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Salt Lake City leaders seek vitality in Vancouver

Published August 19, 2012 5:18 pm

Public spaces • They return with creative ideas on revitalizing the city's gathering spots.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

How about a little bit of Vancouver right here in Salt Lake City?

The dazzling city on British Columbia's coast is known for its inviting public places and emphasis on walking and biking.

To that end, a troop — about 30 — from City Hall flew to Vancouver recently to see firsthand how the Canadians have made their community a standout in livability.

What the Salt Lakers came back with were ideas big and small that would add to the Utah capital's vitality on topics such as transportation and housing. But much of the trip was devoted to observing Vancouver's active public spaces and how they bring vibrancy to the city of 600,000 (2.3 million in the metro area).

Salt Lake City officials will use what they learned during the Vancouver look-see to draw residents to gathering spots here by making them more comfortable and interesting with the caveat that it will cost little. "Lighter, quicker, cheaper" is the mantra chanted by those returning from the field trip.

It's what freshman Councilman Kyle LaMalfa called "creative thinking on affordable projects" with the goal of "making the most of public spaces."

For example, LaMalfa pointed to something called "parallel parks," where Vancouver officials tapped two curbside parking slots as the site for a wooden deck. They added flower pots, tables and chairs and voilá — a cool place to hang out.

The Utahns were guided through Vancouver by Fred Kent of the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces. The nonprofit was founded in 1975 for the purpose of community building through public interaction.

Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) Executive Director D.J. Baxter, who organized the trip, sought out Kent for his reputation so that the mayor, council members and staffers could take in Vancouver with Kent's expertise.

"We all came back with a lot of new ideas," Baxter said.

There are some basic elements to creating such inviting public spaces, said Mayor Ralph Becker. And they aren't necessarily mysterious. Chairs, tables and umbrellas work wonders, he said. Food helps, too.

The mayor noted that city staffers will be urged to be creative without the fear of failure when attempting to enliven the city's public places.

"We need to try things," Becker said, "and see how they work and adapt."

But city staffers may not have all the answers. Becker said he and the City Council invite ideas from residents on how to liven up their town's plazas and parks.

"In urban areas, people want and expect vibrancy," he said. "We get the best results when we engage the public."

The mechanism for how the public can give input and ideas is still in the works.

Becker made the trip with members of the city planning staff, as well as staff from the city's RDA, six members of the City Council and some of the council's staff. Total taxpayer tab: $50,000 to $55,000. Two members of the private Downtown Alliance also made the four-day working visit.

While some public spaces are easily transformed, others require more effort and financial investment. A lot more in the case of a public market ­— an indoor version of the Downtown Farmers Market that would operate seven days a week year-round with an emphasis on local businesses and products.

For a number of years Salt Lakers have kicked around the idea to create something like Seattle's Pike Place Market or Vancouver's Granville Island Public Market. Reports and studies have been produced, but there is little tangible progress to report.

"We spent time exploring that [public market] with our feet and talking to shoppers and vendors," Becker said of the Vancouver trip. "It's no small task."

For starters, it requires a large, open building and an organization to operate it and coordinate a large number of vendors.

Nonetheless, first-term Councilman Charlie Luke said the council has a renewed sense of urgency to create such a shopping center.

"There is an appetite to move the public market forward," he said, noting that it is likely the Downtown Alliance would be the prime mover on such a project.

Luke said the trip to Vancouver was insightful but also left him feeling that Salt Lake City is moving in the right direction in a variety of areas that will make the city more vibrant in decades to come. And while revamping small public places can be accomplished quickly, other initiatives, such as transit upgrades and a public market, will take more time.

Good planning, he said, remains key to a successful outcome."It's important that we understand we have to be patient and not get ahead of ourselves."

csmart@sltrib.com

Four days in Vancouver

R Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and other officials recently visited Vancouver, British Columbia.

Purpose • How to create urban vibrancy

Number of people • 30 city officials, staffers and others

Total cost to taxpayers • $50,000 to $55,000