boiled down to this: It looks kind of like Portland, Ore.,—only with really, really wide streets.

In Becker’s Salt Lake City, people bike to work on commuter bikeways. Mostly, they walk, because every neighborhood has a “commercial core” with its own collection of “parks, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, bicycle and vehicle repair shops, medical clinics, post offices, hardware and food stores, florist and antiques shops, pet-grooming shops and clinics, bookstores, dry cleaning establishments, and hair salons.”

There is also a neighborhood bar. Neighborhoods are connected by trails. Lawns are hydrated with used “gray water.” Downtown is filled with artists lured back into the city with cheap rent.

“It’s a place where people have easy access to different types of transportation, the ability to work in their city without having to travel very far and easy access to outdoor amenities,” says Becker Chief of Staff David Everitt. All that, and clean air.

Many, of course,

were paying attention to Becker’s plans and now have high expectations for the new mayor.

Betsy Burton, board member of Local First Utah, hopes Becker will be the man to smash the chain stores—or at least preserve Salt Lake City’s small businesses. “That’s the way he talked. We have every expectation he meant it.”

Becker’s blueprints say creating “neighborhood commercial centers” will go a long way to preserving the city’s small businesses. To encourage “walkable communities,” he envisions offering developers “density bonuses” awarding easier permitting for developers who agree to build up rather than out.

The plan begins with updating all of Salt Lake City’s individual neighborhood plans. It’s a process Everitt says will begin immediately but take six years to complete. Sugar House residents complain they spent years going to such planning meetings only to see past plans thrown out the window when developers came calling. Everitt says this time the plans will be written into zoning ordinances and given teeth.

Kirk Huffaker, assistant director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, hopes Becker will build historic preservation into city plans. Becker’s blueprints talk of “recycling” existing buildings as one way of preserving “downtown’s remaining historic buildings.”

Tim Funk, of the Crossroads Urban Center, plans to hold the new mayor to a campaign promise to establish a housing commission to study ways to keep the city from becoming a millionaire-only zone.

Becker would bring back artists to town with affordable housing. How’s this for progressive housing policy? The blueprints say the city could buy residential land and hold it in trust. Homes built on top could then be bought and sold minus the value of the land. The blueprints also call for centers to help low-income families advance in the job market and schools used in evenings for social services.

The Becker blueprint is easier written than done. Zoning laws will need to change to allow stores in residential neighborhoods. Becker also wants to change existing rules and allow bars to cluster closer together.

The Coalition for Orderly Development—a group of angry residents who have battled the city planning department over what they see as the bulldozing of neighborhoods to make way for monster homes—landed one of their own among Becker’s advisers. But members still see a struggle ahead.

“We have great expectations but are full of caution for having dealt with this for two years,” said coalition member Jim Jenkin. “We’re dealing with an established bureaucracy.”

Some had expected Becker’s first move to be a major shakeup of the city planning department, which he termed “a shambles” during his campaign. While the department head will be replaced, Becker is keeping most of Anderson’s staff.

Everitt says the city’s planning problem is due to “lack of guidance,” not people. In a planning vacuum, city planners bend to political pressure and “decisions became more arbitrary over time.”

Becker’s blueprints call for “restoration [of] strong land-use decisions,” but Everitt says not to expect a wholesale zoning-ordinance overhaul right away.

That, at any rate, is the plan. It’s an ambitious, progressive agenda. Only time will tell if it survives beyond the mayor-elect’s first 180 days.

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