Opinion: Downtown’s not-so-spectacular post-pandemic recovery calls for bold city action in Mayor’s 2nd term

Downtown Salt Lake City’s eye-popping post-Covid recovery was reported nationwide as we topped the country in bringing 39% more people Downtown in 2023 than before the pandemic.

Cue record scratch.

A recent reassessment of the data sample used by the University of Toronto School of Cities found it was too large, taking in not only Downtown but some rapidly-growing nearby neighborhoods.

The revised boundaries show Salt Lake City’s Downtown performing at a much more modest level. People were not visiting at 139% of pre-pandemic levels, but 82%. Not number one in the nation, but 17th.

Pre-pandemic levels of activity, I’d like to remind people, weren’t great. Many places in Downtown were and are too empty, too often.

In addition, the post-pandemic headwinds are strong. Online retailing is grabbing an ever-growing slice of the pie from brick-and-mortar shop owners. Fewer office workers are making a daily commute to the city’s core.

As a contribution to the conversation about city policy for Downtown, I’d like to take this opportunity to write an open letter to the city’s recently re-elected Mayor Erin Mendenhall and her Administration.

Dear Mayor Mendenhall

Many city boosters including myself are disappointed that Downtown’s actual post-pandemic recovery numbers aren’t even close to what was originally stated (139% of pre-pandemic visitors). I hope going from the best recovery in the nation to 17th (82% recovery) will be a sobering realization, and help center your vision on the importance of bold, effective policy for Downtown in your second term.

Clear trends that are likely to last

The national press coverage of Salt Lake City’s spectacular Downtown rebound searched for explanations for the success, and in doing so highlighted many of the things the city’s doing right. 

Decades of pro-housing policy, driven by a redevelopment strategy aiming at recreating a Downtown where people can live, work, and play is starting to make a real difference. Frankly, recapturing 82% of pre-pandemic traffic is pretty good. 

It looks like Salt Lake City has avoided the “doom spiral” of some cities’ downtowns, which, because they were so dependent on office workers, saw their health take a nose dive.

Despite the decline in the number of office workers commuting in, people are increasingly coming Downtown for what’s called the “social economy” – food, beverage, entertainment, events in public spaces. Tourism is also a big part of Downtown’s draw, according to Downtown Alliance figures

The social economy at work. Main Street, 300 block, summer 2023. Photo by Luke Garrott.

It’s pretty clear that the post-WWII redevelopment strategy of making Downtown a “central business district” based in the day-time office economy is dead. Like really dead. Office uses will continue to be an important component of Downtown activity, and will likely thrive again once resized. But the office economy will not be driving the future Downtown economy.  

Rather than regret that change, we must, Mayor Mendenhall, embrace, define, and drive it.

In my view, a thriving Downtown led by the social economy needs two crucial things from City Hall.

A car-free Green Loop and waaay more housing

The business-owner’s mantra that “Our customers come in cars so cars are good for business” is being decisively shredded by study after study showing that pedestrianized streets in urban centers boost retail sales and that bike lanes consistently have a neutral or positive effect on a street’s commercial performance.

Go figure –  it’s not just people arriving in cars who shop. 

Neighborhood-, street- and curb space can fit in a lot more customers arriving by foot and micro-mobility device (including bikes) than customers arriving in cars. It’s a simple matter of efficiency in limited space. 

Main Street, 200 block. Photo by Isaac Riddle.

Cars are bad for Downtown business not just because they take space away from people traveling by other modes. They also physically threaten all other travelers. Cars make streets dangerous for everyone else. Their very presence keeps pedestrians away. Parents aren’t bringing their four year old on a tricycle anywhere near a busy city street with cars.

Look at State Street south of 400 South. Given the amount of car traffic the UDOT road gets, those businesses should be doing mad sales. Yet State Street continues to be a low-rent part of the city. Low-budget strip malls with parking at street front are convenient for drivers, but that design keeps nearly everyone else away. The reason the rent is low on State Street is because sales are low. 

We have allowed virtually all of Downtown to become like State Street – too hostile for people outside a car to feel safe. That’s not good for business.

If the future is the social economy – people being out at restaurants, shows, events, and shopping, Downtown has to get a lot less car-centric. 

Proposal 1: Build the Green Loop in less than four years, and add 300 South to it

Your proposals for a Green Loop around Downtown and a Main Street Promenade (although that name might be a bit stuffy for Utah) are fantastic.

A simple truth deserves repeating: people have to feel safe in the street in order to use it. Especially parents of children.

What role will cars have on the streets to be transformed for the Green Loop? Your consultants recently stated that their vision for the linear park is for a four-year-old on a tricycle to be safe there. That’s a tall order, looking at the current state of 200 East, North Temple, 500 West, and 900 South.

No child or adult will be safe unless the spaces are robustly pedestrianized – where the pedestrian is accommodated to feel consistently safe in the space. This isn’t to say other modes of transportation can’t use the space momentarily. But the test is simple: if pedestrians feel unsafe in the space due to other modes of transport even some of the time, it is failing.

Broadway, as an east-west connector for the Green Loop, has huge potential as a pedestrian street that it already demonstrates thanks to changes made during the Becker Administration. Having Main Street and 300 South as north-south, east-west axes will help the Loop become more of a network – which is crucial to its usability and success. 

Make 300 South part of the Green Loop master plan and implement it all as robust pedestrian space within your second term.

Proposal 2: More downtown housing construction, a lot more

A vibrant Downtown needs more people living there, to patronize businesses and activate public spaces along with visitors and tourists. The social economy thrives on people. Density is what makes the magic alchemy of cities work. And Downtown Salt Lake City needs a lot more housing density.

Even though housing demand remains stronger than it’s ever been, the high cost of materials, financing, and labor have slammed the brakes on the construction industry. 

That material pause should occasion a pause in thought for policy makers. While the city is doing all it seemingly can to promote both market-rate and affordable housing, those efforts, by all accounts, haven’t been enough. 

400 East between 300 and 400 South. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Even in the best of times – the 10-year, unprecedented boom for multi-family construction that the city just experienced – the housing gap has won, and is again going on the offensive. 

Now that the market is down, the failure of current public policy to spur sufficient housing development is being laid bare. I hope you and your Administration can find the vision and courage to avoid losing the housing race and blowing this opportunity to ensure a healthy future for Downtown.

Here’s how to succeed.

Downtown is riddled with surface parking lots and vacant lots, some of which Salt Lake City Corporation already owns. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints owns many, as well. It would make a great partner in this housing initiative.

Take a tour through west and south Downtown. In lot after lot you see obsolete land uses that could be transformed into housing.

How? The city has to get much more involved. 

We understand that you aren’t in favor of the city building its own “social housing,” a recent election issue that you rejected due to its exorbitant cost. 

Two cards the city holds in the housing game are regulation through zoning and resources to acquire property. Through a much more aggressive land acquisition policy, the city could bridge crucial gaps on the balance-sheets of developers, opening the gates toward a city-driven Downtown housing boom.

In a public-private partnership, the city’s contribution of land can leverage public goals into each project, like equity-building for renters or rental subsidies for lower-income tenants. 

The city could even structure an arrangement where it receives a share of the profits collected from rents, making a concrete return on the taxpayers’ investment.

I’m aware that your Administration is already making the first strides in this direction. As the city prepares this new initiative to become partners in equity-building and affordable projects, it’s the right time to think about scaling up. Downtown, despite its high land costs, is the place to do it. 

The office tower at 500 E and 100 S is being converted to an affordable equity-sharing project, and the city is a partner.

Just to pull a figure out of the air, think of the housing that could be added if the city had $200 million to buy property to put toward housing developments. 

20 parcels at $10 million a piece, or 40 at $5 million each, or 80 at $2.5 million a pop: It could yield so many new highrises over the next ten years, on extremely favorable Downtown zoning, that the recent boom would look like a blip.

With administrative effort and political courage, the city could certainly raise $200 million for housing.

Combined with a robustly pedestrianized Green Loop as a magnet to attract people outside cars, a housing initiative at this scale would create the residential density to ensure the vitality of Downtown for generations to come. 

Mayor, the time is now for the city to take big, bold steps for the future of Downtown. 

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.