Living in Daybreak: What residents say the Utah community is really like

While the master-planned community draws ire online, residents keep finding reasons to stay.

South Jordan • Thirty years ago, the Kennecott mining company had a problem.

Its century of removing tons of copper, gold, silver and other elements from the vast Bingham Canyon Mine, then dumping its waste in nearby creeks and the Oquirrh Mountains, contaminated the surrounding area. The Environmental Protection Agency told Kennecott it was considering designating the land east of its mine as a superfund site.

But Kennecott had another idea: Accelerate the cleanup and redevelop the land. The proposal, at the time, was “groundbreaking,” according to the EPA.

Now, the site — 4,200 acres, with room for 20,000 homes — hosts Utah’s largest master-planned community: Daybreak. The state had never seen anything like it before, and, because of its scale, may not ever again, said Tamara Zander, a South Jordan City Council member.

Zander was among the master-planned community’s first residents, and she remembers oglers driving slowly through the neighborhood to rubberneck as she sat on her porch.

“It almost felt like I was in a zoo,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The master-planned community Daybreak was born out of a plan to remediate an area contaminated by mining waste.

The fascination, said Zander, who is also a realtor, is born out of unfamiliarity. Many Utahns are accustomed to big homes built on even bigger lots, with room to store recreational and all-terrain vehicles, and Daybreak defies those expectations.

Even now, 20 years later and the development halfway complete, some are still apparently troubled by the community — its past and present.

Online, people poke fun at its “cookie-cutter” image, how close the homes are and how so many of them, with their tidy lawns and ever-fresh coats of paint, can look too similar and too perfect.

A Reddit user recently posted a photo overlooking the development’s Oquirrh Lake on a clear, sunny day. Tan grasses waving in the breeze framed its steel blue water, with homes stacked around its shore and mountain peaks rising up beyond them. They titled the post: “Daybreak is so pretty.”

Dissidents took issue.

“I’m convinced that Daybreak is a simulation,” one said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oquirrh Lake in Daybreak, where residents can kayak or paddle board, on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

“Built on top of a mine waste dump, add some cookie cutter houses and some Pinterest decorations and all the sudden a superfund site becomes beautiful Luxury housing,” wrote another.

“Daybreak,” said another, “gives me the heebie jeebies.”

But what’s so bad about a neighborhood free of cul-de-sacs that block direct travel routes between neighborhoods, packed with homes splashed in colors from farmhouse red to robin’s-egg blue, lavender, brown, teal and more? Where there’s big lawns you can use but don’t have to mow; dedicated bike paths; access to public transit, grocery stores, restaurants, a library and a clinic; and sidewalks built big enough to accommodate people walking side-by-side, pushing strollers or walking dogs?

“Legit don’t bother engaging. The rest of the valley will find any excuse to s--- on daybreak,” one Redditor said. “Just enjoy living where we live and let the others pound sand.”

The ‘Daybreak shuffle’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist rounds a curve on the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in Daybreak, a master-planned community built with dense housing and walkability in mind.

Master-planned communities typically sit on a tract of land, built-up by a single developer that incorporates both residential and commercial properties, according to Arnab Chakroborty, dean of the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning.

Often, residents live in varying densities, from multi-family houses to single-family homes and condos, he said. The higher-density homes are typically built closer to transit, with the larger homes and lots further away.

These communities are often built around a foundational set of principles, such as adherence to new urbanism, or are built for an express purpose, like providing homes to workers of a certain industry.

The founding principles of Daybreak, now owned by Larry H. Miller Real Estate, haven’t changed much in the decades since construction started, said Stephen James, Larry H. Miller Real Estate’s Chief Visioning Officer.

“When Daybreak began, there was growth pressure in the rural parts of Salt Lake County,” he said. “Like today, growing families were looking for more space in housing they could afford.”

Surveys from the time by Envision Utah, a nonprofit that asks Utahns what they want from their growing communities, indicated people wanted safe, walkable neighborhoods, where residents knew each other and families could live close to their schools, jobs and recreational spaces, James said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daybreak's business district near Oquirrh Lake on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

He said its design tries to accommodate people “in every demographic category” into neighborhoods that aren’t segregated by a house’s square footage or cost.

The idea is “you can move through an apartment, and then save up for down payment and buy a townhome, and then move up into a single family home” — all in the same community, said Ari Bruening, Envision Utah CEO.

This sort of move is so common, Zander refers to it as the “Daybreak shuffle.”

Chakroborty said its varying home price points make for more diverse communities, and the smaller lot sizes are great for building up density to accommodate more people.

But there are other ways to grow, he added, and while master-planned communities can be part of the solution, they aren’t the dominant one.

“It’s a model,” Chakroborty said, “It’s not the only form of development. … It doesn’t mean everyone needs to buy into this idea.”

‘I drink the Kool-Aid’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jane stands next to her dad, David Reece, holding Madeline, with daughter Alice, in front of their home in Daybreak, on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

David Reece and his family have certainly bought into the idea. On an overcast and chilly Thursday afternoon in March, Reece gave The Salt Lake Tribune a tour.

Reece and his wife moved into their Daybreak home in 2017, after he graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He was from Colorado, but his wife, Rachel, is from Utah, and they wanted to move back.

He said Daybreak’s walkability and access to public transit first attracted him and Rachel to Daybreak. They liked that the houses were built with garages in the back, not the front, meaning their front porch was the focal point.

And they both liked the idea of managed green spaces nearby, where their kids could play.

This Thursday, Reece’s three girls were playing in the oblong grass oval in front of their house, about a half-mile from Oquirrh Lake’s north shore. About half of his neighbors have kids his girls’ ages.

“During COVID, when everything was locked down, we would just ship the girls outside in that summer, and they would play with their friends. We told them, ‘No kissing, no hugging, no shaking hands, but yeah, go outside and play with your friends,’” he said. “That was amazing.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) David Reece points out his two garden plots near his home in Daybreak.

The family’s church is a short walk away, and so is their community garden plot, plus three parks. Two years ago, a Harmon’s grocery store opened near the lake, and now they can walk to that, too. The kid’s school is about a mile away.

Most mornings, Reece rides his bike to the TRAX train that takes him to and from his job in Murray.

Along the tour, Reece navigated between these residential landmarks with an easy familiarity, cutting across streets and through the interconnected sidewalk system. He pointed out houses with similar floor plans, but also the variety of housing types — triplexes, single family homes and townhomes.

He’s never lived in suburbia before, he said, so he’s not sure how Daybreak compares, but he has seen some of the Daybreak hate from people online, especially those upset about the Salt Lake Bees’ plans to move south.

But he takes it all in stride.

“Train station, my church, my grocery store, our school — everything’s just really close compared to what it was in Atlanta,” he said.

As the development grows, more and more shops and restaurants have cropped up, giving the family fewer and fewer reasons to leave, he said. He pointed to a new barbershop he plans to try out. He already loves Mozz Pizza, which opened in January near the Harmon’s. And there’s Sukihana, a Japanese restaurant, right next to a Beard Papa’s cream puff shop.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Harmon's grocery store and other commercial property near Oquirrh Lake in Daybreak on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

“The fact that we’re getting some restaurants right here, it’s really nice,” he said, “because we like going out to eat when we have the chance.”

All it’s lacking now, he said, is a shuttle that could take his family to Bees games or other parts of the community.

About an hour after it began, Reece ended the tour back at the green space in front of his house. His wife was inside, finishing up teaching music lessons, and it was time to take his daughter to her dance class, about three blocks away in a neighbor’s basement studio.

Even Zander, who is now one of the community’s longest-tenured residents, said she was initially skeptical of Daybreak. She told her husband she’d try it out for a few years, and then they’d reconsider.

She loved knowing the neighbors, and taking her kids to the pool when they were growing up. Now an empty nester, she sees another side of Daybreak — walking its trails, playing pickleball and kayaking with her husband on the lake. Soon enough, she’ll make another transition and use the community’s amenities with her grandchildren. All in the same place.

“You can tell I drink the Kool-Aid...,” she said. “I just didn’t think Daybreak would be my vibe, and now I’ll never leave.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tamara Zander, a co-owner of Zander Real Estate Team and a South Jordan City Council Member, at her real estate office in Daybreak on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Environmental hazard?

For Daybreak to become Daybreak, crews had to rid the site of the decades of contaminants that had built up in the area’s soil and surface water because of the nearby mining operation.

That required getting rid of 16.3 million cubic yards of mining wastes, laying liner to contain contaminated water, and bringing in new soil to backfill over remediated areas, according to the EPA.

The EPA has since signed off on the site’s remediation. James, with Larry H. Miller Real Estate, said crews cleaning up the site “met, and in some cases, exceeded” EPA and Utah Department of Environmental Quality standards for soil conditions.

Oquirrh Lake, one of the development’s keystone amenities, is a product of that work, said Bruening, with Envision Utah. When crews got rid of the contaminated soil, it left a big indent.

“So they said, ‘Hey, let’s turn it into a lake,” Bruening said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Runners in Daybreak on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

Now, residents fill its beaches in warm weather and float its waters on paddle boards, or the occasional giant pumpkin or dragon boat.

But this checkered environmental past — how it was built atop a “waste dump,” as one Redditor put it — seems to color some people’s perceptions of the community.

Even with assurances, residents can be a bit wary. Before Bruening built his house there, he took a soil sample for testing. Just in case — and it turned out to be OK.

“I guess at the end of the day,” he said, “there’s probably nothing anyone needs to be worried about.”

Blending into South Jordan

While a walkable community is great, it can be isolating if the communities around it aren’t walkable, too. That’s one problem Daybreak residents have, said Mike Christensen, executive director of the Utah Rail Passengers Association, who has a master’s degree in city and metropolitan planning.

As part of his degree, Christensen was tasked with touring Daybreak and rating its adherence to the principles of new urbanism, a planning and development approach that prioritizes “human-scaled urban design,” according to the Congress for the New Urbanism.

While he said Daybreak does a lot well, in terms of building for people instead of cars, it isn’t as easy as it should be to get from Daybreak to somewhere else — and the community doesn’t currently provide everything a resident would need to never leave.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A person walks a dog along Oquirrh Lake in Daybreak on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

For instance, to watch a movie at the newly built-up The District shopping center, a pedestrian would need to cross Bangerter Highway, a six-lane behemoth southeast of Daybreak. That’s why he gave the community a C- grade at the time. Since then, he said he’s seen improvement, and would probably give it a better grade now, but the issue remains.

Chakroborty said this isolation is often “a big sort of shortcoming or critique of the master-planned community idea.

“They tend to exist largely disconnected from the world around them,” he said.

When asked about how to better integrate Daybreak with South Jordan, James punted. “Such plans would need to be guided by the City of South Jordan,” he said.

There is, however, more development planned within Daybreak itself.

The undeveloped area near the current TRAX stop should actualize the vision formed 20 years ago when Downtown Daybreak is built up, anchored by the new stadium to host the Salt Lake Bees.

There will be a movie theater, so no more dodging traffic to cross the highway. More dense housing right along the TRAX line. More restaurants and office spaces, expanded bike paths and additional light rail stops.

“Daybreak is the first, primary-home community in nearly 100 years in our state to break the mold of sprawling single-use suburban development,” James said. “The community is ever evolving. Our goal is something for everyone.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Reece kids play in front of their home in Daybreak on Thursday, March 14, 2024.

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