Orem approved a bold new mixed-use development last night that will attempt to turn a dying mall into a vibrant neighborhood.
The plan was approved in a 6-1 vote during a long meeting. Dishearteningly, but not surprisingly I guess, a bunch of residents lined up to complain about the project.
I realize people choose their neighborhoods because they like them the way they are. And these residents, who apparently just wanted to “slow down” the development, surely see a lot of good in the place where they’ve chosen to live.
But this neighborhood needs to change. Though it’s fairly central, it’s completely unwalkable and surrounded on most sides by horrible stroads.
If these residents want any future for the area, they’re going to have to embrace progress. The development, which is designed by Andres Duany’s firm, also will surely increase property values, as well as health, efficiency and economic vitality. But I guess nothing can happen without a showing from NIMBYs.
In any case, this is a fairly exciting experiment. University Mall is struggling, to put it lightly, so if this works it could offer a model for other malls, in Utah and beyond.
Yesterday I reported that University Mall in Orem will be converted to a New Urbanist neighborhood. That’s an objective most of Utah’s malls should be pursuing.
It’s also more or less what I argued back in January, when I advocated for turning malls into neighborhoods — much as Orem is now doing. My point then still applies now: Utah is filled with struggling malls, but at the same time is expecting a population boom.
The logical conclusion is to take oversupplied mall space and convert it to undersupplied housing space. Walkable, centrally-located housing is in particularly short supply in Utah and the potential of malls to fill that niche is tremendous.
Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square and Provo’s Towne Center immediately come to mind as malls that could realistically pull this off.
But I think the less ideally-located Orem offers another important lesson as well: converting malls to neighborhoods won’t happen accidentally in the coolest or most logical places. Instead it will happen where people are aggressive about redeveloping these dying behemoths, even if those places don’t have a lot going from them already.
My former colleague Genelle Pugmire wrote yesterday in the Daily Herald that University Mall in Orem is going to be reengineered as a new, mixed use community. That’s easy to say, but in this case they’re really putting their money where their mouth is:
The Woodbury family has reached out to the world premier designers and founders of the “new urbanism,” Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Company.
That’s really quite incredible; as I mentioned to Genelle in a message last night, the significance of that decision really can’t be understated.
I previously wrote about Duany on this blog here, and he was a major source in my Tribune story on the Mormon grid. If you’re reading this blog you may know who these people are, but let me just say that with them on board there’s a good chance this won’t become just another pseudo-city sprawl development. (I know New Urbanism isn’t without its critics and I’m skeptical myself about some tenants, but still, this isn’t some sad knock off like Daybreak.)
Anyway, Genelle’s article mentions that the project will likely begin next year with construction on a park. Office and residential construction will follow.
There’s a lot that has to happen before this project takes shape and there could still be some bumps in the road — remember the Frank Gehry building that was coming to Lehi at one point? — but overall this is very good news for Utah. As I also mentioned to Genelle in a message, the only disappointing thing is that if this succeeds Orem may finally eclipse downtown Provo as the physical and architectural heart of Utah Valley.
Streets and the buildings that line them interact, but some interact better than others. Why? Because of the relationship between building height and street width, among other things.
This is a simple idea generally referred to as the “height to width” ratio.
So, if you have a 50 foot wide street lined by buildings that are about 50 feet tall, that’s a 1:1 ratio. But if the the buildings are only 25 feet tall, that’s a 1:2 ratio, because the street is twice as wide as the buildings are tall. There are numerous images on the internet that illustrate this idea, but here’s a good, succinct PDF that sums it up nicely.
So why does this matter?
Generally, getting these ratios right is thought to be a key to creating a strong sense of place. In urban areas, many people like to see at least 1:1 ratios. I’ve found that the places I like the most — Boston, Venice, Paris, villages in the Cinqua Terra, etc. — tend to have even higher ratios, with buildings much taller than the streets are wide.
This makes sense for a lot of reasons, which is probably why people have been building tall(ish) structures along narrow streets for millennia. Economically, for example, it saves on infrastructure costs when you have more people clustered along small streets.
But height to width ratios are also about the feel of a city. As Great Streets San Diego points out in this nice summary, the idea is that they give a necessary sense of enclosure to a street:
A Street requires the same good proportions as any room to make it feel good. It is the “walls” of the street that are key to creating good proportions and a sense of place. The buildings on either side of the street form the walls of the street “room”, and as such are called the “Street Wall”.
That paper goes on to argue that 3:2 and 1:1 ratios create a strong sense of place, while 1:3 ratios and lower offer “no sense of place to the street.” Unsurprisingly, those are the ratios seen in suburban areas.
These ideas are not uncontested, but I think the best argument in their favor comes from the streets themselves. Would you rather walk along a rowhouse street in Boston, or a street lined with strip malls in LA? Would you rather walking along a boulevard in Paris, or University Blvd. in Orem?
And if you think I’m just a biased city-lover, visit Disneyland and walk along Main Street; if my recollection is correct, the ratio there is about 1:1.5 or so. Main Street is an imitation of course, but its designers chose to use that form because it works and because people like it.
In other parts of Disneyland, such as near the Blue Bayou restaurant, ratios are closer to 2:1, which is quite urban. The result is that even though millions of tourist wander through those alleys, they still convey a sense of excitement and discovery.
My point is not that I like Disneyland — I don’t, actually — but just that successful places of all sorts display the same general height to width ratios.
Malls also use this idea; the ratios inside usually range from between 1:1 or 1:1.5 (University Mall in Orem) to 2:1 (City Creek mall in Salt Lake).
Finally, this idea is particularly important for Utah. As everyone knows, most cities in Utah have extremely wide streets, which were a feature of the Mormon grid. But what everyone may not realize is that if the streets get wider, the buildings have to get taller to produce the same effect.
So, in Portland, where streets tend to only be 50 or 60 feet wide, a five or six story building creates a comfortable 1:1 ratio. That gives Portland an exciting and engaging feel without it having to include many massive buildings. The skyline of Portland is even fairly unimpressive, but walking the streets is a pleasure.
But in Salt Lake City, where streets are in some cases twice as wide, buildings have to be closer to 100 feet tall to produce the same effect.
This is a huge problem for Utah cities, and one that is perhaps poorly understood. Tall buildings get more and more expensive the higher they go, for example, and more generally if streets feel inhospitable or lack a sense of enclosure people will avoid them.
The result is that even if Salt Lake managed to become as built up as Portland — something that won’t happen any time soon — it’d still feel much smaller because the height to width ratios would be completely different and more suburban. In fact, you could drop the exact same buildings from any major city onto a Utah street grid and the wider streets would radically alter, and diminish I think, the feel of the environment. (That’s true of any street grid of course — drop Seattle onto New York, Boston onto San Francisco, etc. and they all change — but Utah’s wide streets are an extreme case.)
There are ways to solve, or at least mitigate, this problem, which I’ll discuss in future posts this week. But for now, suffice it to say that this is indeed a problem. If we want our cities along the Wasatch Front to feel inviting and hospitable, we have to think about ratios. In the end, experiencing our cities should feel unique but it shouldn’t feel inferior.
The Milken Institute recently released its 2012 list of best performing metro areas in the US and, unsurprisingly, several Utah cities stood out.
Most significantly, Salt Lake City retained the number six spot on the list. The report noted that Salt Lake excels due to a high concentration of tech companies. It also boasts a significant medical industry and a growing financial sector, with Goldman Sachs recently adding hundreds of jobs there.
Provo nabbed the next spot on the list. The authors of the report described it as having one of the most “dynamic high tech clusters in the country.” Provo climbed two spots from its ninth place rank in 2011.
Logan also did well and held onto its spot as the best-performing small metro area.
None of this is particularly surprising; Utah cities have been doing well in rankings like these for years, particularly in the wake of the recession.
So what can we do about it?
During a recent visit to San Francisco, I saw another possible solution:
The picture above shows one street that has been partitioned into different sections for different purposes. The center section, which includes two lanes in each direction, is faster and doesn’t have any street parking. On their own, the lanes are what I might think of as a stroad — a city “street” that functions more like a high speed “road” connecting cities.
But in this case, the fast lanes are flanked by slower ones. In the picture, that’s the lane on the far left, as well as a harder-to-see lane on the right, where there are parked cars along the curb. Here are a few more views of this same street:
In the picture above, a bike lane — or actually a sharrow for both cars and bikes — is visible. That’s possible because traffic in the side lanes moves much more slowly.
Here’s another one:
Obviously, this type of street is inferior to some of our better examples in Utah. Imagine taking Center Street in Provo or Main Street in Salt Lake City, splitting them in half, and putting fast traffic down the middle. That would ruin those otherwise peaceful places.
But this idea is perfect for streets that are currently wide, fast, and unfriendly to pedestrians. State Street in Orem immediately comes to mind, as do many of the streets in downtown Salt Lake City. In those cases, the edges could be slowed down and converted to sharrows. That means safer sidewalks for pedestrians, quieter streets, and more potential bike infrastructure. Slow traffic along the edges also benefits local businesses, who are hurt by high speed limits that move cars too quickly passed them.
Then, in the center, cars can still move relatively quickly, maintaining traffic flow and appeasing the engineers. It’s a solution that benefits nearly everyone and that doesn’t require major changes like these.
The Deseret News recently reported that Orem is considering a pedestrian bridge over the freeway. The bridge is a long way off right now — both because it’s just being considered and because there are no funds for it yet — but if built it would link housing and the train station to the west of the freeway to Utah Valley University’s campus to the east.
More pedestrian infrastructure is a wonderful thing. Right now, students living just a mile or so away (and less as the crow flies) are forced to drive to school because there is realistically no walking path across the freeway. (I’m not counting narrow sidewalks that abut massive roads with high speed limits, and which rarely see much use.)
But this situation really illustrates the tragedy and futility of building awful, car-oriented spaces.
First, a bridge over the newly-widened freeway would be very, very expensive. I was once told that a pedestrian walkway in Provo that would go over 600 South — connecting that city’s train station to the surrounding streets — would cost $25 million to build. And that was a bridge over a relatively small, two-lane road without much traffic.
I15, on the other hand, includes at least four lanes in either direction, wide shoulders, and in some cases is wider than a football field is long. In other words, it will cost a fortune to build this bridge.
The better solution would have simply not to have destroyed this section of Orem in the first place. I’ve been dismayed over the last few years as Orem has applied the same kind of apparently computer-generated traffic designs that gave Provo it’s horrible interchange.
The result is that the area surrounding UVU and the University Parkway exit, while probably looking fantastic on some inept traffic engineer’s computer, is one of the worst spots in Utah. It’s confusing for drivers, typically congested and, most importantly, pretty much impossible to walk.
The point is that if any of the recent “improvements” to this area had simply been avoided, a pedestrian bridge may have been less necessary or at least less expensive.
Finally, it’s worth noting that a bridge between two entirely hostile areas is unlikely to pay off. Though I imagine it would avoid the worst areas immediately surrounding the freeway interchange, the land around the Frontrunner station and west side of UVU are still very car-centric. In other words, why would anyone take the bridge when the surrounding infrastructure effectively encourages them to drive? It is essentially a bridge to no where.