Commentary: Salt Lake City is destroying its own livable neighborhoods

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Docent Virginia Hylton describes the history and homeownership of the second home in Yalecrest built in 1912, at left. Historic preservationists are hosted a walking tour of a few blocks in Yalecrest, Saturday, October 24, 2015 to educate neighbors and homeowners who live in historic districts about the uniqueness of where they live. In past 20 years, at least 32 historic homes have been demolished here to make way for megahomes and the tour is meant to highlight the value of historic neighborhoods.

Salt Lake City is the envy of other mid-size cities for having single-family housing close to the City Center. We are fortunate to have houses with unique architecture and historic value that have withstood the test of time, remain stalwart through various economies and tell the story of our city.

Ironically, demolition, not preservation of this rich heritage is the growing trend.

In 2018, the city approved 60 residential demolition permits, 37 of which were in three zip codes – 84102, 84105 and 84108 (citizenportal.slcgov.com) – where much of Salt Lake’s historic and cherished past is concentrated. For more than a century, these areas of Salt Lake have been the prime connection to those who came before us. But it is slipping away at an ever-quickening pace.

These historic neighborhoods, defined by single-family homes, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and have undergone a vigorous process of verification on the basis of history, architecture and notable owners – many who shaped our local and intermountain history. They offer a diversity of housing sizes, styles and prices for a diverse and vibrant urban population.

Yet these neighborhoods have the sad distinction of having three to 10 times greater number of demolitions and teardowns in 2018 than all other city neighborhoods. Since 2003, 45 homes in Yalecrest and 37 homes in the Bryant and Bennion-Douglas historic neighborhoods have been replaced with new structures. The new structures are two to three times larger than the previous houses and are typically valued over $1 million. This shift in value makes new houses unavailable to even more of the city residents.

A 2018 Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study commissioned by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce says, “since 1991, housing prices in Salt Lake have increased at a faster rate than housing in San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.” Unless this emerging crisis is addressed, “average Utahns will be priced out of the housing market in 26 years.”

This trend of tearing down habitable historic houses is in direct conflict with city initiatives and master plans. It negatively impacts housing affordability, the volume of building waste added to landfills and sustainability. Additionally, this activity contradicts the cultural respect and celebration of our historical past.

Salt Lake City has not invested in a family-friendly environment in our city, especially in neighborhoods close to the city core. Threatening to close schools, such as Bennion Elementary, introducing multi-family structures mid-block amongst single-family housing and demolitions of existing housing stock with much larger sized and valued replacements disrupts neighborhood character, cohesion and real estate values. These activities degrade our historic neighborhoods.

Astoundingly, 91% of all the units approved for construction in Salt Lake City since 2014 were apartments, which a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study(2018) claims is “the highest level of new residential construction in the City’s history.” There are now more apartments in Salt Lake (53%) than single-family homes, despite statistics that show the city’s primary population growth from 1990-2010 was “large, younger families.” How does the glut of apartments satisfy the family housing demand?

Single-family housing neighborhoods help us achieve a desired “sense of place” with walkable schools, places of worship, urban parks, vibrant urban cores with a diversity of housing styles and affordability. They offer a quality of life that attracts new businesses.

We must reclaim a more family-focused, human-scaled approach to our city by holding city and state officials accountable for achieving that goal with improved regulatory and incentive-based programs to stabilize and reverse the current trends of redevelopment in highly livable historic neighborhoods.

Lynn K Pershing

Lynn Kennard Pershing, Ph.D, is a retired pharmacologist/toxicologist from the University of Utah, director of education for KEEP Yalecrest, former chair of the Yalecrest Neighborhood Council and a frequent dog walker around city neighborhoods.