This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Although Kerri Nakamura and her husband Frank spent 35 years living in suburban Holladay, they always loved the city life.
“You’re alive when you’re in a city,” Nakamura said while sipping a coffee at Blue Copper Coffee in Salt Lake City’s Central Ninth neighborhood.
On a sunny afternoon in September the corner of 900 South was bustling as people slowly pedaled by on a new bicycle pathway and light rail trains pulled into the nearby station every few minutes.
Since the Nakamuras moved into their nearby condo two years ago, the area has seen a flurry of construction. New apartment buildings sprouted and the city built the 9-line bicycle pathway. Friends wondered why the couple would leave the quiet of Holladay for the sound of jackhammers.
But this fall the dust settled and in its place is a neighborhood that people from all over the city are flocking to visit. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops are just a half block away from residential streets. In Central 9th, the sidewalk ballet reaches a crescendo.
While Nakamura loved her neighbors and raising kids in Holladay, life has changed in good ways.
“We use our feet a lot more. Part of the method to the madness was health, that if we forced ourselves out of a car there are health benefits that go along with that,” she said.
“I’ve mapped out all of these different little kinds of four-mile round trip routes that we can do from here,” Nakamura said. They walk east to Liberty Park where roller skaters do loops, or west to the International Peace Gardens in Jordan Park or head north to bustling downtown.
There are familiar faces at the coffee shop. The Nakamuras like to sit on their balcony and people watch, waving hello to neighbors. They frequently use the light rail system to get to the airport and to events downtown. They now own just one car instead of two.
As Salt Lake City grows, neighborhoods like Central Ninth — with their proximity to transportation and mix of residential and commercial uses — could be critical to accommodating more residents.
A well-designed neighborhood could mean growth without traffic congestion or worsening air quality. Plus, advocates maintain, walkable neighborhoods help foster healthier lifestyles and community. City officials are thinking about zoning changes to the Ballpark neighborhood. “It has some great opportunities for creating livable neighborhoods,” said Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris. “It’s got a lot of existing good bones, the same kind of transit access.”
Farther north and east in Marmalade, local leaders and businesses are trying to improve the pedestrian infrastructure, get cars to slow down and create more of a “destination” than thoroughfare. And in downtown, Main Street is now closed to cars on weekends.
“I think Central Ninth is a good example of taking what was predominantly just [a street] moving traffic,” Norris said, “and now we’re doing everything with it. Paths, parking, traffic and sidewalk activity.”
A pedestrian-hostile road running through the heart of downtown
Luann Lakis raised two of her children in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. “They grew up going to poetry slams, riding TRAX and having a cup of coffee at Cuppa Joes,” Lakis said. “It really changed their lives.”
Lakis later moved to a single family home in Sugar House, but missed downtown. In 2017, with her children launched, she moved to a two-bedroom condo near the downtown library and 400 South.
Now her granddaughter visits a few times a month and they walk to the library, the food court at City Creek or to the Leonardo. The sprawling grounds of City Hall on the next block serve as her yard. “I don’t want to move,” Lakis said. “I really love it here.”
Although Lakis loves to walk to the library, she rarely walks along the street where its main entrance sits. “I don’t walk along 400 South very often,” Lakis said. “I walk along 300 south. It’s a much more beautiful, pedestrian-friendly street.”
The Utah Department of Transportation owns and maintains 400 South, which runs through the heart of Salt Lake City from downtown to the University of Utah. TRAX’s redline dominates the street and development in the corridor is booming. Many visit the library and City Hall. But despite all of this, many sections don’t feel like a neighborhood — a place to be.
“It’s a tragedy because it’s in between downtown and the university,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. “It could be a very walkable boulevard with a lot of amenities connecting the most important places in the city.”
A successful development centered on public transportation is “a place where you get off the train and then there’s a coffee shop, there is a restaurant, there’s a store, there is something,” Rigolon said.
Many of the businesses on 400 South are car-oriented, Rigolon pointed out. And they are chains. There’s a Jiffy Lube, a Del Taco, a Chuck-A-Rama buffet, a Cafe Rio. To get to the neighborhood grocery stores, pedestrians or cyclists must traverse through sprawling parking lots.
“If you’re hampered by state ownership of this big arterial, it’s going to be really hard to make it into a vibrant, walkable environment,” Rigolon.
Dave Iltis, editor of Cycling West, and who uses a bicycle for his main form of transportation, has advocated for changes on 400 South for a long time.
“It’s a horrible street,” Iltis said, “it’s a horrible street to walk on. It’s even worse to ride your bike on and I’ve done that a couple times and it’s generally terrifying. I avoid it.”
With three lanes going in each direction and a turn lane, 400 South is overbuilt, Iltis said. The Utah Department of Transportation is uninterested in reducing the capacity for vehicles, he said.
“The traffic volumes there don’t justify having that many lanes,” Iltis said. Those lanes induce demand and encourage drivers to go faster because they have the extra space, he said.
A few months ago, the UDOT actually did examine the possibility of adding infrastructure to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, said Geoff Dupaix, the agency’s planning manager for the region. Because 400 South serves downtown, residents between 200 East and 900 East and the university “that’s just not a corridor where we are able to accommodate adding any bike lanes or reducing the number of lanes along 400 South, especially during the commute times because of the amount of vehicles that are using 400 South to get to and from these various areas throughout the city and the freeway,” he said.
Instead the focus is to get bikes and other users on to other routes that the city has already built or planned.
“There’s no retail, there’s no reason for a person to interact with the building,” Iltis. “And so as they walk by, it’s less friendly.” Iltis would like to see two of the six vehicle lanes turned into barrier-protected bike lanes and the sidewalk widened on 400 South.
“I think that people in Salt Lake City and people around the world need to be able to get around town in a way that builds community, and walking and bicycling build community,” he said.
How is the city limited on making roads pedestrian-friendly?
City Transportation Director Jon Larsen points to the 300 West project — where a bicycle pathway was put in — as transformational for the neighborhood. On a street where few would have dared to wander on foot before, throngs of people now walk, bike or scooter along to breweries and retail stores.
But what about the 400 South corridor, where new apartment construction is booming?
“We don’t have much control over what happens in that right of way,” said City Planner Norris.
Most people passing through the corridor are either on the train, which has long distances between stops, or in a car. But, Norris said, some of the newer buildings in the corridor are starting to include ground floor commercial space — like The Local Market & Bar on the southeast corner of 300 East and 400 South.
“One of the challenges with attracting businesses to a street like 400 South is it’s not a very pleasant environment to be in, whether you’re in a car or outside a car,” Norris explained.
The ground floor commercial spaces are having a hard time finding takers, Norris said, “but as the density increases, those are going to be much more viable spaces.
“I don’t know, as long as 400 South is still six lanes of cars it’s always going to be a challenging thing,” Norris said. A protected bike lane or on-street parking would be a “a game changer for the corridor,” he said.
“We’re focused on getting everyone to where they’re going as safely and as easily as possible,” said UDOT spokesperson John Gleason, “and that means looking at that entire area and making sure that we’re accommodating all of the growth that we’re seeing here in the state.”
Dupaix, the UDOT planning manager, said the agency supports public transportation and alternative modes of travel. He pointed to a new TRAX line they’re considering with the Utah Transit Authority that would go from the University of Utah to the airport, as one example.
But for now, it seems that 400 South’s status as a regional corridor means it will keep its six lanes.
Larsen, with the division of transportation, noted that on-street parking on State Street has helped “soften” the highway and helped smaller mom & pop businesses thrive.
By investing in walking, biking and public infrastructure, places like downtown Salt Lake City can welcome new residents, grow and further densify without facing horrible traffic jams, he said.
Central Ninth: From car-centered to a walkable destination
Up until around 2013, Central Ninth was essentially an auto-dealer-auto-repair zone with all the land surrounding it centered on servicing vehicles, said Salt Lake City’s Norris.
A change in city zoning allowed different kinds of businesses to move in, he said.
The city’s Redevelopment Agency bought up land and the city pitched in to create a TRAX station in the neighborhood and worked to enhance bus routes.
When the RDA put properties out for development, it was strategic about the uses — “we want neighborhood-scale local business here, we want residential here, we want an office use here,” said Danny Walz, RDA chief operating officer. The RDA was thinking about “those different uses that have helped create and reinforce what was already starting to be kind of a cool neighborhood.”
“I think the zoning is what really exploded the ability for people to build without parking and rely on that transit stop,” Walz said.
Once the 9-line bicycle path is completed, residents will have an easy way to walk or bike all the way from the bustling 9th and 9th district, west through the Maven district, up to Central 9th and then cross over to the West side and take advantage of the Jordan River parkway.
“Ultimately, the end goal is to make our city as a whole more desirable to get around by other means,” Norris said.
And while Central 9th is a success, they’re looking at other neighborhoods, too.
The city plans to create a tool to measure neighborhood amenities to help figure out which neighborhoods might benefit from zoning changes, Norris said, “or where certain dollars go into investments for more housing or economic development tools to support grocery stores for neighborhoods that are in a food desert, or that lack access to health care.”
Sean Murphy works with the Utah Transit Authority’s real estate and transit oriented communities team. “I’m at UTA because I believe Utah needs other options for how to organize day to day life,” Murphy said, “and the strain on natural resources, household incomes and time that auto-centric development patterns create is enormous.”
Many parts of the state are starting to focus on building out around public transportation, but Salt Lake City has the longest history of doing so, Murphy said.
“And you start to see both consumers and producers recognizing the value and the opportunity of it, and the dramatic reduction in transportation cost.”
UTA looks at the area within a half-mile radius of a station and considers the best use of the land it owns, Murphy explained.
“It’s a whole lot quicker to build the housing units than it is to build rail service in particular,” Murphy said.
During the 2022 General Session, the Utah Legislature passed House Bill 462, which mandated that certain cities create station area plans. “There will be more planning around the stations to ensure that they’re not completely a waste of public resources,” Rigolon, with the University of Utah said.
“If you invest so much money into building trains you need to maximize the land use around it.”
Those investments in downtown Salt Lake City and Central Ninth are paying off. It’s not hard to find someone pedaling on an e-bike touting that they’re living car-free.
For Lakis, living downtown is about more than just convenience and walkability.
“For me, living in Utah, living downtown, really is comforting,” Lakis said. “I feel like my tribe is here. My voice is heard. I’m acknowledged, I’m seen.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.