Commentary: Holladay Quarter project presents a model of smart growth

(Rendering by Woodbury Corp.) An aerial rendering of Holladay Quarter, a proposed development on the former site of the Cottonwood Mall in Holladay.

The Utah Supreme Court is about to issue a ruling that can be a victory for the people of Utah.

Either the court will affirm the Holladay City Council’s enthusiastic approval of the planned redevelopment of the old Cottonwood Mall site, or it will authorize a voter referendum on the plan.

Either way, the Holladay Quarter project presents a model of smart growth, not just for Holladay but for the entire state.

While plans for the new ways to use that ground received unanimous approval from the City Council, some Holladay residents have voiced concerns. That is understandable. Many of us hold a nostalgic fondness for “the way things used to be.” But that human tendency can diminish our perception of the constant change that is the real world and blind us to the reality of our accelerating growth.

Utah’s population grew by an estimated 57,000 residents last year. Our state now has more households than available housing units. Those additional households were created mostly by our own children, not by transplants from somewhere else.

The Cottonwood Mall that once occupied those 57 vacant acres opened more than a half century ago. In just another 50 years, Utah will need homes for 2.5 million additional residents.

So, we aren’t facing a question of growth versus no growth. Rather, the question is whether we will champion smart growth or tolerate dumb growth as we create new housing and living patterns for the coming generations of Utahns.

Holladay Quarter will be a demonstration of how the thoughtful mixed use of land in walkable neighborhoods, clustered with shopping, restaurants, office space and parks can be a superior use of resources to create a higher quality of life.

Plus, the development’s range of housing types — from single-family homes with a variety of yard sizes to townhomes and apartments — will increase how many people can afford suitable housing in a desirable neighborhood over the changing phases of their lives.

That’s still a new concept for many of us on the Wasatch Front who grew up in the suburban sprawl made possible by the invention of the automobile. Because we are so accustomed to that temporary pattern of land use, we may think it is the only way — or at least the ideal way — to live. That perspective can make it hard to see the disadvantages of that way to use land in an urban environment and to recognize how unsustainable it is.

Nevertheless, more and more of today’s homebuyers no longer even want big yards, long driveways and mandatory car trips to the places they need to go each day. The diminishing size of the average building lot in Utah is not simply the result of the sharply rising price of land. Many homebuyers simply do not want to spend an inordinate percentage of their time and money caring for an oversized yard. They choose other ways to pursue an active lifestyle in communities that provide other ways to enjoy open space.

Single-family lots in Holladay’s new development will average one-quarter of an acre. That is fully a third larger than today’s average building lot in Salt Lake County. Such a choice remains attractive to some homeowners who still want an expansive garden or lawn. Others will have the choice to live in aesthetically pleasing homes where they are not directly responsible for maintaining the shared open space that surrounds them.

New individual home prices in Holladay Quarter, projected to range from $450,000 to more than $1 million, reflect the project’s compatibility with the existing upscale neighborhood.

The project will be a win for Holladay with the return of a retail tax base to what is now an empty weed patch. In the process, Holladay Quarter’s mixed-use design will generate less of a traffic impact than the old mall ever did.

Yes, redeveloping what has been an eyesore for the past 10 years will bring change. But it is change that addresses Utah’s growth in many smart ways — with walkable neighborhoods, a range of attractive housing opportunities and choices that enhance an attractive community with a strong sense of place.

I urge all Utah communities to embrace the future with similar thoughtful, careful plans.

Scott Howell Courtesy photo

Scott N. Howell, Salt Lake City, is a former Utah Senate minority leader.