Standing in wide open farmlands by his home outside Herriman, Justin Swain hardly seems ready to talk about housing density. Yet his story of battling development to protect a way of life is like so many resonating in Utah.
When Swain chose two years ago to build in Herriman’s semi-rural Creek Ridge neighborhood, the Utah native settled on a larger lot of about a quarter acre, giving him “a nice-sized backyard” for his three kids.
“It was very much a quality-of-life decision,” Swain, a 38-year-old software-product manager, said of the area’s rural feel.
So when developers of the Olympia Hills project won initial zoning approval for 8,765 housing units on 931 acres right next to his home, Swain fought it. He worried about traffic on east-west arterials that barely keep up now. Within 24 hours of learning of the rezone, he said he had collected more than 5,000 signatures in opposition.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has since vetoed the rezoning, effectively sending the Olympia Hills project back for wider discussion.
“This is something that’s not going away," Swain predicted. "Obviously, Olympia Hills is not going away. But even if we come to some resolution everybody loves for that thousand acres, well, guess what, there’s another two, three, four thousand acres on the other side.”
Swain said he knows the land around his home will one day be developed. “I’d be hypocritical to move in and then say, ‘You can’t build here,’" he said. "We expect growth, and we’re just fine with it, even some level of density.”
But, he quickly added about Olympia Hills, “I personally don’t think that level of density is the answer.”
Yet housing density may indeed be the answer, at least in some corners of the state, as Utah tries to alleviate a statewide housing shortage while its population swells. Shrinking stocks of undeveloped land along the Wasatch Front are already forcing the trend, while also raising the visibility of density as an increasingly hot political issue.
How to fill up
Sporadic conflict over the nature of residential development is, of course, nothing new. It has fueled debate in countless public hearings and hundreds of mayoral and city council races in Utah for decades.
But as a talking point, housing density — the number of dwellings designed for a given acreage — has gained new traction, with projects such as Olympia Hills, redevelopment of Holladay’s old Cottonwood Mall site, and smaller apartment complexes and town house projects becoming controversial flashpoints before city councils and planning commissions across the state.
“Clearly something happened in the last year that has brought all of this to the forefront,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of Utah League of Cities and Towns, representing elected officials and civil servants with 243 municipalities.
Longer term, what’s happening is growth.
With a high birthrate and job-creating economy, the state is projected to add 2 million residents by 2050 to the 3 million who live here now. While a majority of Utahns believe growth and housing demand stem primarily from out-of-staters moving in, the opposite is true: Most of the state’s expanding numbers come from more babies being born.
As the Beehive State continues to add people, undeveloped land in northern Utah’s five-county urban center is running out. Gone are the days when new housing subdivisions could simply sprawl onto unused acreage on city perimeters.
“In the past, we could just add another ring and keep building out,” said Ari Bruening, chief operating officer of Envision Utah, a regional planning agency that has studied the state’s growth since the early 1990s. “We’re to the point where the next ring is on the other side of the mountain range.”
Combined with rising costs of building materials and labor shortages in construction, shrinking land-stock trends have squeezed housing supplies and pushed prices to all-time highs for nearly every type of housing — luxury to low income, single-family homes to condos and apartments.
At the same time, already established residents hold mixed views of new housing construction, just as business and municipal leaders are pressing a campaign to raise public awareness of a lack of available housing statewide.
To build or not
A recent report commissioned by the Salt Lake Chamber estimates that the number of dwellings built in Utah between 2011 and 2017 was about 50,000 below the number of new households formed. Nearly 100,000 Utah households are thought to be currently paying more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing costs.
A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 49 percent of registered voters thought new housing was “positive for the state.” Another 27 percent said they were neutral on the idea, while 19 percent viewed additional housing as negative.
Other polling shows varied attitudes among Utahns toward growth in general. But their precise views on issues related to housing density are likely in flux along with the rapid pace of the state’s expansion itself.
“I don’t think we, as stakeholders and policymakers, have a great handle on what the public thinks is happening,” Diehl said.
Since the Great Recession, building permits in Salt Lake County and along the Wasatch Front have started to skew heavily toward more dense multifamily dwellings over single-family homes. Some cities now offer incentives on permitting and other impact fees to encourage density. The state of Utah is currently proposing a more dense approach to how the Point of the Mountain is developed, once the state prison moves north to Salt Lake City.
At the same time, depending on the locale, residential developments involving a handful of town homes or a lone apartment building can be thwarted by grass-roots opposition.
Suspicions persist, officials say, that higher-density development — apartments, town homes, condos and even single-family homes on smaller lots — will lower property values, heighten traffic, boost crime and otherwise burden government services.
“In the general public, density is this four-letter word,” said Abby Osborne, vice president of public policy and government affairs at the Salt Lake Chamber. But she argued density is a piece of a larger fear over population growth.
“They’re feeling it in people moving into their communities and more homes being built. They’re feeling it in trying to get to and from their kids' soccer game. They’re feeling it when they go to a fireworks show, and there are thousands of people there when there were hundreds last year. They’re feeling it in the grocery line.
“And they’re not wrong,” Osborne said, “but it’s all about how we grow.”
In a way, the issue naturally pits established residents against the interests of those seeking to move in, said Diehl, with elected leaders often caught in the middle.
“When we talk about our cities, we’re talking about the residents who live in those cities,” he said. “They have expectations about the quality of life where they reside. Local government is the most responsive level of government to the needs of residents.”
Residents in several Utah cities are challenging what they see as unresponsive actions by their city councils, going after high-density construction directly via petitions to put city zoning disputes on the November ballot.
Projects ranging from an apartment complex in Orem designed for Utah Valley University students to the $560 million-plus Holladay project could go before voters as do-overs.
Retail turned residential
Developers with Ivory Homes and Woodbury Corp. have won approval to transform the barren Cottonwood Mall site into 56 acres of retail, eateries and offices with a blend of apartments and single-family homes. The mall had languished, caught up in major shifts for bricks-and-mortar retail and shopping centers as more customers buy more online.
Ivory and Woodbury, both Utah-based companies, released a glowing third-party economic analysis of its proposed project last week, with Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes, saying the $562 million investment “will help bolster Holladay City’s tax base and budget for many years to come.”
The redevelopment also takes advantage of used acreage instead of green fields along with existing roads and utilities that served the old shopping center, according to Chris Gamvroulas, head of Ivory Homes’ land-acquisition arm.
“If anyone believes that the development pressure on infill parcels like the former Cottonwood Mall site is going to diminish over time,” Gamvroulas said, “they are fooling themselves.”
What’s more, he said, “the people are here. Homebuilders don’t create growth. They respond to growth. Land development occurs when there is something moving in the market.”
Yet, after several iterations of the project and 22 public hearings, opponents filed petitions on Thursday to overturn zoning for what developers want to call “Holladay Quarter.” The eastside city was founded, they contend, to take control of its zoning and protect against high-density housing.
“We believe that if left unchecked,” their website said, “this will be the first domino to fall in many more high-density, multifamily projects to come to Holladay.”
Along with traffic and complaints of a lack of government transparency, one of their main concerns, according to opponent Brett Stohlton with the group Unite For Holladay, is the project’s 775 apartments and 210 single-family homes.
Bringing in potentially thousands of new residents to Holladay, many of whom may work elsewere, Stohlton said, “you’re creating issues with regard to freeways and the valley as a whole. We don’t need to turn everything on its head or reinvent the wheel in the next five years.”
Top officials at Ivory Homes note the development’s impact would be more gradual, built over seven to 10 years.
How dense is dense?
Olympia Hills held the prospect of 30,000 new residents added to one of Salt Lake County’s last regional pockets of undeveloped land. At 37 residents per acre, that’s more than three times higher than roughly 11 residents per acre in Daybreak in nearby South Jordan, a master-planned community built on sustainable urban design principles.
Densities in nearby suburban communities range from seven per acre in Riverton, eight in Herriman and nine in Midvale to 12 in the metro township of Kearns. An urban project such as Holladay Quarter or residential complexes in downtown Salt Lake City would come in far higher.
But people per acre is inexact measure of issues behind crucial growth patterns, argues Bruening, with Envision Utah. Density numbers, for example, overlook the key role of freeways, roads and transit options, including light rail and bus routes. That, in turn, neglects how close or far away people live to job centers and how resulting commuter patterns might affect Utah’s air pollution.
He and Osborne, with the chamber, noted the heightened benefits for land use, traffic and air quality of locating higher-density residential projects near jobs centers and the Wasatch Front’s mass transit lines.
“I wish you could get past the ‘density good-density bad’ debate and move on to design,” Bruening said. “Los Angeles is one of the densest cities in the country, but it hasn’t worked out very well for them in terms of transportation.”
Envision Utah and city planners have focused on lot sizes as a metric for land use by single-family homes, and those have long hovered between a third to a quarter acre or less in Salt Lake County. But that’s an imprecise measure, too.
Draper resident Clinton Fairbanks is nervous that his City Council’s recent move to label as surplus 217 acres of open space on Deer Ridge will lead to development close to where he lives in the Suncrest neighborhood. He has heard of plans for 30 homes on half-acre lots running through the larger 2,000-acre piece of adjacent untouched land.
However big the homes or the lots they’re on, he said, any subdivision running across the mountain is going to take out invaluable green space and spoil the breathtaking views.
“I really wanted to give my children what I envisioned as open space,” Fairbanks said, lamenting that he no longer uses some trails behind his home, due to traffic from mountain bikers. “I had not realized we had become a Los Angeles. I specifically bought my home because I had mountain in my backyard.”
Correction: Brett Stohlton is with the group Unite for Holladay, opposed to the proposed redevelopment of the old Cottonwood Mall site in Holladay. His name was misspelled in a prior version of this story.
Clarification: Researchers estimate that the number of dwellings built in Utah between 2011 and 2017 was about 50,000 below the number of new households formed. A prior version of this story used a less accurate estimate of that housing gap.