Brandon Dayton: Zoning codes must change to allow better urban design

(Jeff Chiu | AP file photo) In this April 15, 2016, photo, a woman looks toward the "Painted Ladies," a row of historical Victorian homes, with the San Francisco skyline at rear at Alamo Square Park in San Francisco.

I was eager to read David Ross Scheer’s recent article questioning the aesthetics of the unrelenting boom of podium construction across Salt Lake City. Too often we take for granted that we need more housing, and Scheer’s question rightly asks us to consider how we grow and what the implications will be for the future.

There is much that Scheer gets right when looking at podium construction. He understands the incentives, he understands the difficulty in getting podium construction to work at the street level and he understands the critical importance of not only building places to live, but places worth living in.

That having been said, Scheer’s prescription for addressing the problems of podium construction falls short in vision and courage. Scheer rightly acknowledges that, at present, podium construction is the most cost-effective way to build housing, but he fails to question or challenge the conditions that make that true.

The problem with podium construction goes far deeper than aesthetics. Yes, it is ugly, but podium construction also reduces housing to a simple question of density, artificially inflates adjacent land value and destroys walkability.

We should not start with the assumption that podium construction is inevitable and work from there to make the best of it. We should acknowledge the failings of podium construction and fight for better, viable alternatives. If the incentives don’t deliver what we need, we should change the incentives.

Scheer references Painted Ladies and brownstones as examples of superior urban aesthetics. If we want similar aesthetics, we have to acknowledge the conditions they emerged from. The reason we don’t build similar buildings today is not a matter of whim or strategy, it is because they would be flat-out illegal to build. This is due to many factors, all of which we should be openly and vigorously discussing, but one of the most important is our local zoning code.

Salt Lake City is an emerging 21st century city and yet we have a zoning code made for a mid-80’s suburb. For us to have an aesthetically appealing, walkable city we need to remove outdated zoning codes such as single family zoning, parking minimums and a myriad of other requirements that make traditional building forms illegal and prevent any but the wealthiest firms from doing the work.

If we don’t have the courage to make the change, we will continue to be in a position where we are a city built and owned by a narrow selection of firms, many of whom are not even headquartered within our state. Are we OK with being a line-item in a hedge-fund spreadsheet? Do we really believe that their incentives are going to be aligned with those of us that care about the intangible qualities of our city?

If we want to build a city worth giving a damn about we must return the ownership of the task to the neighborhoods themselves. The best parts of America were not built by specialists and large firms, but by simple people unencumbered to make their neighborhoods better one brick at a time.

Our cities are reflections of our hearts. If our highest value is profit, we will get a city with the curb appeal of a spreadsheet. If we instead value people, we will get a city that reflects the beauty of its inhabitants. Our success will not be pegged on the hopes of voluntary compliance of builders but the empowerment of my fellow neighbors to build a city that matches their generosity, hopes and aspirations.

Brandon Dayton

Brandon Dayton, Salt Lake City, is an artist, former member of the Rose Park Community Council and lead organizer of the SLC Small Development Workshop.