Walk, Bike to Work in Salt Lake’s Answer to Suburban Nightmares

Daybreak Development
The Daybreak development outside Salt Lake City. It has been built to urban densities even though it is in a suburban area. The style of this street of single-family homes emulates early 20th-century towns and focuses on a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

At the southwestern edge of Salt Lake City, tightly packed new homes run along gentle ridgelines. In the background, the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains catch puffs of cloud on a crisp autumn day.

This is the growing community of Daybreak and it’s much more than suburbia in a stunning setting. Someday residents of 20,000 houses and apartments could walk or bike to 2.4 million square feet of shopping and 5 million square feet of offices.

The same mix of uses and walkability can be found in City Creek, an estimated $1.5 billion redevelopment covering 23 acres in downtown Salt Lake City, about 45 minutes away.

The Salt Lake City area is piloting a federal program called Sustainable Communities that could help cities uncover underserved markets and devise developments that serve them. Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, worked on the program with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and Ray LaHood, who heads the Department of Transportation.

“More metro areas understand that they need a variety of places for people to live,” Donovan said in an interview in his Washington office. “Or they will end up shutting out whole classes of working people, like teachers, and firefighters. That makes it harder to attract employers.”

The hope is that communities can move beyond the brain-dead national models of development and related finance that led to bubble-fed overbuilding. Even now few developers know how to pump out anything but oversized tract houses and identical shopping strips.

‘Ghost Towns’

“The ghost towns of the housing bust are places that lack transportation options, that aren’t walkable,” Donovan said. “The average family spends 52 cents of every dollar they earn on housing and transportation combined, so the biggest opportunity is in development around transportation.”

Providing the link between City Creek, which opens in March, and Daybreak is a light rail line that started operations last August.

Daybreak and City Creek got built in sync with a regional planning effort of 18 communities and four counties along the Wasatch Front called Wasatch Choice for 2040.

Most real-estate developers and their lenders wouldn’t attempt the density and mix of the Salt Lake City projects. Neither City Creek Reserve Inc., the development arm of the Mormon church, nor Daybreak’s developer, Kennecott Land Co., which is part of the Rio Tinto mining empire, needed conventional lenders.

Getting Comfortable

Sustainable Communities aims at promoting smaller mixed-use, high-density development around transit stops. The federal grant is only $5 million, and local planners are using it to help lenders and developers get comfortable with the market for this so-called transit-oriented development. They may change zoning and parking requirements to lower the barriers to entry.

Planners use computer modeling to test transit-oriented neighborhood-design scenarios, trying out different mixes and densities of apartments, offices, shops, schools and parks. The models evaluate the effects “on transportation, utility costs, tax revenue, and on return on investment for developers,” said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, a local-government group that co-manages Wasatch Choice for 2040.

‘Some Kind of Leap’

“Communities recognize there’s some kind of leap they have to take,” said Donovan, so that everyone learns what specific kinds of development are likely to work in the future. It’s an effort cities almost never attempt.

If Wasatch 2040’s planning tools help reduce development risks, projects can more adventurously pursue amenable growth that saves energy, lowers government costs and eradicates a minimum of farmland and forest.

It’s regrettable that Congress has just eliminated the program’s funding for 2012, even though the $98 million it cost this year is meaningless in deficit-reduction terms.

“The reason this effort has gotten so much interest at the state and local level is that we are supporting a vision, rather than imposing a vision,” Donovan said.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Island Press has just published his book, “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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