Category: Salt Lake City

Are mid-rise cities better than everything else?

Perhaps the ideal size of a building is just tall enough (or short enough) that people will still take the stairs to the top.

That’s basically the idea Robert Freedman suggests in a great post over at Planetizen discussing the pleasure, economics and feasibility of cities with plenty of medium-height buildings. The idea is that cities need some amount of density to thrive, but massive elevator-oriented towers don’t feel sufficiently human scale.

I agree; pretty much all of my favorite spaces across the world are dominated by mid-rise buildings. As Freedman points out,

In areas of Manhattan where entire blocks of walk-up apartments have been preserved, the human scale provides an amazing and welcome contrast to the soaring, elevator-towers that cover much of the rest of the island. You immediately sense how the heights of the buildings are in harmony with the width of the street. The materials are warm and natural, and, on the Avenues and major streets, the sidewalks are lined with small shops and restaurants. While walking, you have the sense that you “fit.” It’s not unlike retrieving your jacket after having mistakenly slipped into someone else’s that was several sizes too large. It just feels right.

The pictures below include some of the places that have given me an appreciation for mid-rise development. Note how they all have different architectural styles, yet all share some of the same basic forms.





Street parking in high density Edinburgh.


An intersection not far from the street in the first picture.

Also Paris

The silver statue in this picture is a monument to Andy Warhol. New York didn't produce people like Warhol, nor did it end up with monuments to those people, just because the arts community worked really hard and was really cool. It happened because New York has the economy and built environment to support those people.

New York City

I could go on, but you get the idea. I think it’s worth pointing out here that those of us who care about cities and are interested in making better ones need to sell this type of development better to the larger public. When most people I know think of “density,” they either think of skyscrapers or small-but-cheap, car-oriented apartment complexes from the 1960s and 1970s. We’re doing a terrible job of helping people understand how wonderful density can actually be.

In addition, this idea may require some special tooling in Utah, where many of our cities have a fairly unique street grid. As Freedman points out, the definition of a mid-rise is relative to its surroundings:

…we analyzed a number of successful mid-rise streets from around the world and found a correlation between street width and building height—a ratio of approximately 1:1 or less. The buildings are roughly as tall as the street is wide. When lined up side-by-side these buildings create a streetwall. When streetwalls face each other along both sides of an Avenue they create an “outdoor room” or defined space. It’s the proportion of that space that creates the distinct mid-rise ambience. Again, it just feels right.

In other words, your buildings need to be as tall as your streets are wide. I’ve discussed this idea at length before, but in light of Freedman’s post it’s worth considering that mid-rises may not simply one good option, they may be the best option.

The sidewalk is blocked, but the street remains open

In downtown Salt Lake City, just a few blocks from my home, construction has closed a sidewalk. That’s not particularly noteworthy, except that A) it’s one of downtown’s wider — and therefore better — sidewalks, B) it’s on one of the most pedestrian friendly streets, and C) all the space reserved for cars remains open.

Here’s what it looks like:


In the picture above, the construction area is marked with yellow tape and signs. Significantly, this street has a row of diagonal parking along with a single-but-very-wide lane for cars. All of that space remains unobstructed.

It’s also worth pointing out that the diagonal parking isn’t even used all that much; why was this second car space left open at the expense of pedestrian space?

In the grand scheme, this particular situation isn’t that important.

But it does seem to capture the way we often don’t even think twice about marginalizing pedestrian infrastructure, while doing the same to car space is verboten. Imagine, for example, if the construction crew erected a temporary sidewalk in the street, blocking it to cars but leaving the space open for people. What if the city required any construction to maintain a clear pedestrian path, no matter what?

That’s entirely doable — and I’d argue it’s a better solution than blocking pedestrians — but as the picture shows, it doesn’t always happen. There would probably be an uproar if it did. My point is that cities too often automatically marginalize pedestrian space for an array of reasons, and we need to reconsider that strategy.

One of the more important aspects of “urbanism,” at least as I see it, is fairness for different modes of transportation. In this case, that means trying to rethink the way we treat foot traffic so that it’s weighed more equally against vehicle traffic. That makes economic sense, both because pedestrian infrastructure is generally cheaper and because walkable places are often financially stronger.

In other words, we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to cars just because traditionally that’s what we’ve done. Instead of asking, “how can we maintain traffic flows?” we should be asking, “how can we make this space better and more vibrant for users of all kinds?”

(Maybe) Salt Lake City will get more transit oriented development

Salt Lake City owns a patch of land right beside the newly-constructed streetcar line. The mayor wants to sell the land to make way for privately-funded transit oriented development.

So, hooray for TOD!

Except here’s what has to happen for that plan to work out:

An appraisal of the property has yet to be completed, according to a spokesman for the mayor. […]

It cannot be sold until the City Council agrees that it is surplus. Then the council must hold a public hearing, wait six months, and then rezone the land for development. […]

If the council agrees to sell the land, the Becker administration must go through the rigors of an open “request for proposal” process that likely would seek developers to build dense housing and retail space.

On top of that, there’s all sorts of NIMBY resistance to developing this land.

There are a couple of different ideas for what to do with this land, but what I glean from this article is that they’re all years away from happening. If they happen at all; with so many layers of bureaucracy it wouldn’t be surprising if the current vision for this space is scuttled altogether.

I get that building in cities is hard and takes a long time; when a lot of people live close together there are a lot of concerns to deal with.

But here’s what I take away from this: if we’re going to invest so heavily in transit — the street car line in this area wasn’t cheap, after all — we need to make sure that it can actually deliver on its promises of development. It’s not enough to simply throw down miles of light rail track and hope for the best. Ultimately, if our regulations make development nearly impossible then the money we spend on infrastructure will be less of an “investment” and more of a pipe dream.

This is why downtown Salt Lake is a drug dealing paradise

A few evenings ago, I walked down a street in downtown Salt Lake City near my home and was offered drugs. Six different times. By six different dealers. All within one block.

Of course all cities have rough areas and this spot in particular — 200 South near the Gateway Mall — is well-known by locals as a troubled area. But it’s also right downtown near a not-so-old shopping area, transit stops and housing. It’s a place that shouldn’t be rough and that definitely shouldn’t have people brazenly selling drugs as if it were an illicit farmer’s market.

So why is it used by criminals and ignored by everyone else?

The reasons are likely legion but here’s one the city may not have considered: parking.

In an article this week in The Atlantic Cities, Jenny Xie wrote that eliminating parking actually cut down on drug deals in San Francisco and Baltimore. The idea is that drug dealers use idling and parked cars to conduct transactions, so eliminating their parking eliminates their workplace. To that I’d add that excessive parking also can be alienating to pedestrians and generally law abiding people. Think big abandoned parking lots, for example, that due to neglect become ripe for crime.

That may well be what’s happening in downtown Salt Lake. The picture below shows the area where I was repeatedly offered drugs. I was walking along the south side of the street:

Screen shot 2014-02-26 at 10.07.36 PM

What’s fascinating about this spot is that the south side of the street is lined with parking lots. Around the corner to the west, on Rio Grande Street, cars are free to idle (and possibly park, though I don’t know because I would never drive my own car there). In other words, it’s exactly the kind of environment that might be good for selling drugs.

By contrast the north side of the street is lined with buildings — not great buildings, but buildings nonetheless — and it’s completely drug free. Judging by the types of people I regularly see on these streets, I also suspect the north side of the street is perceived as vastly safer.

This seems to provide strong evidence in support of Xie’s thesis. It’s also interesting because the nearby homeless shelter is often blamed for this area’s troubles. That may or may not be part of the problem, but the north side of the street isn’t that much farther away from the shelter and it’s safe. Instead, the big difference seems to be the parking.

This is both good and bad news for Salt Lake City and other places like it. It’s good news because it offers a way to attack crime that isn’t just putting more police on the streets. We can scale back parking, and things like parking minimums that encourage car-dependant infrastructure, and expect to see some improvement in safety.

But it’s also bad news because in Salt Lake and other cities there are just so much parking. That means it’s going to take a long time and a lot of creative work to actually fix this problem.

Why does this street have so many lanes?

The street in the picture below is 400 South in downtown Salt Lake City. In general, it’s a massive and massively unpleasant street:


Including turn lanes, there are a full six lanes of traffic for cars just in one direction. Here are the reasons this is a major problem:

1. It’s expensive. Maintaining this type of street is vastly more expensive than the analogous-but-smaller version of a downtown street you’d see in most cities.

2. It encourages speeding, which problem is exacerbated by Salt Lake City’s long blocks. That, in turn, increases the frequency and severity of accidents.

3. It’s extremely unpleasant to walk on. Note the small sidewalks and the lack of a buffer between the street and the pedestrian space.

4. It reduces the economic value of the street. Fast cars aren’t going to stop and even if they did complete streets have shown more economic strength than horrible stroads like this.

Why is it so hard to choose walkable neighborhoods?

In a post over at Smart Growth For Conservatives earlier this week, Ron Beitler discussed electric bikes as a means of transportation. Near the beginning of the post, Beitler included this illuminative paragraph, which also describes the choices I’ve made about where to live:

By design I live close enough to work to walk or bike if I choose. It’s something I enjoy doing. Once there, my office is located on a traditional Main Street where services like our bank and accountant are each less then 3 blocks away. We also have a half-dozen lunch options within walking or biking distance.

That’s a fantastic choice and like Beitler, I don’t want to spend a huge chunk of my life inside my car (yes, I have one). But unfortunately, a series of strange regulations can sometimes make it difficult or even impossible for people to choose more walkable neighborhoods.

I learned about these regulations when I moved to downtown Salt Lake City. Because Salt Lake is a fairly affordable city and housing prices are only expected to rise, I decided to buy a condo rather than rent. And then I discovered a major problem: the rules governing federally backed mortgages — the “normal” mortgage that most people get when they purchase single family home — lean heavily against higher density houses.

Here are some of the problems I ran into:

• I couldn’t get a conventional loan for a condo in a building with very small units (in the 400 square foot range). My unit wasn’t that small, but because there were in a few in the building (they were specially-zoned live-work units) the entire development was disqualified.

• I couldn’t get a conventional loan for a unit in a building that had a lot of commercial space. I tried for a condo in a building where the first floor included a bunch of shops, but was told that a recent expansion by a restaurant disqualified the entire building for conventional loans.

• In light of these problems some developments turned to FHA mortgages, but that put the burden on (only semi-competent) HOA managers to get approval, and disqualified a bunch of buyers who couldn’t afford the higher monthly payments.

• Eventually I got a private mortgage with a slightly higher interest rate, but I was lucky; not everyone who wants to move to a walkable neighborhood could qualify for that kind of mortgage or afford the higher payments.

If getting a mortgage was this difficult everywhere I wouldn’t complain. But as it turns out I bought a single family home in a traditional neighborhood about two years before that. In that case — and this was true for my neighbors as well — getting a conventional, federally-backed mortgage was a breeze. Most well-qualified people I know who have purchased single family homes have had similarly “painless” experiences.

Why is that? Why have we set up a bunch of rules that make it vastly more difficult to buy a home in a walkable, or dense, neighborhood?

I’m not a mortgage expert or historian, but if our goals are to maximize choice and encourage a free housing market — things I believe would result in more people choosing walkable neighborhoods — we should at least level the playing field. The situation we have now basically amounts to subsidies (federal backing, lower rates, etc.) being used to pick and choose housing types. And who knows, if we stopped stacking the deck we might discover that America’s love affair with sprawl only existed because we made sprawl cheaper and easier to choose.

Downtown Salt Lake demolition exposes a cool old facade

Demolition for the Utah Performing Arts Center is underway on Main Street. While that means downtown will be kind of a mess for quite a while, it also exposed an interesting old facade on one of the buildings.

This picture shows what the buildings looked like back in November:


And here’s what they look like now:


The building that has the yellow covering on the front in the first picture is the same one that has a fairly impressive arch in the second picture. That yellow covering was made out of some sort of vinyl-like material so I always wondered what was underneath. Turns out, it was a pretty cool building.

I have no idea why this building was covered up; clearly the facade wasn’t in great shape though I’d be curious to know what led to its deterioration.

In any case, it’s interesting to see historic layers of the city uncovered as it continues to grow. Also, don’t get too attached to that arch; along with the surrounding buildings it will be demolished soon.