Downtown Business Association, 6-1-2000
Building a Better, More Economically Sustainable Community for the Long-term Benefit of All
by Rocky Anderson
I’ve been told that speaking to the Downtown Merchants Association regarding the topics I intend to discuss is basically preaching to the choir. If that is so, let me exhort you to sing as loudly – and convincingly – as you can. Much is at stake.
We are at a pivotal time in the history of Salt Lake City. It is a time of opportunity, promise and choice.
- We stand poised to host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
- Our city has been distinguished in the most recent edition of the Places Rated Almanac as the best place to live in the United States. Salt Lake City was also recently selected as one of the top 20 Best Places to Live & Work in America by Employment Review magazine and BestJobsUSA.com.
- The opening of the North South Light Rail line has provided a crucial component of a comprehensive mass transit system for our valley. And the prospect of additional spurs presents the promise of convenient mobility for all in the Salt Lake Valley.
- Where architecturally atrocious court buildings and a jail once stood, soon a magnificent new main Library, surrounded by gardens and gathering places for our community, will be under construction.
We have the tools to further strengthen our city and, depending on the choices we make, to create an urban renaissance.
- We can choose to build a city that allows people to live in close proximity to their workplace, that has clean, green open spaces for recreation, and that has an interesting, bustling, vibrant downtown containing a wide variety of businesses, restaurants, and offices.
- We can work diligently to create opportunities for needed businesses to locate in west side neighborhoods.
- We can make choices now to create a city that has life on the street and that has interesting places for families and friends, young and old, to play together.
- And we can bring people together to live life in our community joyfully.
The resources available to us include: deeply committed, caring citizens and business owners; a lovely and dramatic geographical setting; a rich history and culture; wonderful old buildings that can be renovated to add further charm and uniqueness to our community; and, if we use them wisely, the financial resources to provide efficient, high-quality municipal services to our citizens.
Now is the time to thoughtfully consider where we are and what we hope for the future of Salt Lake City. The questions loom: How will our community look and what will our city become? Will we fall into the trap of further suburbanization, look-alike chain-store developments (with all profits and support expenditures flowing out of state), greater sprawl, traffic congestion, crowding and air pollution? Or will we plan wisely and for the future, with support for those who would help revitalize our downtown and west side, with friendlier, more livable communities?
There is good news. As a city, we are back on solid fiscal ground. This is in stark contrast to this time last year, when the City Council and former Mayor Corradini were engaged in a protracted battle over budget priorities, with a budget shored up with one-time money by the sale of a portion of Main Street for $8.2 million. The City Council had grave concerns that the Corradini Administration was delaying repairs on streets, parks, sidewalks and other critical elements of the City’s infrastructure. After conducting an audit, which determined there was a $150 million backlog in infrastructure needs, the Council determined that 9% of the general revenue fund should be directed toward infrastructure and capital improvements. However, the Corradini Administration proposed that only 3.8% of general fund revenue be allocated to our long-neglected capital improvement needs. Ultimately, the Council adopted a budget that dedicated 6% to capital improvements.
This year, our Administration is proposing that almost 10% of the general fund budget be dedicated to addressing capital improvement needs. We submitted this unprecedented balanced budget proposal without proposing any increase in property taxes. The proposed budget was crafted after a comprehensive analysis of service levels and staffing issues throughout City government. Our budget proposal, which recommends many major cuts in expenses, maintains the current staffing level of the Police Department, except for one unnecessary Assistant Chief, and increases the number of fire fighters within the Fire Department. We have the resources we need to meet our obligations to provide high quality, efficient services to citizens and business owners in this city, and we can provide these services in a fiscally responsible way, using thoughtful long-term planning and analysis.
The budget process allows us to explore the opportunities that exist and decisions that need to be made. The choice between alternatives helps us define our values and the direction we will pursue. In the next few weeks the City Council will adopt the budget. The Council will also be deciding whether to support a proposal to build a one million one hundred thousand square foot mega mall at 5600 West and I-80.
I call it – for good reason – the “sprawl mall.” Support for this proposal will undermine the potential of many of the opportunities before us today. I will describe what is at stake if the Council supports the sprawl mall, but first I would like to describe several of the other challenges we face now.
Main Street and Downtown
My Administration has established the revitalization of Main Street and the rest of our Downtown as a top priority. The basic principles of urban design, related to invigorating a streetscape by bringing life to the street, demand that you create lively storefronts, with doorways accessing the street, and buildings and sidewalks that have “human scale” proportions so people don’t feel isolated or lost.
In order to accomplish this goal we need to mitigate the impact of several obstacles, including:
- The creation of two large indoor malls across the street from one another, with very little active store front “street life” across from each other.
- The widening of the sidewalks on Main Street – so wide that you can park a small airplane on them, thus magnifying their incredible emptiness. If you crave solitude, try walking up Main Street on a Sunday, or for that matter almost any evening.
- The existence of boarded-up buildings, old and in need of repair, which will be developed into new offices, retail stores and restaurants if our City’s leaders commit to what it will take to revitalize our Downtown area.
We have been developing a strategy to address these issues, which includes implementing many of the recommendations contained in the Downtown & Main Street Retail Strategy Study by Thomas Consultants. The study describes the national “return to Main Street” trend and identifies specific steps we can take to enliven our downtown, including:
- Working with property owners to create a more interesting streetscape by opening up storefronts in the malls so they face the street and working with business and property owners to improve the street presence of facades and frontages throughout the downtown.
- Opening up vending opportunities so that more kiosks and carts are on the street.
- Relaxing our outdoor dining policy and actively encouraging restaurant owners to have sidewalk seating
- Emphasizing local tenants as 60 – 80% of the street-front retail.
- Encouraging, rather than penalizing, street artists.
- Programming more activities for the downtown, such as First Night and the Twilight Concert series at the Gallivan Center.
The relationship between the development of the Gateway area and our Downtown is critical. I have serious concerns regarding the impact of the retail component of the Gateway Project on the economic vitality of our downtown retail market. Shortly after taking office I worked with the City Council and the developers to scale back the commitment of City resources to the project. The negotiations with the developers were intense, but mutually respectful, and we were able to arrive at reasonable compromises. In addition to creating limits on the type and size of retail development in the Gateway project, the result was a savings of about 8 million dollars in public funds. This money will now be available to facilitate the development of more downtown housing, to improve infrastructure, and improve the connection between the Gateway area and Downtown, thus enhancing the synergy between these retail areas. In spite of my concerns, there is no question that we must do all we can to make certain that both our Downtown and the Gateway Project succeed.
Fostering the development of neighborhood retail on the west side of the city is a priority for our administration, along with working to invigorate west side neighborhoods. The city has the ability to offer incentives to businesses interested in locating on the west side. However if the sprawl mall proposal is approved, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to attract those businesses.
The mega mall epitomizes urban sprawl. It heads us in entirely the opposite direction that we should be taking in our long-term planning. It has the potential to undermine our efforts to revitalize downtown and the west side. It has the potential to undermine small locally owned businesses in Salt Lake City, in West Valley City and beyond. The sprawl mall has the potential to undermine the economic viability of the Gateway project, a project to which we have already committed a tremendous amount of city resources. And the sprawl mall has the potential to further deteriorate the air quality – and, generally, the quality of life – in our valley.
- The mall project would create several serious obstacles for our efforts to revitalize downtown. The prospect of the sprawl mall, coupled with the Gateway Project, has already impeded the ability of downtown developers to attract tenants. Downtown developers have reported great difficulty finding tenants due to competition from the Gateway Project and the mall developers. Imagine what will happen to the Crossroads and ZCMI malls, as well as other downtown developments, with prospective, and perhaps current, tenants being lured away by the sprawl mall.
- The sprawl mall would require a tax increment subsidy of $20.5 million, with $14.5 million coming from Salt Lake City and $6 million from the state. If the project fails, the citizens of Salt Lake City will not be paid back for their investment and face the prospect of an enormous empty building at 5600 west and I-80. The failure of this project is a real possibility, considering that the developers have never built a mega mall and this kind of project has never been constructed in an area with such a relatively small population base.
- We don’t have a good sense of the “life span” of a project like the sprawl mall. These types of malls are becoming a thing of the past. What happens to a sprawl mall that has lost its allure with consumers? In terms of sales tax revenue, the full financial benefits of the sprawl mall project won’t be realized for 20 years. Can a sprawl mall be successful for 20 years? And if it is, at what cost to the rest of our retail market?
- The mega mall represents the ultimate in sprawl-generating development. It is 40 blocks away from the nearest west side communities of our city. In light of the tremendous attention that has been given to “smart growth” concepts in Utah over the last few years, it is curious, to say the least, that some policy-makers who give lip service to the need for transit-oriented development and livable communities are even considering the sprawl mall project. The success of this development is entirely dependent on a huge volume of automobile traffic. The developers plan approximately 11,000 parking stalls and anticipate people driving for long distances, generating millions of miles of additional automobile traffic in our valley each week. At full build-out, the mall is projected to generate 71,600 new auto trips per day.
- We have the opportunity now to choose what kind of community we want to be. Do we want to be more like so many look-alike communities, with door-to-door national chain-stores? Or do we want to go the way of communities like Boulder, Colorado, which have committed themselves to smart, quality growth? Boulder was recently honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of twelve communities that, as described in an editorial in the Boulder Dailey Camera, “worked hard and smart at preserving their sense of place and character, cities that have not surrendered their heart and soul to the lure of growth and wealth…These towns epitomize the flip side of sprawl…” Salt Lake City will only be described in such glowing terms if we have the courage to oppose sprawl-inducing, soulless projects like the mega mall.
The mall developers are trying to hold Salt Lake City hostage in a sense by threatening to take their mall proposal to West Valley City if Salt Lake City rejects it. Several people, including a couple editorial editors, have asked the question: “If the mall will go to West Valley City instead of Salt Lake City, shouldn’t we just take it and reap the tax revenue benefits?” My response is: “If West Valley City wants the sprawl mall, let them have it.”
I’ve been quoted as saying the sprawl mall represents the retail equivalent of a toxic waste dump. What I mean by this is that some communities will do just about anything for more tax revenues. They will jeopardize the quality of life in their community for a risky, or potentially short-term revenue gain. And they will ignore the pleas for better long-term planning.
We need to consider several factors in response to the “It’s-going-to-West-Valley-City-if-it-doesn’t-go-here” argument:
- We have made significant commitments to developers in the Downtown and Gateway areas that we will work to revitalize those parts of our community. We should not stab these developers in the back by subsidizing the sprawl mall, thus undermining the potential success of those retail projects to which we have already made commitments.
- Imagine being a developer who has taken huge financial risks, with assurances from our elected officials that we are committed to revitalizing downtown. Then, imagine that same developer unable to find tenants for his or her project because our City’s policy-makers have decided to support a project like the sprawl mall. We should be supporting, not undermining, those who have made enormous efforts to help build up our community.
- If the mall is located in West Valley City, it will not detract as much from the success of our Downtown and Gateway businesses. That much is made clear by the fact that the 5600 West and I-15 location within Salt Lake City is clearly the developer’s first choice of locations.
- We are not so desperate for additional revenue that we should compromise the values we hold as a community. Salt Lake City has demonstrated that with solid, responsible, fiscal planning, current revenue sources are adequate and will allow us to provide quality services and meet our infrastructure needs.
- Finally, West Valley City is a very different kind of community, perhaps far more suited for a mall of this type. We can’t let the threat of what West Valley City might do decide for us our long-term urban planning and decision-making processes. We are committed to building a sustainable community, with a focus on transit-oriented development, support for locally owned businesses, the protection of open space, and a commitment to the revitalization of our Downtown. The sprawl mall takes us in the diametrically opposite direction.
Boulder Colorado would never decide to approve the development of a sprawl-generating retail mall like the one now being considered because an adjacent community was threatening to do it. The reason Boulder is a charming, award-winning city with its tremendous charm and unique identity, where people love to live, work and visit, is precisely because the leaders of that city have had the courage to say “no” to developments like the sprawl mall, and “yes” to smart, community-enhancing, livable development.
We can choose to forgo the principles of wise urban planning and, at the expense of our current business community, allow the mall to be built. Or we can urge the City Council to do the right thing and commit itself not to the sprawl mall, but, rather, to commit to reducing automobile traffic, enhancing the charm and appeal of our entire community, revitalizing our Downtown area and the City’s west side, and planning for a future community that will be more livable in every way for all of our residents, workers, and visitors.
Together, we can build the kind of community of which we are all proud. Now is the time to make certain our City’s elected leaders help set us on that course. And they will, I am confident, listen to you if you will let your feelings be known to them. Ultimately, the course of our City’s future is in your hands. And in your voices!
I implore you, be a good choir!