Cottonwood Heights buys strip mall in latest suburban quest for urban center

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Cottonwood Heights, the “city between the canyons” known as the gateway to some of Utah’s premier winter resorts, will be the next suburban community in Salt Lake Valley to create an urban town center. 

The city purchased the former Hillside Plaza property, near 2378 Fort Union Boulevard, in December, as first reported by City Journals. City officials plan to work with a private developer to create a walkable, mixed-use town center at the site, which is near the geographical center of Cottonwood Heights. 

The city is looking to become the latest Utah suburb to examine its landscape and identify missing areas where residents could gather and experience a more urban and unique sense of place — instead of just a sea of car-oriented stroads and generic single-family residential neighborhoods. City leaders say creating such a center provides a much-needed gathering space for residents, and can address other issues, such as housing shortages and poor air quality.

“We wanted to create an area where people gather and make it a vibrant, happening place that’s walkable, that has the aesthetics that will attract people, and that includes anchor tenants, that will attract people to come and enjoy their businesses,” Cottonwood Heights Mayor Mike Weichers said. 

City leaders don’t know exactly what the area will look like or what will be included in it yet, Weichers said. Cottonwood Heights residents want a public gathering place in the city, and leaders want to prioritize retail, such as restaurants and shops, he said. However, the city won’t exclude housing at the site, which backs up against a row of single-family detached homes, Weichers added. 

Cottonwood Heights will have lots of work to do to make the area a true urban center. According to Weichers, about a third of the city’s housing stock is multi-family, but the residential areas surrounding Hillside Plaza are overwhelmingly single-family, and don’t provide the density that is typically needed to support a central urban area or business district.

The non-residential land uses in the area are unfavorable and car-oriented, too. Two tire shops, two car washes, a gas station and a self-storage facility are nearby, meaning the area has lots of surface parking lots and heat-elevating pavement. On top of that, a four-lane stroad runs immediately north of the plaza property, making the biking and walking experience unpleasant, at best. 

Nevertheless, the pieces are there, and the momentum is building for Cottonwood Heights to soon have its own mixed-use downtown, complete with commercial businesses, public amenities and housing. 

“Through my campaign in becoming mayor and talking with residents, it’s now helping to shape a city that stays suburban, but incorporates town centers and gathering places for our residents that maybe didn’t exist in the initial build out of the area, so hopefully that helps,” Weichers added. 

A desire for a sense of place

The development of Hillside Plaza is the latest addition to a growing trend of suburban Salt Lake Valley cities creating their own downtowns or urban areas. 

Holladay led the way by creating a walkable plaza by closing a street and building a thriving mixed-use development, transforming what was previously an uninspired car sewer. By all accounts, it has become the heart of the town.

Daybreak, already full of transit-oriented mixed-use developments, is about to enter its next phase of urbanization with the development of a new minor league ballpark. 

And Millcreek has begun developing the Millcreek Common area, with an ice-skating ribbon and higher-density housing, creating a sense of place for one of the valley’s newest cities. 

Not all attempts to create an urban center in the region have been successes, though. South Salt Lake’s center includes several beloved local businesses and benefits from the rapid transit S-Line streetcar. But car-oriented land uses like fast food drive-thrus and large parking lots still dot the city’s downtown, keeping the city void of a sense of place and preventing its downtown from becoming a true walkable urban center.  

But the success stories suggest that the Wasatch Front is moving toward an urban development pattern known as polycentrism: Multiple urban centers across a region, connected by good transit and transportation. The benefits of mixed-use town centers are numerous, said Alessandro Rigolon, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Utah. 

“More people living close to a place where they can walk to and find multiple amenities is a good thing from the perspective of… having access to the resources and not having to travel a long time to get those resources,” Rigolon said. “It’s also better for both local air pollution, but also global climate mitigation in that folks can find restaurants, or a dentist, or a pet shop, or whatever they need, in close proximity to their home, in their own suburb — instead of having to drive to, say, Downtown Salt Lake City.”

A little political will can go a very, very long way. Shown here, Holladay Village in 2008 compared to Holladay Village today. Images from Google Maps.

Millcreek’s effort to create an urban center began almost immediately after the city incorporated in late 2016, said Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, who has been mayor since Millcreek’s incorporation. City leaders began public outreach and engagement to shape Millcreek’s future, and one of the top concerns residents had was the lack of a downtown area, Silvestrini said. 

At the same time, city leaders began to learn more about urban planning and design and the advantages of good planning, he said. They worked with the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the agency responsible for regional planning in Box Elder, Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Tooele, and Weber counties, and learned about polycentrism.  

“I learned about the advantage of centers that could be connected by transit as a solution to the housing shortage, the growth issues that our whole state faces, and reducing congestion and air quality. So all those factors kind of combined,” Silvestrini said. 

The story of the Millcreek Common begins with the “lilac strip,” a 1,000-foot stretch of sidewalk on the east side of Highland Drive between 3010 South and Miller Avenue. Until a few years ago, the strip was an overgrown no-man’s-land that people most commonly used to stage cars they were selling, according to Silvestrini. 

Knowing that the city had to deal with that blight, officials made a deal with a developer that had an upcoming project in the area. The developer agreed to purchase the lilac strip and redevelop it with walkable features. In exchange, the city gave the developer a density bonus, allowing the company to build additional stories on its building that would otherwise not be allowed under zoning rules, Silvestrini said. 

From there, Millcreek Common began to take shape. The city hired consultants to create a master plan for the area, which is bisected by the Wasatch Fault, making a large portion of it unbuildable, according to Silvestrini. Since constructing a building on the fault was impossible, city leaders explored building a park on the property, and eventually settled on an ice skating ribbon after public engagement revealed it was a very popular idea among residents, Silvestrini said. 

Since incorporation, Millcreek has leased space in a strip mall near 1300 East and 3300 South for its city hall. But the owners of the strip mall told the city that they planned to redevelop the whole area, and would not be renewing the city’s lease, Silvestrini said, so the city needed to find a new city hall space. Though it wasn’t in the Millcreek Common plan from the beginning, the city now plans to relocate city hall to the Common area, Silvestrini said. 

“I really do believe that this kind of development is appropriate in this area to address Utah’s growth needs,” he said.

Like Hillside Plaza in Cottonwood Heights, the future development of Millcreek Common will need to overcome some barriers and challenges. The faultline is a significant challenge that city officials are already addressing. New businesses may struggle to find footing in Millcreek Common due to its location directly across the street from the Brickyard — the monolithic mall that is within Salt Lake City limits. 

And like Hillside Plaza, Millcreek Common is bordered by wide, high-speed stroads like 1300 East and 3300 South that detract from the walking and biking experience and make access to the Common from adjacent neighborhoods difficult. Silvestrini noted that these roads could end up being a benefit for Millcreek Common, which is still in its first phase of development. As higher-density housing is built, the larger roads will be able to handle the added capacity, Silvestrini said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic meant more people started spending more time at home, so the level of services and amenities neighborhoods provide has become more important in the past three years, Rigolon said. So suburban cities should make an effort to create urban areas where residents can access services, experience amenities and socialize in gathering spaces, he added. 

“With remote work and people being able to work from home at least some days of the week, the neighborhood where you are becomes increasingly important in terms of what amenities you can walk to,” Rigolon said. “If you live in a suburban hellscape where you can’t walk anywhere, your work from home experience is going to be a lot less pleasant.” 

Interested in seeing where developers are proposing and building new apartments in Salt Lake, or just want to support a local source of news on what’s happening in your neighborhood? Subscribe to Building Salt Lake.