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Op-ed: Sugar House rezone is example of transit-driven solution

Published May 25, 2014 8:36 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

George Chapman's op-ed piece, "Stop destroying single-family neighborhoods," takes issue with my letter to the editor supporting the proposed upzoning of land along the Sugar House streetcar line. Let me say first that infill development and redevelopment around transit stations must be done sensitively. On this Mr. Chapman and I agree. I think the proposed upzoning meets that test. I also think there are bigger issues that Mr. Chapman ignores in his op-ed.

We at the University of Utah recently measured the degree of urban sprawl for metropolitan areas in the U.S., as well some of its unintended consequences such as automobile dependence, high traffic fatality rates, high rates of physical inactivity and obesity, poor air quality, lack of upward social mobility, and high transportation costs ("Cutting urban sprawl could help residents' health, wealth," Salt Lake Tribune, April 3). Our region isn't the worst, but it is far from the best in its efforts to contain sprawl.

One thing we are doing in this region to combat sprawl is investing in high-quality transit. I am talking about the light rail lines, the existing and proposed streetcar lines, and the new and proposed bus rapid transit lines. Another thing we are doing is planning for a future that concentrates development in dense mixed-use centers connected by high-quality transit. This plan is known as the Wasatch Choice for 2040, adopted by the Wasatch Front Regional Council. Under this plan, West Valley City, Sandy, West Jordan, Draper, and other suburban communities would develop town centers near transit stations.

Why promote centers near transit stations? The most obvious reason is our substandard air quality, which is mostly due to private vehicle emissions. But it is more than that. The aging and downsizing of the baby boom generation, and the taste for urban living of the millennial generation, suggest a growing demand for urban, walkable places.

Regions across the U.S., from San Diego to Boston and from Seattle to Miami,have decided that relatively dense mixed-use developments, called transit-oriented developments or TODs, should be permitted around transit stations. These TODs generate the ridership that makes transit successful. Strip commercial uses and low density-single family neighborhoods, like those around the Sugar House streetcar line, do not.

I have ridden the Sugar House streetcar, and what you see is diversity of land uses. There are sections with warehouse uses, sections with commercial uses, and sections with residential uses abutting the line. This naturally suggests that zoning changes cannot be uniform but must be tailored to the surrounding uses.

The zoning amendments proposed by the Mayor and being considered by the City Council (and already approved by the Planning Commission in a unanimous vote) are tailored to the surrounding land uses. Only one block with about a dozen single-family homes, Wilmington Avenue between 600 and 700 East would be upzoned, and that block already has commercial uses on it. Instead, any impact on residents would be felt mainly through rezoning of lands currently in commercial and multifamily residential uses. And these impacts would be modest.

In the east and west sections of the streetcar corridor, Streetcar Edge zoning would limit building heights to 45 feet, the same as existing commercial zoning. That is not much taller than the height limit under single-family zoning. Only in the central section (around 700 East) would the tallest buildings be allowed.

Under Streetcar Core zoning, buildings could rise to 105 feet, or about eight stories, a TOD density. However, one provision already adopted and another under consideration, would moderate the height of buildings even in the central section. Buildings would have to step back from the street as they stepped up, starting at only 30 feet in height and gradually rising with distance from surrounding uses. Buildings could increase in height only one foot for every two feet of additional setback. At the tallest, for the property at the corner of 700 East and 2100 South, city staff has shown that the step back pattern of building heights would not block the morning sun for the single-family neighbors along Green Street, across from the upzoning.

Moreover, due to concerns raised by the City Council, the maximum height in the Streetcar Core zone, may be reduced to 75 feet. That is not a bad compromise.

Maybe George and I aren't that far apart.

Reid Ewing is a professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.






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