Downtown Salt Lake is growing but still has gaps in vibrancy

Vibrant downtowns benefit not only cities but the suburbs as well and Salt Lake City leaders and developers still have a lot of work to do to make the capital city’s downtown more vibrant.  That was the message from a presentation by Dr. Emil Malizia, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Malizia spoke to a group of real estate developers and land use planners at the Trends 2016 event hosted by the Utah chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a nonprofit organization that advocates for responsible land use, at the Grand America Hotel Thursday in downtown Salt Lake.  The theme of this year’s event was on building vibrant places.

“Vibrant spaces are dense, diverse and connected places where you can live, work and play,” said Malizia.

Malizia argued that vibrant downtowns are more efficient and lead to higher returns for developers through higher rents and increased land value.

According to Malizia, Salt Lake City has a vibrancy index of 86 with 100 being the average score for cities in the 100 largest metros.  Neighboring cities, Boise and Denver have higher vibrancy indexes of 100 and 110 respectively.

To measure vibrancy, Malizia considered a city’s compactness, density, walkability, regional and intracity connectivity and mixed land uses.  Malizia used data to show how Salt Lake compares to seven peer cities: Seattle, Portland  Ore., Denver, Austin Texas, Phoenix, Raleigh N.C. and Boise Idaho.

While Salt Lake scored in the middle on office space and the office floor area ratio (square feet of a building divided by square feet of the lot), Salt Lake scored lower on jobs per acre compared to peer cities.

Salt Lake ranked fourth in the percent of residents that use public transit to get to work.  Salt Lake ranked sixth in downtown walkability, with a downtown walk score of 89.  Salt Lake City also scored low in downtown activity, noting that few people stay downtown after work, what Malizia referred to as the 18-hour downtown.

Compared to peer cities, Salt Lake fares well in its population living within one mile of downtown and the percent of residents who both live and work within a mile of downtown.  Salt Lake tied Denver in both categories.  Both cities have 80,000 residents within one mile of downtown and 31 percent of residents live and work in and around downtown.

To increase downtown Salt Lake’s vibrancy, Malizia recommended increasing density and compactness with more multi-family and high-density development.  Malizia also recommend ensuring that downtown has workforce housing to keep it affordable for middle and lower incomes.

Malizia argued that adding more amenities (places to eat, drink, shop and celebrate etc.) and uniqueness (historic buildings, iconic structures and public places etc.) to downtown will also increase its vibrancy.

According to Malizia, downtown streets will also need to be redesigned so that they “tame the car” and “energize the pedestrian.”  That includes making streets more complex, or complete, by redesigning them with fewer lanes and to accommodate all modes of transportation including cars, bikes, pedestrian and mass transit.  Malizia acknowledged that Salt Lake’s unusually large blocks affect it’s walk score and vibrancy index.  Salt Lake’s ten-acre blocks were more than three times larger than the average block of every peer city.

“With good design you can have an interesting street front while still adding density,” said Malizia.

While Malizia showed that overall downtown Salt Lake still has gaps in vibrancy, downtown’s density and vibrancy are growing.  City Creek has brought hundreds of new residences and shopping to downtown while projects like 111 Main and the proposed Regent Street Hotel will bring more commercial and office space to downtown.  Next year, construction will finish on four downtown residential developments  (Liberty Crest, Paragon Station, Alta Gateway and 360 Apartments) that will add hundreds of new downtown residents.  Entertainment and nightlife nodes have emerged near 200 South and 200 East as well as the 300 South block of Main Street, bringing Salt Lake closer to having an 18-hour downtown.

Salt Lake City will soon have its first ever Transit Master Plan and an updated Downtown Community Plan.  The transit plan will determine the City’s current and future transit needs with the immediate goal of enhancing the current transit network.  The downtown plan is intended to guide downtown development for the next two decades with a focus on increasing density, walkability and overall vibrancy downtown.

Salt Lake City is working towards breaking up the City’s large blocks to enhance the downtown pedestrian experience.  Improvements to mid-block streets like Regent Street and Edison Street are included in adjacent projects.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at