Several years into the redevelopment of downtown South Salt Lake, we offer some observations

South Salt Lake proves the adage that transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin. 

The implementation of its master plan to build a “downtown” around a giant parking lot and along two auto-centric thoroughfares seems doomed to fall well short of greatness. This despite positive investments to prime the area.

While there is some positive progress, with developers at least populating the downtown area with new multi-family residential development, there are wasted opportunities from a town that appears ready to accept whatever development it can achieve while it misses key opportunities along the way.

South Salt Lake has largely been in the news of late for dragging its feet and ultimately delaying a new homeless shelter. But several years after the creation of its downtown master plan, the area is taking shape.

We thought it was a good time to step back and look at how the city’s rare chance at creating a downtown area from scratch is going.

A bird’s eye view of downtown South Salt Lake. The city is trying to attract businesses and residential development into prime real estate just outside Salt Lake City. Video by Taylor Anderson.

Apartments go up, breweries go in

The downtown master plan identifies land stretching from State Street to I-15 and I-80 to 2100 South as the neighborhood’s boundaries.

Developers have been willing to put up apartments in the area, and people have moved into what has become one of the valley’s few craft alcohol clusters.

West Temple and Main Street now include several finished residential buildings, one of them built above retail. Builders are wrapping up Liberty Crossing, townhomes that run between State and Main streets. 

Once filled, the apartments will have introduced the demand for the retail and entertainment areas the city hopes one-day will follow, and developers continue bringing projects to the city for approval.

The South Salt Lake City Council appears ready to approve a new mixed-use and office development that could replace squat buildings and redevelop five acres in the heart of the area.

The development seeks to bring a mixed-use residential development, two office buildings and a parking structure with an overall development fronting Utopia and Bowers avenues.

The developer didn’t respond to a request for more information about the project, which would exist just north of the S-Line.

Pending its approval by the council later this month and its eventual execution, the mixed-use residential and office development could mark a nice addition.

What’s yet to come is the complete package for new South Salt Lakers to dine, shop and play in the area. What the city started with was an anchor in more ways than one.

A draft of the proposed zoning updates in South Salt Lake.

Downtown’s anchor

The city has at times appeared desperate to accept any development it can get, which was evident by the result of negotiations to land a grocery store to kick off revitalization. 

With news conferences two years ago, South Salt Lake praised a new deal with WinCo grocery store, which filled a food desert but also brought hundreds of used and unused parking spaces that now take up what would otherwise be valuable real estate.

The store created an overabundance of parking and blocked public throughways on a key parcel of downtown.

The city’s planners say they didn’t get everything they wanted with the project, but that they were faced with landing a major tenant — and its tax revenues — or not.

“I will say in summary, we didn’t get everything we wanted,” said Sharen Hauri, the city’s urban design director. “Commercial real estate developers are not flexible.”

When the option is drawing a hard line on designs or accepting a lemon and landing a sales tax powerhouse in a city with a floundering budget, South Salt Lake chose the latter.

“They insisted on that number of exclusive parking stalls, based on prior experience,” Hauri said. “We balked, but it was not a negotiable point for them.” 

Residents in the new multi-family developments will now overlook a sea of largely unused blacktop created by the Supermarket Low Price Leader.

The vacant area north of the S-Line has interest from developers but no final agreements yet. Eventual agreements will help define what role that rare urban trail plays downtown.

What’s happening with the S-Line

In the early development of its downtown, South Salt Lake hasn’t harnessed the power that this largely successful urban trail and streetcar could bring to the area. 

While Salt Lake City’s implementation of the S-Line of Parleys Trail is far from perfect, South Salt Lake is downright neglecting it, both in its upkeep and in the way it plays into the core of downtown.

The multi-use trail runs east-west on the north side of the new streetcar line from about 1050 East in Sugar House to West Temple. But after crossing State Street, the trail shifts south for one block. 

Trail users are required to go south across Central Pointe Place before continuing west on what is now a low-budget asphalt trail extension. Weeds grow to eye-height and trash collects underneath, as users make their way toward Main Street, where the trail shifts again to the north side before dead-ending short of Central Pointe Station and the businesses along 300 West.

Lining the path up, even after people move into the new Liberty Crossing apartments, won’t be possible because of the way the apartments were built. The city’s master plan calls for the zig-zag south and north between State and Main.

Instead, the city says it will create a bike lane on Central Pointe Place, and people walking can use the 8-foot sidewalk on the north side.

While the trail may one day continue on toward the Jordan River, the S-Line could already connect several Salt Lake and South Salt Lake neighborhoods for people outside of cars, including by using Main Street as a low-stress bikeway that eventually could connect suburban residents from as far south as Murray with Downtown Salt Lake City. 

But the city has other plans for Main Street.

Main Line to I-80

While it’s bounded by state highways on all sides, South Salt Lake is opting to try and preserve Main Street as a car-oriented thoroughfare in the hopes that one day it can link it to I-80.

On a recent trip to town, three bikers waited about a minute before deciding not to test whether the intersection at Central Pointe Place and Main Street detects bicycles. 

They crossed against the light and carefully guided their bikes up the large, rectangular curb that makes continuing on the S-Line of Parleys Trail west of Main Street a challenge.

Another family on bikes road by, opting to use the sidewalk to head north along Main Street. If they make it to the city’s border with Salt Lake City, they’ll find a bikeway that heads straight into Downtown.

But what they’re experiencing in South Salt Lake is the city’s decision to reserve Main Street as a thoroughfare for cars in the hopes that the state one day will pay for a new interchange with I-80. 

“A future I-80 on-ramp will be located south of the project on Main Street,” according to city documents. “Two travel lanes in each direction will need to be maintained to accommodate the on-ramp.”

At a time when Salt Lake City is looking at any way it could get rid of the blight caused by an interstate ramp through its Central 9th neighborhood, it can be jarring to find a city hoping it can get a ramp in its downtown, encouraging motorists to skip State Street and head south on Main.

South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City received county funding to design a low-stress bike route on Main Street. But South Salt Lake wants people to bike on West Temple and motorists to drive on both State and Main streets.

The city says it may now build a segment to get people on bikes from 2100 South to the S-Line of Parleys Trail and eventually over to its bike lanes on West Temple.

If they do, they’ll find a pleasant place to ride, with a burgeoning brewery scene and plenty of public art.

Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.