Why downtown SLC has blown past the pandemic and is topping the competition

A new study says visits to Utah’s capital are 155% above pre-COVID levels. Experts credit a soaring economy and surging population for the rebound — along with some of the area’s quirks.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians stroll in the open streets portion of Salt Lake City's Main Street on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. A new study shows downtown has bounced back faster than all other cities surveyed.

Downtown Salt Lake City isn’t just recovering from the pandemic. It is soaring beyond that.

A new geolocation analysis of mobile phone data shows regular visits to a wide range of points of interest in the urban core — everything from businesses, shops and offices to landmarks, parks and community hubs — have surged to 155% of their levels a year before the pandemic.

That’s higher than any of 62 U.S. and Canadian cities studied — by a long shot.

Only three other midsize or large cities in North America — Columbus, Ohio (112%) and Fresno and Bakersfield in California (108% and 117%, respectively) — saw anything approaching that kind of recovery in downtown visitation during this most recent spring, compared to March through May 2019.

The findings, drawn from research by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California in Berkeley, make clear Utah’s capital is marching to a different beat right now.

Other downtowns studied have ranged from 92% of pre-pandemic visits in Omaha, Neb., to 31% in San Francisco as of March to May of this year, according to the study, titled “The Death of Downtown?” which was based on a computer analysis of GPS data from 18 million smartphones in North America.

Continued caution over COVID-19 infection has conspired with business closures, the persistence of working from home and shifts to online shopping to depress downtown activity and keep other metro areas struggling to bounce back. Diminished office occupancy and lagging retail sales have even sparked questions over whether a national revival in downtown living that emerged before the pandemic might have been derailed.

In Salt Lake City’s case, though, those dampening factors appear to have been swamped by the uplift of the city’s ongoing population and economic boom and by leaps in new investment and residential construction in the downtown area, where the number of full-time residents is now on track to double in just a few years.

A lot of those new residents aren’t from Utah, and data and anecdotal evidence suggests they are embracing downtown life, bringing an upswing in interest to its sights and experiences along with its restaurants, bars, theaters, cultural spots and a rising urban vibe.

The city, ironically, seems to have benefited as well from lower usage of mass transit as opposed to commuting by automobile relative to other midsize cities, one of the study’s co-authors, Karen Chapple, professor emerita of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, said in an interview.

That’s made the return to downtown easier for some, Chapple said, compared to areas more reliant on transit.

Utah’s urban center also has more enclaves of single-family homes located closer to downtown than other cities, said Chapple, who is also director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new TRAX station near the intersection of 600 South and Main Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Transit usually helps revive downtowns, but a new study shows a relative lack of transit has helped the Utah capital's recovery.

“It’s sort of funny because urbanists always want to see more density and more transit use,” Chapple said. “But actually, lower density and a relative lack of transit use are factors helping Salt Lake City.”

The city’s downtown has a more diverse employment base compared to metro areas such as New York and San Francisco, which are more dominated by professional services such as law firms, accountants, architects, consulting businesses and technology.

Those sectors have tended to retain patterns of working from home even as the pandemic eases, leaving many other downtowns quieter during the week. In contrast, the strong presence in Salt Lake City of manufacturing, construction and hospitality jobs has brought more employees back to the workplace, boosting regular downtown visits.

“The thing that really helps Salt Lake,” Chapple said, “is its economy.”

What the rebound looks like

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diners enjoy time on Salt Lake City's Main Street on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

The UC Berkeley analysis tapped geolocation trajectory data from smartphones as aggregated by a San Francisco firm called SafeGraph, which tracks physical visits to points of interest based on proximity, duration of stay and traits of the location, such as the type of place it is and hours of operation.

“We’re tracking the pings,” Chapple said. “And you have to actually go in and spend a little time there to be tracked.”

The study comes against a backdrop of dramatic population growth over a decade in Utah, with the state increasing by 18.4% between 2010 and 2020, driven by its high birthrate and out-of-staters moving here.

In 2021, according to demographers at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, in-migration skyrocketed to account for 59% of the state’s population jump last year, the largest yearly share of its overall growth in recent history, as folks fled more populous areas for the Beehive State.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction in downtown Salt Lake City of housing and office towers, shown in May 2021, continues to soar.

Salt Lake City’s downtown has 3,846 existing apartments right now with 3,974 under construction and another 4,405 apartments proposed, according to a recent tally. Projections are that the number of units downtown will be 103% higher by 2024, compared to 2021.

In terms of visitors coming back, the real turning point for downtown seems to have come between late summer and early fall of 2021, according to the study. After dipping below 50% of spring 2019 visitation levels with the pandemic’s onset, it gained visitors steadily through late 2020 but then hovered between 75% to 90% through August 2021.

Visits then shot past 100% of pre-pandemic levels in September 2021, exceeded 120% that November, hit 140% in April and reached 155% by the end of May.

Some credit the state’s pandemic response as well as an expanding economy, including a guide to employers tailored by industry on how to balance health precautions with bringing workers back.

“Utah really rode that fine line of aggressive return and public health,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, representing downtown merchants at the Salt Lake Chamber. “There are varying opinions about that, but we leaned into getting back to work and did that faster than other areas.”

With its outdoor attractions and five national parks, Utah also continues to catch a significant piece of a national resurgence in leisure tourism, according to Brewer. “They felt safe traveling to Utah, with its wide-open spaces and reputation for being clean and safe,” he said. “That drove a lot of visitation here.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans fill Vivint Arena during the playoffs in 2021. Such sporting events are helping Salt Lake City's downtown bounce back.

Entertainment venues such as Vivint Arena, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, Abravanel Hall and a host of others also moved relatively quickly to resume in-person events, Brewer noted, and that has kicked up downtown visits and shifted activity in the urban core more toward night hours as opposed to daytime.

Significantly, downtown’s revival has come even though one of the state’s largest tourist draws, Temple Square and its iconic Latter-day Saint temple, has been largely closed while undergoing a five-year renovation.

Night visits to downtown were at about 85% of pre-pandemic volumes as of June, according to the alliance’s own research, while visits from office workers are at 63% compared to pre-COVID. And while business travel and conventions still lag, sporting events such as Utah Jazz games, volleyball, fencing, jujitsu and weightlifting are bringing in thousands of people from across the country.

A majority of the 25 highest days for downtown visitors over the past two years, Brewer said, have centered around multiple large in-person events or professional gatherings.

“The social economy,” he said, “has bounced back much faster than the office folks.”

‘A long road ahead’ to full recovery

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A couple enjoy a drink at a sidewalk cafe on the open streets portion of Salt Lake City Main Street on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Restaurants have bounced back since the bleak days of the pandemic but still struggle with staffing and supply issues.

The UC Berkeley findings are borne out by many retailers and hospitality outlets across downtown, where fortunes appeared bleak just 18 months ago for businesses reliant on foot traffic.

“I’ve been really surprised,” said Adam Tye, who co-owns Diabolical Records at 238 S. Edison St. with his wife, Alana. “We’ve had quite a rebound,” said Tye, who reported lots of new faces among those sorting through his stock of vintage music on vinyl.

“I’ve got regulars now coming in from Lehi, Draper, a couple from [South Jordan’s] Daybreak,” said Tye, adding that many are recent transplants to Utah. “And there’s a different mindset. These are people who are more used to commuting long distances because they’re not from here.”

City Creek Center, downtown’s central shopping mall, has seen a “significant post-pandemic recovery,” according to Linda Wardell, its general manager. Foot traffic, Wardell said, has been bolstered by events, workers resuming time at the office, and a return of conventions and tourism.

“We are extremely heartened,” she said, adding that the shopping center was seeing continued consumer demand, in particular, for mall tenants whose brands are unique to the city.

Even downtown restaurants — among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of job losses — have started to see significant gains in their retail customers after nearly two years of struggling with 6-foot social distancing rules, moving to curbside delivery and limiting numbers of people they can serve.

“Things are looking up in downtown Salt Lake,” said Melva Sine, head of the Utah Restaurant Association, “but still lots of work to do to get to pre-pandemic numbers.”

Eateries have cut hours of operation and gotten creative with their menus, Sine said, but they still face major challenges in hiring workers, supply chain problems and inflation.

“A long road ahead,” she said, “still.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendance at the Eccles Theater, shown in March 2021, has helped revive downtown Salt Lake City.