Tribune editorial: We can run from higher density, but we can’t hide

(Rendering by Woodbury Corp.) An aerial rendering of Holladay Quarter, a proposed development on the former site of the Cottonwood Mall in Holladay.

Is the court defeat of a large development at the old Cottonwood Mall a death knell for high density housing in suburban Utah?

No. The Utah Supreme Court was just reminding the people who run cities that they need to bring their constituents along with them. The unanimous court decision said that a city council’s approval of the developer’s master plan was a “broad zoning ordinance” that residents could challenge in an election. Which they did. And it lost.

The lesson here is that resistance to putting more people in the suburbs will be overcome not by political clout but by evolving attitudes.

In this case, the project on the old mall site just too much of a bite for residents to take at once. In a city that has roughly one household per quarter acre, this 57 acres would have held 17 households per acre. Even the most densely populated zip code in Utah (84102, which includes the University of Utah’s student housing) is about half that.

A similar argument can be made for the ill-fated Olympia Hills project in the southwest end of the valley, which County Mayor Ben McAdams killed this summer after a backlash. The plan there was to put roughly the population of Midvale in an area that is one quarter the size of Midvale.

These two high-profile defeats obscure the fact that smaller high-density development is happening, just not fast enough to cope with the expected doubling of the Wasatch Front’s population in 30 years.

The challenge, as former Salt Lake City planning director Stephen Goldsmith says, is to “demystify” density for suburbanites. Right now they’re more focused on the disadvantages without knowing the advantages.

Economic and environmental realities are strong allies in this effort. On the economic end, the middle-class dream of a single-family home in the suburbs is fading. Some of that is purely financial, as house costs have outpaced incomes. But there is also a generational change as younger people want experiences and access more than acreage.

On the environmental end, the continuation of sprawl is nothing less than a killer. No matter where we live along the Front, our lungs can’t handle more long commutes in single-occupant vehicles. The NIMBY crowd is quick to say high-density development hurts both their home values and their quality of life, but neither of those are sustainable in an unlivable soup of bad air and jammed roads.

Despite recent setbacks, suburban cities that encourage more density will find that time is on their side. More residents are recognizing that the price of change is smaller than the cost of not changing.