For some time, I’ve thought that downtown was on the cusp of transformational change. But I think we have finally jumped forward. We’re now in the vortex of this long-awaited transformation.
Change is never easy because it involves stretching and inevitably that means some pain. But change, well-managed, can create a cycle of self repeating success stories. From Main Street to City Creek Center, to Pioneer Park and Gallivan Plaza, from new parking pay stations to the Utah Performing Arts Center, good people are working to make good things happen. We are far from perfect as an urban center but the cycle of events is moving forward in the right direction.
Part of this change includes surface parking lots in the D1 (downtown) zone. The City Council is currently thinking about a law that would preclude the creation of more surface parking lots as a primary use. On its face, this idea makes a lot of sense. I agree that surface lots are rarely the highest or best permanent use for any urban parcel. After all, nobody comes downtown to park – they park because they are coming downtown for the vast array of shopping, dining, employment and entertainment options downtown offers.
Surface lots do detract from urban density that is required for a truly dynamic and diverse community. And we are already making great progress. Over the past few years, we have seen many lots transformed into offices, shops and hotels. Harmons at City Creek Center, the new Questar Corporate Headquarters, 222 South Main, the Hyatt Place Hotel and Gateway Six are all examples of handsome new buildings that have replaced parking or vacant lots. This trend speaks volumes about the direction our community is headed, even without a new ordinance from the City Council.
Surface lots can fill a valuable temporary role as developers piece together parcels to build new projects. And they are almost always a better option than a run-down structure or weed-infested vacant lot. We should work to find ways to allow for landscaped parking lots to fulfill a transitional role, while encouraging the development of existing surface lots as quickly as possible.
The real answer to getting surface lots turned into vibrant, environmentally sustainable projects is aligning incentives and zoning changes to encourage re-use of existing buildings and the development of new ones. If it were more profitable and easy to develop in downtown, every landowner would, even now, be working to turn their surface lot into a more active (and lucrative) development. Salt Lake City has started to update the Downtown Master Plan – something that has not been done from more than 20 years. This update creates a great opportunity to look for ways to encourage environmentally sustainable, economically viable construction as the market naturally phases out surface parking lots.
Downtown’s virtuous circle creates more opportunities for success, and we should look for ways to encourage this progress. As our downtown continues to rise, going round and round in ascending concentric cycles of building, restoration, reinvention and progress, I’m as happy as a kid in a candy store. And even happier that they also sell toys.