Top takeaways from Mendenhall’s fifth ‘State of the City’

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wants sports in the capital city.

She wants to see more families living in the city, more parks downtown and, maybe, fewer cars on Main Street.

Speaking from the Grand Lobby of the Eccles Theater during her first marquee speech of her second term as mayor, Mendenhall laid out hints at her vision for her second term.

More clues will be unveiled in the coming days, as the mayor’s team lays out its goals for the year. But Tuesday’s speech gave a somewhat clear picture of the mayor’s plans.

  1. Mendenhall wants to win the stadium era

Mendenhall’s speech was her first since the city was launched into Utah’s latest stadium era, where political power players throughout the region are vying to land a piece of the action under a landscape where Utah is home to more professional sports teams and Olympic venues.

Mendenhall is fighting a multifront battle in which she’s working to retain the Utah Jazz in the heart of Downtown at a time when the team is considering defecting to the suburbs; lobbying to place Salt Lake City at the center of the 2034 Winter Olympic Games; helping shepherd a bid to land Major League Baseball on the city’s west side; and lauding the city as a logical place to bring a National Hockey League team.

“The potential to welcome both Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to our City is incredibly exciting and a great fit,” Mendenhall said. “It amplifies our City’s values and vision of expanding sports and entertainment experiences that further connect our residents and visitors, across all generations and identities.”

Mendenhall was clear she wants the Downtown area to be cemented as the center for the region’s pro sports teams, as well as the entertainment and cultural clusters that can surround major league stadiums.

“Tonight, we reaffirm our commitment to keeping the Utah Jazz in Downtown Salt lake City,” Mendenhall said.

“Let me be clear. What is best for the State of Utah is that the team plays and stays in Downtown Salt Lake City,” she added. “Salt Lake City serves as the center of commerce, transportation, finance, law, sports, entertainment, faith, and culture in the Mountain West. If the city suffers, the region suffers.”

Mendenhall pointed out the nation has moved past the suburban stadium surrounded by a sea of surface parking. She said the city is already the logical place for stadiums, and added that it would keep pressure on some of her other city-building proposals.

“The future of major league sports entertainment is about offering fans a full experience, before, during, and after the game. That broadened guest experience creates a hive of activity surrounding the arena—an entertainment district. This is not only possible in our downtown, but it is requisite for us to evolve our public spaces to meet our future potential.”

  1. The Green Loop is in the slow lane

Mendenhall made clear she doesn’t plan to speed up the planning or construction of the Green Loop, an ambitious plan to create a five-mile linear park wrapping around Downtown.

As it stands, the work will take a decade, and Mendenhall indicated she wouldn’t be in office when it’s finished.

“While my administration won’t see the opening of the Green Loop, we will lay the foundation and momentum for this transformational project,” Mendenhall said.

She compared the Green Loop to monumental examples like the High Line in New York City and Millennium Park in Chicago, which took years to complete.

The good news is that Mendenhall isn’t impeding the work, which will admittedly take a long time. The bad news is that the Green Loop is apparently not a top priority. If it was, construction would be underway within the next four years.

While Mendenhall acknowledged the potential economic and quality of life benefits from the creation of the Green Loop, she also made clear she wouldn’t be accelerating its creation.

“I’m determined to see the Green Loop move forward and become one of our most celebrated features in Salt Lake City,” she said. “My administration will utilize every tool and partnership to ensure this community benefit improves our livability, economy, and environment for decades. And it is my vision that it will be ready to welcome the world 10 years from tonight for the Olympic Games.”

A rendering the mayor released on Tuesday shows cars on Main Street.
  1. Cars on Main Street

Mendenhall made clear that changes are coming to Main Street. But she stopped short of pulling back the veil on how much she’d like to change the capital city’s premier pedestrian street Downtown.

The mayor alluded to the positive activity the city saw after she brought back the program known as Open Streets, which had been mothballed under previous mayor Jackie Biskupski. Open Streets involved closing Main Street to automobile traffic on weekends between 400 South and South Temple in an attempt to capitalize on decades-old plans and reverse the shock to retail businesses brought on by COVID. 

By all metrics, Open Streets has been a perennial success. So much so that the city has been working toward activating the four-block stretch year-round, and considering closing the street to automobile traffic entirely.

Open Streets attracted 1.2 million visitors during the roughly one month each year it was closed to cars over the past four years. Those visitors spent an estimated $53 million, Mendenhall said, and businesses who participated in Open Streets reported a 19% increase in revenue over 2019 levels.

“Even this past fall, as sales tax revenues declined citywide, Open Streets cushioned the decline Downtown,” Mendenhall said.

The mayor announced the “next steps” to turn Main Street into a pedestrian promenade, which “will be the epicenter of activity Downtown.”

Such a transformation is wildly supported by residents. 85 percent said in past city surveys they wanted fewer cars on Main Street between South Temple and 400 South. 

“That’s a clear mandate, and we are listening,” Mendenhall said.

Still, a recent appearance on the podcast City Cast Salt Lake indicates the mayor isn’t willing to go all-in on pedestrianizing Main Street, as planners six decades ago called for.

While she said she’d like to see more parklets throughout Main Street — matching the business activity allowed by cities big and small across the country for decades — she still suggested the city would bow down to its suburban nature as working area for bedroom communities.

“We need to make sure that Downtown remains functional, that we can still double our workday population as we do as the capital city and get people in, whether it’s for work or for a Jazz game or just to come shopping and have a good time,” Mendenhall said on City Cast this week. “That’s what we’re going to be balancing as we look at how we can pedestrianize Main Street in a permanent way: maintain function of the area and make sure those businesses can function as well. And then establish a massive park footprint surrounding the downtown core.”

“I think it may have to include vehicles,” she said. “Especially during the workday.”

It’s not clear how keeping Main Street open to cars would help Downtown thrive. The street is already designed in a way that makes it an inefficient use of personal time to drive a car on. Lights are timed to stop cars every half-block, making using the street only a logical choice for tourists who don’t know any better.

The mayor shared a rendering on Tuesday that showed cars on Main Street, leaving open the question of what changes she plans to propose.

Mendenhall said Tuesday her administration would soon provide the City Council with more detailed renderings for the future of Main Street. That will likely start a long and drawn out public battle over what the street will eventually look like.

  1. Salt Lake City has a kid problem

Salt Lake City has a kid problem, and the mayor is now making it a part of her agenda to fix it.

Specifically, the city is hemorrhaging young families with children, and the mayor said Tuesday she was making it a “top priority” to invest in the future of families of all ages in the city, from housing to places to play and more programs from the city.

Last month, the Salt Lake City School Board voted to close four schools, including the only remaining public school in District 4, which includes Downtown.

The Downtown area’s population is set to double in the coming years, yet children will have to travel outside its boundaries to receive public education.

On Tuesday, Mendenhall suggested she has set her sights on the problem.

“When I think about what makes cities great, the best cities, and the cities I enjoy discovering, I think of cities that are built for all generations. They are built for families. They are built for young professionals, creators and students,” she said. “They are built for families to play and connect outside after dinner, for our aging neighbors, and for all abilities. They are timeless and innovative, all at once.”

“I am directing our economic development team to create a loan program like the one we saw last year in Pittsburgh that is designed to sustain and stimulate the growth of new and existing child care businesses,” Mendenhall said. 

She pointed out ongoing work to allow childcare centers in more zones in the city, and said she would direct the Redevelopment Agency and other departments to find ways to add more family-friendly opportunities to the capital city, particularly near the Green Loop, Fleet Block, former public safety building and Station Center.

“I am directing our public lands team to find micro-park opportunities right here Downtown where families living in this neighborhood can easily and safely play,” she said. “I will be asking our Downtown business community and partners to imagine their own investment coupled with ours along the Green Loop, to build the kind of amenities that kids and parents, grandparents, singles and visitors alike will want to enjoy time and time again.”

“Building families back into our city is something every one of us should all rally around,” she said.

  1. Ballpark next. (But when?)

A potential shift in strategy from the Oakland Athletics’ move to Las Vegas has the potential to slow the pace of redevelopment in the Ballpark neighborhood, and the mayor said Tuesday Smith’s ballpark could remain home to Utah’s minor league team for several more years.

The city had been moving full-throttle ahead with plans to revitalize the area, including widespread rezoning and by reimagining a new use for the stadium that was set to be home to the Salt Lake Bees Triple-A baseball team for one more season before the team defected to the suburbs.

The effort to reimagine zoning and activity in the neighborhood was guided by a public process Mendenhall dubbed Ballpark NEXT.

But in recent weeks, the Larry H. Miller Companies made clear it wants to let the Oakland Athletics play in a new stadium it’s building in the suburban Daybreak community for the next several years, reversing plans to quickly move the Bees out of the capital city and into the suburbs.

As she works closely with the Millers on bringing an MLB team to her city, Mendenhall is making clear she is in lock-step with them on the Oakland Athletics, too.

On Tuesday, the mayor said the Bees could end up staying in place through 2028, as the Athletics are looking for a temporary home, possibly in Utah, while their new stadium is completed in Las Vegas.

“We are thrilled at the prospect of bringing Major League Baseball to Salt Lake City,” she said. “If on the path toward getting a permanent team we get to keep our beloved Bees at Smith’s ballpark for a few more years, we are ready to catch that curveball and make a stellar play out of it. But we will not hold up on the vision and planning progress of Ballpark NEXT.”

That’s quite a turn from early 2023 when the city looked to move on from 100 years of history with baseball in the Ballpark neighborhood.

  1. More help for renters

One piece of news Mendenhall broke during her speech included announcing a new service that would provide renters with more help.

“Renters can also expect the City to provide a new service this year in the form of a Tenant Resource Navigation Center,” she said. “Things will keep moving along at The Other Side Village where they have a clear path to deliver tiny homes as quickly as they can.”

More details should be shared in the coming days.

  1. 2100 South construction is coming up

The bond that helped pay for all of that construction is nearly up. Work needs to be completed by 2025. 

That means that more road construction is expected next year even after the completion of 300 West, 900 East, 900 South, 200 South, Highland Drive, 1100 East in 2023.

“We’re approaching the last remaining street reconstruction projects from the bond, including 2100 South in Sugar House,” Mendenhall said. “I could feel you bracing yourself right there. I want us all to collectively take a deep breath.”

Many of the construction projects have given the city the opportunity to claw back some of the space it had previously ceded to automobile traffic. Just last year, a new bike path added to 300 West was named one of the best new bike lanes in the country by the advocacy group People For Bikes. More construction gives the city more opportunities to continue improving streets, she said. 

“When completed, Sugar House will no longer be a snarl of bumpy roads–but a safer and more beautiful place to be for everyone, especially pedestrians and cyclists, to access some of our City’s most beloved institutions.”

What remains to be seen is whether the city will come back to voters to ask for another bond to pay for new parks, changes to Main Street, catching up on widespread deferred maintenance on streets throughout the city, an expansion of the city’s growing bike and transit networks, and, eventually, the Green Loop.

Email Taylor Anderson

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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.