Levi Thatcher: Salt Lake City needs to grow to get its swagger back

City must work to attract new residents to gain economic and political power and offer more housing.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's skyline will change in 2021 with several new skyscrapers and midsize towers going up across Utah's capital city.

Are you tired of feeling powerless, Salt Lake City? Tired of being pushed around by the Legislature in the redistricting process? Or of seeing the tech industry move south? Or of visitors skipping you for Park City?

Rather than whining about the Legislature, let’s get to work. Beat the Legislature at its own game of power and money. Salt Lake City is the regional center for both. Tired of state representatives from Orem and Hurricane ruining your day? Grow Salt Lake City into an economic juggernaut with abundant housing and their voters will be moving to SLC. Salt Lake City is the most important source of wealth creation within 500 miles and it’s time to start acting like it.

Unfortunately, it’s been unclear whether Salt Lake City wants more residents. From 2010 to 2020, SLC’s population grew by a paltry 7% while Utah overall grew by 18% and previously grew by 20-30% per decade. SLC’s population is barely higher than it was in 1960, which is absurd. SLC school district enrollment has been in terminal decline. It’s time to stem the tide or be cast aside as a city-museum.

Perhaps you’ve been watching the NIMBY trend around the country, which has made it agonizingly difficult to build anything new. Even many local suburbs are closed off to new residents — in effect they’ve become gated cities.

Salt Lake City must have a different message: We are open for business, and we want you to live, work and play here. If we can build enough housing to stabilize rents compared to Denver and Austin, SLC will be the kind of talent magnet that brings power. Increasing job opportunities will create a virtuous feedback loop. Abundant housing and safe streets will bring in much-needed families with kids.

Do you want lots of tax revenue to improve the city? You get it by growing, both in terms of residents and businesses. Silicone Slopes formed down south partly because it is difficult to build in Salt Lake City. Restrictive height limits make it difficult for new developments to pencil out and exceptions are frequently needed from the Salt Lake City Planning Commission. That process is annoying, but worse, decisions by these commissioners often result in inadequate new housing.

The paradox of the whole gentrification and affordability debate is that, to stave off unaffordability, neighborhoods need to change faster, not more slowly. We have this mindset backwards in Salt Lake City, where we’ve frozen neighborhoods while the rich bid up the price of scarce housing. We need to provide abundance instead. San Francisco tried the tactic of not building new units and it resulted in them being a poster child of astronomical prices and dysfunction. See here, here, and here on the fact that, indeed, building more helps affordability.

So how do we do this? Upzoning citywide would streamline much more housing for current and future residents, as well as attract new employers. Uniform upzoning would avoid pitting neighborhoods against the developers providing local housing, which is often the case currently. Here are the are some simple steps this new Salt Lake City Council can take:

• Make triplexes legal everywhere, remove setback requirements and floor area ratios.

• Make ADUs legal by right.

• Remove parking minimums.

• Remove height restrictions in the central business district.

• Provide a resident dividend from developer impact fees.

This is how you grow the tax base and add amenities, fund more police, safer streets, better parks, better transit. This is how you add more progressive voters in Utah to gain a 5th congressional seat and break up the gerrymandering options for the Legislature. Now is the time, after City Council races, when the council is set for the next two years.

Yes, some folks will be displaced, but for a much brighter future of world-class job opportunities, short commutes and car independence. The best thing you can do for poor residents is to grow while offering abundant housing options. Row houses, duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, townhomes, courtyard apartments, and, yes, more skyscrapers in the core. Now is the time for Salt Lake to take back its powerful place in Utah.

Levi Thatcher

Levi Thatcher, Salt Lake City, did his graduate work in atmospheric science at the University of Utah, works as a director of data science, serves on the Sugar House Community Council and is on the board of Sweet Streets SLC.