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Years ago, when Rocky Anderson was Salt Lake City’s mayor, he had a vision for the northwest quadrant.
He had nixed a planned “Grand Salt Lake” megamall for the area shortly after taking office in 2000, decrying it as a magnet for more traffic and pollution. Instead, for this undeveloped land, Anderson saw transit-connected neighborhoods, where there were no roads, where kids could play in front of their houses without fear of being run over, where people valued community and open spaces over cars.
Some might call that dream rosy, even quixotic — especially as the area rapidly evolve into an entirely different reality. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a lot of people were reimagining the ways Americans built their cities. “New urbanism” had taken root only a few years before, a concept that rejects suburban sprawl first spurred by the postwar boom.
With the grand mall thwarted and, later, a “mini-city” development akin to Daybreak dissolved, Anderson said he did not see the ultimate fate of the northwest quadrant coming: an inland port, chock-full of massive warehouses, manufacturing plants, fueling centers, rail infrastructure and more.
“This is a disaster,” Anderson said of the port plan, hastily voted into law by the Utah Legislature in 2018.
In a recent interview, Anderson shared his insights about the northwest quadrant’s past and his concerns for its future. (The conversation has been edited for length, organization and clarity.)
You’ve long urged thoughtful development in the city’s northwest quadrant. What was that like, and why was it important to you?
We fought tenaciously. One of the first battles we had was what I called the “sprawl mall,” this gigantic retail mall on property out past the [international] airport. It was a brutal fight. I was able to get one of the council members [to recuse himself from] the process because of a conflict of interest. Finally, because of my threat of a veto, the City Council bagged it.
We just wanted to make sure we weren’t generating more traffic. Everything we did, we always had in mind reducing instead of increasing automobile traffic.
That won’t be the case for what’s planned in the area now. The inland port will become a traffic hub by its very definition, right?
The inland port is a creation by people who oftentimes simply bow down to developers. Who have a lot of short-term money to bank off projects like this without any consideration for the long-term, negative effects. Or the impacts to the public interest for generations.
This is such a horrible idea on so many levels. For a democracy to work, people need to know what their government is doing. And right now, I don’t think most people have any idea about who is bound to benefit from the inland port or what it’s going to do to Salt Lake City. How many people in the Avenues know their view of the Salt Lake Valley is going to look like a big industrial park or worse? Let alone the people in those [west-side] neighborhoods. It’s only after it’s done that people say, too often, “How did all this happen?”
It’s about 22% of the city’s landmass that will be consumed.
How did Salt Lake City end up with such a large, undeveloped chunk of land west of the airport? Why was the northwest quadrant never developed?
Part of it is we didn’t have the population pressures. As our city developed, you had the core city, you had the suburbs, and you didn’t have the growth out there.
Now we know about all the negative impacts from sprawl development.
What would you have liked to see that area become?
I remember always thinking it’d be so great to not have streets in front of every home. To have people able to enjoy quiet neighborhoods and gardens and lawns to run on without having to get hit by cars.
I would have liked to seen communities that were well-thought and built so people wouldn’t have to spend great chunks of their time commuting, being in worse physical shape as a result, and more depressed as a result. Where there were safe places to come together and mingle.
Was development of the quadrant inevitable, in your view?
Yes. I thought if we could hold off long enough and we could raise awareness of principles of more sustainable development, then we wouldn’t just see more poorly built homes and tacky housing developments keep sprawling out and people spending more and more time in their cars.
We don’t need anymore shopping malls. We don’t need anymore parking lots. We have all these opportunities for open spaces in our communities, and we fill them up with structures and defeat the whole purpose.
When the Legislature decided to move the new state prison out there in 2015, did it have any impact on whether that kind of new urban development would be possible?
Yeah, in large part. That was outrageous and, again, very shortsighted. With our population growth, people are going to look back and say, “Why in the hell did we put a prison in the middle of an area that could have been a well-built, sustainable, connected community?”
What are your thoughts on the Legislature taking over development of the port in 2018, and, most recently, removing the city’s representation from the Utah Inland Port Authority board?
First of all, the idea of taking such a huge part of the land within Salt Lake City’s boundaries and having the Legislature determine that property taxes will be diverted to an unelected commission of people ... it’s a weird dictatorship that’s controlled by the corporate sector.
Lawmakers do not hesitate to abuse their power, even when it flies in the face of what the majority have said they want. We saw it with medical cannabis, with expanded Medicaid and now with the total disregard for the independent commission voters said they wanted to determine political boundaries. There appears to be no depth they will not go to enrich certain people at the expense of both the present and future public interest.
Had anyone floated the idea of an inland port during your tenure as mayor, from 2000 to 2008?
What do you think the ripple effects of the inland port will be?
One of the ripple effects will be negative impacts on economic development in this area. Who wants to move to a place where the capital city is, in large part, filled with a bunch of warehouses and roads filled with commuting trucks and more noisy rail lines?
And, of course, the air quality problems. If I didn’t live here, I’d never move to Salt Lake City right now, given our air quality problems.
Do you agree that, given Americans’ current online shopping trends, an inland port was inevitable somewhere in Utah?
I don’t think anything’s inevitable. Do I think people would have thought it would be a great economic driver? Yes. But not the way it’s being planned here. How anti-democratic is it to say you’re going to take a huge area, have it centrally planned basically by the Legislature and the people they choose, and the taxes are going to flow to an unelected body?
How is that not a — I know this is going to sound like an overstatement — but how is that not a sort of totalitarianism?
The bill restructuring the port board does have support from city officials like the mayor and City Council, due in part because it requires investment in environmental and impact studies. Can you think of any specific projects that might offset the port’s impacts to city residents?
That’s the kind of thing we hear all the time. We’ll put the money into studies, into determining what the impacts will be. There are no teeth to it. If it’s going to make our air quality worse, we’ll just forget about it. It’s window dressing, and it’s green washing.