In our opinion: Interest in downtown

Published: Thursday, Oct. 13 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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The most common story line from a recent Downtown Alliance survey on the level of interest in downtown Salt Lake City is that young people, particularly those in the 18-24 age group, are the most interested in what the city has to offer. This has led to a call by some to increase the number of liquor licenses downtown, even though only half of that demographic is old enough to legally drink.

Regardless of the merits of that push, however, the survey, released this week, is indeed interesting. Downtown Salt Lake City is on the precipice of a major change, with the City Creek Project, with its ample housing, shopping and dining venues, nearing completion. That is bound to redefine the area and add to its attractiveness to a wide range of age groups.

Salt Lake City should not set out to duplicate what other cities have. It is a unique venue, known for the headquarters of a large international church, for winter recreation opportunities and as a family destination. The survey reinforced this. When asked for their interest in downtown experiences, respondents were the most enthusiastic about dining, shopping, religious events and performance arts.

Beyond that, however, the survey highlighted some of the city's long-standing problems. Chief among these is the lack of affordable housing, particularly for families.

The survey found that only 6 percent of the 402 people surveyed by phone said they were interested in living downtown. When those responses were broken down by age, the 18-24 group was by far the most interested in living there, but even so only 14 percent rated living downtown an eight or higher on a scale of one to 10. Realistically, there aren't many affordable options for them to choose from if they wanted to make the move. For the older demographics, who in Utah tend to want places in which to raise families, the city always has had difficulty competing with the suburbs. Only 4 percent in the 25-34 age group said they were interested in downtown living. That may be difficult to change.

The city needs a wide variety of housing options in order to remain vibrant. This has largely eluded politicians and planners through the years. Salt Lake City has seen an impressive growth in downtown housing units recently, and yet the city's overall population is on a downward trend and has been mostly flat over the past 50 years.

Mayors and city councils have struggled over that time to reverse the trend, with little real success. Urban living does not enjoy a broad appeal among families, and the city is mostly landlocked, except for an undeveloped northwest quadrant.

It will be interesting to see how perceptions and attitudes change once the City Center Project is completed. The LDS Church-funded investment is the most impressive of its kind in the nation, and it surely will enhance downtown's attractiveness to all demographics. It would be wise to avoid any major policy changes concerning downtown marketing until that project is in full swing.

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