Main Street is a big step closer to getting a pedestrian mall makeover

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Salt Lake City claims the future of Main Street in the core of Downtown is a pedestrian mall.

The Main Street Promenade Study, a 200-page conceptual design document released last week, focuses on the four blocks between South Temple and 400 South, including 100 South from Main to West Temple. 

Notably, the study was directed by the Division of Economic Development – not Transportation or Planning.

The document emphasizes the economic benefits of pedestrianization for businesses–demonstrated by the Open Streets program started during the COVID epidemic and multiple case studies from the US and abroad. 

The study also draws support from a long train of past planning documents, as far back as the Second Century Plan of 1962. 

Together on Main,” the study’s guiding theme, aims to create inviting, inclusive spaces for relaxing, working, socializing, dining, and performance for all ages and abilities. It also acknowledges the challenges of attracting undesirables–namely the unhoused population–and of TRAX trains traveling at their current speed of 25 miles per hour through the middle of the corridor.

Containing detailed design concepts, funding scenarios for operations and capital improvements, including phasing recommendations, the document presents nothing less than a blueprint for major transformation. 

The Downtown Alliance, the city’s partner in the Open Streets trial since it began in 2020, calls it “a pedestrian-first approach to the historic commercial center of our capital city that will redefine the economic engine for present day and future generations.”

Let’s take a look at the opportunities and challenges of the proposal.

Is there public support?

The surveys included in the study measuring public opinion exhibit eye-popping results in favor of pedestrianization. Consultants presented respondents with five scenarios, from pedestrian-only space (banning all cars and bikes) to a no-change, keep-Main-as-it-is option. 

While the full pedestrian-only option garnered the second-most votes, the scenario of a pedestrian mall with a multi-use path for bikes and scooters won a super-majority of the upvotes.

The surveys, conducted face-to-face during Open Streets, showed that “Nearly 74% of respondents prefer to keep Main Street closed to cars all the time, and less than 9% prefer to never close it to cars.” 

Downtown retailers, on the other hand, have to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by sales tax numbers showing an increase during the summer weekends of Open Streets and their assumption that most, if not all their customers arrive in cars.

Del Vance, owner of the Beehive Pub at 128 S. Main, has told Building Salt Lake repeatedly in response to the possibility of closing Main St. to cars: “It’s basically closed right now.” But it’s not. The latest traffic count cited in the study for the four-block segment is 8500 daily cars.

What business owners frequently don’t understand is that even a single lane open to cars will keep pedestrians from feeling safe in the space. Cars don’t dine, shop, or create ambiance. People outside of cars do.

Is there UTA support?

Utah Transit Authority’s right-of-way in the street is leased from Salt Lake City, regulated by a contract. 

While the Downtown Alliance expressed their wishes that TRAX trains be lowered in the four-block corridor to streetcar speeds (15 mph or less), UTA’s comment is that speeds less than 20 mph will severely disrupt their operating model.

The study summarizes UTA’s response to the proposal to slow trains: ”If lowered to 20 mph the operators may realistically drive at 18 mph being cautious of pedestrians and illegal left turns. UTA predicts that lowering speeds below 20 mph could cause large system disruptions. If a delay is caused it could take 4-6 hours to get the whole TRAX system back on schedule, and therefore they (UTA) would not be comfortable dropping the running speed lower than 20 mph.”

Meanwhile, UTA continues to propagate hostile pedestrian infrastructure by adding fences and curbs to block people from crossing the street where they desire–the very opposite of “pedestrian-first” design.

Readers may notice that none of the designer’s images show fence or curb barriers blocking pedestrians from crossing the tracks.

Design study authors actually advocate establishing three mid-block crossings on the top two blocks of Main, and two crossing between 200 and 400 South.

Yet UTA, the study says, wants all mid-blocks crossing removed. “UTA has mentioned that a deterrent is necessary to prevent pedestrians from crossing the TRAX lines at mid block locations. Simple chain and post fences have been used effectively near the City Center stop to reduce pedestrian crossing and temporary fences have been placed along portions of the corridor.”

The intersection at Main and 400 South is particularly challenging for urban design, as it includes three parties with somewhat conflicting goals. UDOT has maintained highway-like conditions on its State Road 186 (400 South), while UTA’s “half-grand” rail interchange is likely to get more complicated with a likely new 400 South TRAX branch heading west. Pedestrian crossings are long and daunting, while north-south car traffic endures short green-light times thanks to UDOT’s east-west Highway 186 priorities.

The designs and vision

Outstanding qualities of the design, despite thematic differences on each block, focus on doubling the tree canopy and installing the granite pavers that currently make up Main St. sidewalks across the entirety of the street. 

A “series of gathering-space prototypes” informs the design of each block, “to encourage visitors, residents and workers to linger, refresh, connect and activate Main Street in new and dynamic ways.“

The full-buildout vision for the Main Street Pedestrian Promenade “removes on-street parking from Main Street from South Temple to 400 South and limits passenger vehicles to Block 4 (300 South to 400 South) in a southbound configuration and some limited vehicles northbound on Block 2 (100 South to 200 South).” 

From north to south, here are the segments:

Urbanists are likely to gush over the full-scale buildout plans for the five-block zone–but it’s not coming any time soon. Study authors call the project “A multi-generational investment.” 


This current generation’s investment may take the vision a significant part of the way: “The preferred phasing approach provides full buildout of the east side pedestrian-only promenade along the entire historic length of Main Street (100 S- 400 S) while preserving passenger vehicles and on-street parking in a one-way [south] orientation along the west side of TRAX without reconstruction.” 

Cost

The price tags are sobering. The study meticulously outlines ten possible funding sources for ongoing operational costs, but only briefly addresses how to meet the capital costs. The estimated construction price: $125 million, averaging $25 million per block.

Yet that’s a mere fraction of what Smith Entertainment Group is planning to take from Salt Lake City taxpayers for its “Capital City Revitalization Zone” to bolster the area around the NBA Jazz/NHL arena.

With the number of Downtown residents rising, as well as an economy that is shifting from reliance on office workers to socializers, the transformation may be necessary for Main Street’s very survival.

As the Downtown Alliance comments in the study, “We have an opportunity and obligation to do this right.”

Email Luke Garrott

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.