My first job was in retail — I won’t say where, but I acquired a vast knowledge of sneakers — and we always razzed the poor people who worked in the new South Towne Mall, inexplicably built in the middle of nowhere, practically all the way out to the state prison.
We called it Ghost Towne Mall, because nobody in their right mind would drive all the way out there to shop.
Since then, Utah’s population has nearly doubled. Most of the land between downtown and South Towne has been gobbled up, and the prison is being moved to facilitate more growth.
What used to be horse pastures in Herriman and Riverton have been sold and subdivided, built into communities of starter mansions filled with people who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle and close quarters of city life.
It’s understandable, perhaps, that the folks who settled in for an idyllic exurban lifestyle are feeling anxious and even threatened as the urban sprawl that comes with a population boom is arriving in their own neighborhoods.
Last week, thousands of residents and the mayors of Herriman, Riverton, West Jordan and Copperton voiced their opposition to a major new development plan that would allow the construction of about 8,765 units on 938 acres in an unincorporated area of the Salt Lake Valley. That’s a whole lot of apartments, condos, townhomes and some small single-family home in a tight space.
“The sheer number of units in the development is nothing short of overwhelming,” the city mayors wrote.
Then, late last week, amid the objections, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams put a final decision on hold, saying he may veto the county council’s approval of the Olympia Hills project, but would rather see if he can negotiate a compromise.
The cities’ objections are not unfounded. The estimated 25,000 to 33,000 people who could eventually move into the area would require a substantial expansion of the road system and construction of new schools.
The closest comparison to anything of this scope is the Daybreak development in South Jordan that is projected to have 20,000 units on 4,126 acres — obviously many more units but about half the density.
So McAdams was right to hit the brakes and see if there’s a way to find some middle ground here — just as I suggested the local leaders needed to be heard when it comes to planning for a massive inland shipping port on Salt Lake City’s northwest end.
We’re also facing a crushing housing affordability crisis, with costs rising faster than just about anywhere else in the country and the average home price in the metro area expected to shoot up to $1.3 million over the next 26 years.
All of this leads to some pretty fundamental questions: Where is that next generation going to live? How are they going to afford to live? How will we get around on roads choked with congestion? And how do we keep our air from becoming even more polluted?
The folks at Envision Utah recently looked at those very questions, and the blueprint for growth they produced looks a lot like the Olympia Hills model.
“We do promote a mix of housing that includes condos, apartments, townhomes and smaller-lot single families,” said Ryan Beck, vice president of planning for Envision Utah. “We know we have a huge housing shortage and we have land constraints along the Wasatch Front … so if we don’t want to go all the way around the mountain and into Tooele and Cedar Valley, we’re going to have to build a little more compact.”
Beck stressed that he is not speaking specifically about the contentious Olympia project. But Envision’s extensive Your Utah, Your Future project suggests clustered growth in a network of communities that allow people to shop, work, dine and go to school without having to drive from one end of the valley to the other, promoting more walking, biking and transit, reducing road congestion and air pollution, in the process.
Hopefully, the Olympia Hills developer is willing to make some concessions, to ease the concerns of residents and elected officials and to account for some of the expense that comes with this kind of growth.
And then, hopefully, the mayor hits pause again and the project moves forward, because this is the type of growth we need in this valley if we’re going to have any sort of quality of life for the next generation.