George Pyle: Utah can afford to keep its standards high

(Photo courtesy of Doug Young / Olympia Hills) Map showing land usage in the new version of Olympia Hills, a 931-acre, high-density development proposed west of Herriman in southwest Salt Lake County. Densities in new plans for the development are now at seven housing units per acre, down from estimates ranging from nine to 37 per acre in earlier versions.

Let’s play Jeopardy!

Answer: Yes. But only if the sale of, and special assessments on, the old state prison site pay every nickle of the cost. Including ongoing operations and maintenance.

Question: Should the Utah Transit Authority spend $1.2 billion or more (it’s always more) running its TRAX light rail system into the Point of the Mountain territory that is expected to boom with development when the prison moves to its new location out by Salt Lake International Airport?

The Point of the Mountain project in Draper is unique among all the development hot spots in the county because we own the dirt.

Unlike the old Cottonwood Mall site, the gianormous Olympia Hills project in the southwest part of the county and, most ominous of all, the inland port project also in the airport neighborhood, we are dealing at the county’s south end with land that is owned by the state and can, should and must be developed in a way that benefits the whole of the state, not just a few developers and builders.

If the redevelopment of the old prison does not pay for itself many times over — covering all the costs of transportation, public safety, schools, in a way that minimizes air pollution and water use — then we would be much better off doing with the old prison site what we did with the older prison site.

We turned it into Sugar House Park.

The folks at Envision Utah have been helping the state’s Point of the Mountain Commission sketch out how the area should be developed. Envision’s boss, Robert Grow, said that if the plans don’t include a robust public transit component, the 150,000 jobs that are projected for the area “could go somewhere else.”

He says that like it’s a bad thing.

Of course, that’s in Envision Utah’s DNA, as well in the bones of such worthies as the Kem Gardner Institute at the University of Utah, city and county governments and associations and collectives of same. It’s the notion that the Wasatch Front will continue to grow no matter what we do, but we do have a chance to do it right or, at least, not so awfully.

If you turn your head just right and squint, that can be the justification for the Utah Inland Port Authority. It’s the idea that the now empty land between the airport and the Great Salt Lake is only going to develop, because the private landowners involved can’t be expected to pass up a substantial payday just to protect an environmentally sensitive wetland. And, because of its proximity to the airport, rail lines, two Interstate highways and a booming city, it will naturally evolve into a giant logistics hub.

Whether anybody else wants it to or not.

The Inland Port Authority was conceived in an act of economic violence against the duly constituted government of Salt Lake City and its people. Its only reason for existence is the fear among members of the developer-dominated Legislature that the city would put environmental and social concerns ahead of economic ones.

But the port’s only real justification for existence is an ugly man’s marriage proposal.

Hey, you could do worse.

The business plan finally released by the Port Authority the other day uses all the right words. Sustainable. Renewable. Rechargeable. Efficient.

There are also words the project’s managers and consultants were not brazen enough to include. Trust. Faith. Because, with the port plan, there is none. And won’t be, unless the city, the media and activists of various stripes keep a never-ending watch over the authority’s plans, its execution of those plans and its excuses for why the latter doesn’t match the former.

All this you-can’t-stop-progress-but-you-can-guide-it thinking is grounded in reality. What it needs is more idealism.

That has the most chance of happening at Point of the Mountain, because the state owns the property and can set high standards for its future development. Anything short of a stellar showpiece of sustainable, walkable, downright beautiful development — development that pays for itself and places no financial or environmental burden on its neighbors or the taxpayers as a whole — will be a disgraceful failure.

The other nodes — Olympic Hills, Cottonwood Mall — will be more difficult to manage because private entities own the land and will have to be cajoled, pushed, tax-breaked and impact-feed into growing in a way that all of Utah can be proud of.

Utah is a desirable place to live and work. To keep it that way, see it that way. Don’t believe for a second we have to lower out standards.

The one thing we must not do is listen to those who fear that modern standards and decent expectations will kill, or even slow, development. Chances are, it won’t. And any project that we lose because we kept to our standards will not really be a loss.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, wasn’t even good at developing photographs.


Twitter, @debatestate