This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It is time to speak out about Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant master plan adopted in August. I hope it is not too late.
What set me off was an article last week in the Tribune titled, "Setback could turn to fortune for SLC." The article speaks of the city's plan for an "economic powerhouse" on 3,670 developable acres north of Interstate 80 and west of the Salt Lake International Airport. The only caveat in the article was a reference to former Mayor Rocky Anderson's concern about commuting. He was quoted as saying, "We should be building our communities upward, not sprawling them out."
The land the northwest quadrant is zoned exclusively M1, meaning the only development allowed is light industry and manufacturing. This also means that residential development is specifically forbidden. Make no mistake. This is an example of urban sprawl at its worst, something we at the university have been studying for years. When it comes to sprawl, we have rated metropolitan areas and counties around the United States. The Salt Lake Metropolitan Area and Salt Lake County are not the worst, but we are certainly not the best. We are a little over half way between San Francisco at the compact end of the spectrum and Atlanta at the sprawling end.
Sprawl is defined as low density, single-use, uncentered development that is totally automobile dependent. Sprawl has dangerous and expensive consequences associated with it. The documented costs of sprawl include excessive vehicle miles traveled by residents, lack of job opportunities for low-income residents who don't drive, traffic congestion flowing one way in the morning and the reverse in the afternoon, high traffic fatality rates, high infrastructure costs due to spread-out development and poor utilization of infrastructure outside the peak, air pollution due to complete auto dependence and poor health outcomes for the population.
Our metropolitan planning organization understands this and has been planning for a region of mixed-use centers connected by high quality transit.
Salt Lake County understands this and partnered with our Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University in Mayor Ben McAdams' Metro Solutions Symposium in October. The symposium focused on the costs of sprawl and the benefits of mixed-use development in city centers, town centers, neighborhood centers, and transit-oriented developments.
The LDS Church and Kennecott understood this and were planning for a complete community west of the airport when they owned some of the land now in question. They, in particular, planned for a jobs-housing balance. More than 20 land owners participated in the development of a plan at that time that was approved by the city's own planning commission.
South Salt Lake City, Sandy, Draper, West Valley City and other suburban communities understand this and are planning for their own mixed-use centers.
Salt Lake City understands this elsewhere and is planning for and encouraging mixed-use transit oriented development on 400 South, North Temple, Sugar House and elsewhere.
But then there is this glaring exception in the northwest quadrant.
Our keynote speaker at mayor's symposium was Professor Robert Cervero of U.C. Berkeley. A few years ago, he conducted a study showing that having jobs close to where people live was the best way to cut down on regional automobile commuting. We ourselves have published an article in Housing Policy Debate showing the advantages in terms of commuting of having a so-called jobs-housing balance in commute sheds.
Salt Lake City residents complain about traffic congestion on I-15 due to imbalanced northward flow in the morning and southbound flow in the evening. We will see the same situation on I-80 under the northwest quadrant plan with westbound flow in the morning and eastbound in the evening, not to mention massive congestion on Bangerter Highway and the Mountain View Corridor.
I disagree with former Mayor Anderson in one respect, and agree with Mayor Jackie Biskupski. As a planner, I think the northwest quadrant is a great place to grow. It is close to the airport, close to downtown, close to TRAX and reasonably close to the university. With so much undeveloped land in such a key location, it has the potential to be an internationally significant example of what is referred to elsewhere as "smart growth." We don't use this expression much in Utah, but I think it captures the essence of compact development.
The opposite, dumb growth, is urban sprawl. Zoning and infrastructure plans are still in the works, and according to the Tribune article, the city plans to consult with the "brightest minds" to understand the quadrant's full development potential. So maybe this op-ed isn't too late to encourage smarter growth.
Reid Ewing is chair of the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah.