Who gets to live in downtown Salt Lake City?

“Downtown Salt Lake City: The Next Chapter” is part of a series of conversations co-sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Air pollution obscures downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023. Poor air quality continues to plague the capital city even as its leaders talk positively about the future.

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.

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This past fall, Salt Lakers basked in the warm glow of the national media spotlight. Downtown Salt Lake City had the best post-pandemic recovery in the nation, outlets reported.

It turns out, that wasn’t quite true. Revised data from the University of Toronto kicked Salt Lake’s ranking down to 23rd place and Las Vegas claimed the strongest downtown recovery.

While Salt Lake City’s downtown might not be top of the list, there still is a lot that the mountain metropolis has going for it.

For one, Salt Lake City led the state in retail and restaurant sales, explained Dejan Eskic, senior research fellow and scholar at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. Eskic was joined by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall; Dee Brewer, Downtown Alliance executive director; and Tony Semerad, Salt Lake Tribune Innovation Lab reporter on Thursday for a quarterly community conversation co-sponsored by The Tribune and Gardner Institute.

The downtown population is also set to reach 10,000 by 2025, Eskic explained at the “Storytelling through Data” event.

But with that growth, there have also been problems.

In the last year the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Utah increased by 27%, Eskic said. There has also been a persistent decline in school-age children and families. And air quality remains a pernicious problem — Wednesday morning, the audience at the Thomas S. Monson Center downtown looked out from windows on a thick and hazy gray sky, while the Utah Department of Air Quality reported that the county’s air quality was “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

With more residential growth, Downtown Alliance’s Dee Brewer noted that changes needed to be made to the character of downtown. “Downtown has been a vertical office park,” Brewer said. “We need to make a neighborhood out of downtown.”

And now, the 2034 Winter Olympics are likely coming to Utah. The Olympics will bring a bright national spotlight, investment and wealth. But it may also be another harbinger of displacement if the city doesn’t act quickly. As the Washington Post reported, “in the last 50 years, more than 2 million people have lost their homes due to the gentrification and remodeling of cities for sport’s largest mega event.”

Will downtown Salt Lake be a playground for the ultra-wealthy? Or will it find a way to maintain the diversity, affordability and arts that make it a great place to call home?

What makes people choose downtown?

“A lot of the young people moving to Salt Lake City have expectations of walkability and transit access,” said Tribune reporter Tony Semerad.

Downtown offers both, but there are some key amenities missing to make a car-free lifestyle truly viable for downtowners.

“If you have to have a car to drive your kid across town to go to school or the park that negates some of the benefits,” Brewer said. He noted there’s only one playground slippery slide downtown. A high quality downtown school would help make life better, and more appealing to families.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's Green Loop pilot project on Saturday, June 3, 2023. Mayor Erin Mendenhall named the project as a promising step toward a strong future for the capital city.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall pointed to the Green Loop project — a proposed 5 ½ miles and 60-acre vertical park encircling downtown as one way the city hopes to bring more green space to the neighborhood.

Who gets to stay downtown?

With 2,500 new rental units coming online in the next year, there is going to be a brief oversupply of apartment housing, Eskic said.

But that’s not likely to last long, especially with high interest rates likely slowing the construction boom. Will the working class and middle-income people who have called downtown home through all its ups and downs be able to stay and enjoy new parks or enhanced public transit?

Brewer noted there are currently four office-to-apartment conversions underway.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) New multi-unit high rise apartments on the downtown city skyline near Edison and Broadway, Tuesday, July 12, 2022.

Mendenhall said the city has worked to add housing to Salt Lake City by speeding up permitting processes, passing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance and expanding tiny home allowances. “We’re willing to be creative about what density looks like,” she said.

The city has an anti-gentrification plan in place but whether or not those measures will be enough to stem the tide of displacement remains an open question.

The combination of light rail, smaller homes and streets thronged with people hearken back to an older version of Salt Lake City — one where the street car dominated and duplexes, small apartment buildings and single family homes crowded the same streets.

Clarification, Dec. 1, 12:00 p.m. This story has been updated to make clear that the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness has increased by 27% statewide.