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What downtown Salt Lake City lacks in plazas is made up in another kind of open space — surface parking lots.

That could change as downtown undergoes an apartment building boom and the realization that plazas contribute significantly to the quality of urban living.

But Stephen Goldsmith, University of Utah associate professor of planning and former Salt Lake City planning director, isn't so sure such a transformation will occur. Salt Lake City excels, he says, when it comes to mediocrity.

Mayor Ralph Becker is fond of saying, "We are building a great American city."

But great cities are known for their inviting spaces: Trafalgar Square in London, the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia.

Closer to home, there is Pioneer Courthouse Plaza in Portland, Ore., Jackson Square in New Orleans and, in New York City, Rockefeller Plaza ­— spaces that help build and define those communities.

In Salt Lake City, we do have Gallivan Plaza, although many of its sight lines are blocked from pedestrians and motorists by structures, including a relatively new one on 200 South, known affectionately as the "bathroom building."

Gallivan Plaza is "an opportunity lost," says Goldsmith, reflecting on its clutter and lack of invitation to passersby.

There also is the plaza at 200 S. West Temple at the Rampton Convention Center. But it is filled with large concrete blocks reminiscent of World War II tank traps.

In Salt Lake City, it seems, we like to fill up our plazas with stuff.

The recent dedication of Monument Plaza in Sugar House, however, is a reminder that plazas — like parks — can be community gathering places. Trees, small planters and benches there don't steal away its openness. And restaurants in new developments on the southwest corner of 2100 South and Highland Drive spill out onto Monument Plaza, adding to a new sense of vitality.

The phenomenon is described as the "open spaces of democracy," Goldsmith says. "There is a demand for the democracy of the street — the ability to gather freely."

Of course, Salt Lake City has more than one of these places. Among them is a little known space located between high rise complexes on 500 West between South Temple and 200 South. The Fifth Street Commons is a "park block" the equivalent of four auto lanes wide made up of grass and trees, benches and walkways . On the north end is a small plaza. It transforms the street from appearing as a concrete mass to something green and inviting.

It's about aesthetics, Goldsmith says. "We want something green to keep us connected to nature," he explains. "It's not just how the environment performs. It's how we perform."

By contrast, the high-rise apartment structures going up near the intersection of 400 South and 500 East are being built right to the sidewalk. The only open space in sight is the parking lot across 500 East at Walgreens.

City hall failures? • Goldsmith sees it as a failure of both planning and zoning at City Hall. "If we allow the private sector to determine how the city is built out, we'll have more streets like 400 South."

Some blame the lack of open space at 400 South and 500 East on the planning paradigm surrounding mass transit. Because TRAX light rail runs along 400 South, nearby structures fall into a category labeled "transit-oriented development" that calls for high-density massing.

"Our transit zoning is failing us for design quality," agrees City Council Chairman Luke Garrott.

Nonetheless, developers pay an impact fee of $2,875 per unit — money earmarked to defray city costs, including the addition of open space — plazas, pocket parks and the like.

Garrott noted that Monument Plaza in Sugar House was pushed by the city's Redevelopment Agency, rather than by Mayor Ralph Becker.

"It's been very apparent to me over the years that we don't have enough parks and open space downtown," says Garrott, who is one of four candidates running against Becker in this year's election. "The [Becker] administration doesn't have long-term planning for parks — they don't know how to do it."

Garrott said the RDA would have pushed for more open space downtown but the Broadway-style Eccles Theater — championed by Becker — now under construction on Main Street, has sucked up all the agency's money in that district.

A spokesman for the mayor, however, labeled Garrott's comments as inaccurate, saying that Becker has enhanced and created new green space downtown.

"The record reflects [Becker's] efforts to make the best use of amenities we have," says Art Raymond. "We are opening green space for our growing downtown population."

Raymond pointed to various projects, including the plaza at the new Public Service Building, the coming of a pedestrian friendly Regent Street, and improvements to Pioneer Park.

Expanding open space • Nonetheless, City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall notes that the city has not used its design and planning tools well, particularly in the transit district.

"The City Council has the desire to expand open space opportunities downtown, particularly in the mass transit corridor," she says. "We will [soon] be addressing the collection and uses of impact fees."

Beyond that, Mendenhall says, the city must get greater concessions from developers on creating open space around or near housing developments.

"It's going to be impossible for the RDA to acquire enough property to implement enough open space," she explains.

However, through the design/review process, where projects are approved by planners, the city can ask for more, Mendenhall says.

"Instead of creating an easy process, we need to have a clear list of trade-offs" she says. "Seattle uses height as bait. If you want to go higher, you have to provide a public amenity."

Plazas are about community building, explains Soren Simonsen, a planner by trade and a former City Council member. He was among a group that began pushing for a new plaza in Sugar House a decade ago.

Plazas are social spaces built for pedestrians in cities that have been designed around automobiles, he says.

"In recent years people have realized our love for cars has produced poor results," Simonsen says. "Plazas are pedestrian amenities. They are useful to say we care more about people than cars — this is about us."