Robert F. Farrington Jr., a nationally known urban and community planner whose decades of public and private sector work in Salt Lake City helped transform the city’s business life and downtown heart, died Monday after a battle with colon cancer. He was 66.
Bob Farrington was the founding executive director of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance, a business group that formed in 1991 and now represents more than 2,500 business and property owners in the city’s central business district. He was recruited to Salt Lake City from San Antonio, where he had served in a similar role.
During his 16-year tenure with the alliance, from 1992 to 2008, the city saw about $4 billion in public and private investment. Farrington led efforts to create signature events such as the Downtown Farmers Market, the First Night New Year’s Eve celebration, the Salt Lake Music Festival, Downtown Dine O’Round, Live Green, and Lights On!, as well as cultural events as part of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
In a 1992 newspaper profile, he identified his strategy for success: “Be informed, involve others, ask questions, build consensus, take risks and persevere.”
He served as chairman of the cabinet of Downtown Rising, a community envisioning effort, and he promoted the city’s push the TRAX light rail system, which began service in 1999. In 2016, the Downtown Alliance named him among the 25 most influential people behind the city’s modern downtown. The Utah chapter of the American Institute of Architects conferred a Distinguished Service Award on him in 2009, calling him “a quiet catalyst for the most significant programs to develop and enliven downtown Salt Lake City.”
“Bob was just a really incredible person, really compassionate, very thoughtful,” said Jason Mathis, who succeeded Farrington as the alliance’s executive director. “When he arrived, downtown was a very different place from what is today. Our city and in particular the downtown community really owe Bob a big debt for laying the foundation of our modern urban center.”
Farrington left the alliance in 2008 to become Salt Lake City’s director of economic development. In that role, he worked to recruit and retain large office and industrial users. He promoted international trade in the city’s foreign trade zone, created the Neighborhood Business District initiative, helped bring the $110 million Utah Performing Arts Center and recruited Goldman Sachs to its downtown Main Street location. The Goldman Sachs move is the largest office expansion in the city’s history.
“To know Bob was to love Bob, and he will be missed by Utah’s development community and everyone involved in downtown Salt Lake City,” Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, the Alliance’s partner organization, said in a statement.
Born in New Orleans, Farrington grew up in Memphis, New Orleans, and Houston. He won a basketball scholarship to Midwestern State University in Texas but graduated from the University of Houston, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Maria Stillman.
Farrington went on to earn a master’s degree in urban planning and environmental management from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He took a job as vice president for economic development for that city’s Chamber of Commerce before moving over to head the business association there. In the latter role, he helped plan and develop a major extension of the San Antonio Riverwalk and initiated a revitalization plan for the city’s historic core.
He later became a partner in a consulting firm, providing master planning and development services for the city’s baseball stadium and other projects. He also consulted for numerous other communities nationally to create downtown organizations and business improvement districts.
He was a member of the American Planning Association’s American Institute of Certified Planners and was a lecturer and adjunct urban planning professor at the University of Utah’s College of architecture and planning. Over 18 years, his family said, he taught a “generation of planners” about community and economic development, particularly in downtown areas and neighborhood business districts.
He also developed a consulting practice with his brother, Philip, working on community planning efforts in Utah and providing counsel on projects in Oregon.
Farrington received national recognition for planning and urban development from the International Downtown Association, National Defense Transportation Institute, and the Utah Transit Authority. He served on the boards of directors for the Salt Lake Chamber, Economic Development Corporation of Utah, Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, Local First Utah, Greater Avenues Community Council, and KRCL Community Radio.
Besides his wife and brother, he is survived by two sons, Robert Farrington III of Seattle and Charles Farrington of Salt Lake City. Services are scheduled for Friday at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. The family has set up a website, bobfarrington.com, for service and scholarship details.