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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Window shoppers pass a picture of John Coltrane at Orion's Music on Salt Lake City's Highland Drive.

Not that long ago, Wiebke Lips walked to run errands. Now she sits — in traffic.

In her Honda, often going nowhere fast, she'll sometimes get stuck on a memory of sidewalks packed with pedestrians flowing along streets rarely framed by a windshield.

Lips, 26, has been in a kind of dashboard daze for about two months now, since moving to Draper from Manhattan.

"In Utah we drive off in the morning and come home at night so we don't socialize with our neighbors," Lips said. "I think that's so sad. It would be great to leave the car at home for once."

Actually, she believes in leaving the car home a lot more than once in a while. She and other residents are trying to add a little humanity to a place literally built for vehicles: Legend has it that Brigham Young wanted Salt Lake's city streets wide enough to allow a wagon pulled by a four-head team of oxen to turn without having to back up. That approach and grid system was duplicated around the state.

But in several of those towns that became the suburbs of today, residents are taking to the streets to make them places for strolling, shopping, eating and socializing.

All along the Wasatch Front, city leaders are reinventing Utah towns into places where residents feel invested in the community and a part of its character, said Kenneth Bullock, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

"We seem to have lost our sense of heritage and community," Bullock said. "Now we're realizing that it's a sense of unity we're looking for, not isolation."

Community character

A snapshot of Salt Lake Valley and Utah County reveals that almost every major urban area and suburb are planning a walkable community, complete with stores opening directly onto sidewalks and parking relegated to side or back lots. The sudden interest in veering away from strip malls and sprawling parking lots is mainly due to residents' desire to create unique gathering places in their communities, said Ted Knowlton, assistant executive director at Envision Utah.

"These are places that feel good. They give a community identity and it gives people pride in their community," said Knowlton, who works with Envision to promote safe and healthy living in Utah.

In South Jordan, for example, city planners are producing a sense of community by paving the way for three town center-style developments, ranging from a retail-restaurant-governmental complex to the 4,200-acre Daybreak planned community.

South Jordan Towne Center, at 10400 South and Redwood Road, is the only development already built, though new businesses continue to be added to the site. It will ultimately include a library, city hall, an ice-skating rink, and outdoor shops and restaurants.

"South Jordan has always espoused a quality of life; we build places worthy of our affection," city manager Rick Horst said. "It goes back to olden days when you could walk out and see neighbors on front porches instead of getting into a car and driving to a big parking lot and being impersonal. It goes back to a day gone by."

On a much larger scale, the city and Kennecott Land are planning Daybreak, a community at 11400 South and 4500 West with more than 13,000 homes, 1,250 acres of parks, a recreational lake, town centers, schools, churches and mass transit.

Horst said along with creating a community feel, walkable developments also help save gas, reduce congestion and cut back on pollution. The sidewalk-facing storefronts also serve as informal surveillance, he added.

"When people interact like this in this kind of environment we find there's less incidence of crime and graffiti and things like that — everything's visible," he said. "We find that the overall quality of life is improved."

Laying the groundwork

Before communities can embark on creating walkable town centers, city planners must decide exactly what atmosphere they want and what zoning they need to create that feel — often a long and intense process.

Just ask Salt Lake Planning Director Doug Dansie, who has been working for years to pass zoning laws for a walkable community ordinance.

The code change would encourage developers to create more pedestrian-friendly enclaves throughout Salt Lake. Much like the walkable clusters at 9th and 9th and Sugar House Commons that have wide sidewalks lined with small shops, Dansie said he wants to see developers think beyond the typical strip mall design.

"It does require some more creative design work than just a slab of concrete and a strip of stores," he said. "But you end up with a better product."

The main obstacle, however, is that Salt Lake zoning has historically steered developers to large strip malls, he said. For example, city codes mandate a store be set back at least 15 feet from the sidewalk. Such zoning, Dansie points out, eliminates the sidewalk-front businesses of walkable communities.

"We need to change the zoning to help developers respond to what people like and want. There comes a time when a city has to mature a bit," he said. "We're trying to make it easier for the Sugar House Commons of the world."

In Utah County, there are currently four walkable communities either planned, under construction or completed.

In Orem, two walkable communities are in the works: one on State Street called Midtown Village, and another near Utah Valley State College called Parkway Crossing. The latter, which is already partially completed, could eventually include a church meeting house, a grocery store and clothing stores. There are already restaurants and hundreds of apartments.

Provo's Riverwoods project is Utah County's oldest, and arguably its most successful, walkable community. About 90 percent of its stores are occupied and two-thirds of the residential space has sold.

City officials in Midvale are also in the process of restructuring zoning laws to build a large walkable community on the former Sharon Steel Superfund site. The development, called Jordan Bluffs, would put 90,000 feet of retail inside a circle of 2,300 condos and single-family homes. The area would also incorporate a church, a school, parks and walking trails.

"If we want to go out as a family at night, we can walk to a restaurant together. We'll keep a self-contained life in the middle of Salt Lake Valley," said developer Ben Magelsen. "It's basically the poster child for walkable green communities."

A delicate balance

As Riverton works to revitalize its downtown area, a guiding goal has been stores fronting main streets with similar architecture. The end product, planners hope, is a place where pedestrians are greeted by friendly storefronts instead of a sea of parking lots.

But Riverton Planning director Brian Maxfield said the area will not attract people unless it attracts businesses first. "You can't just say, 'Let's have a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker' and expect people to show up," Maxfield said.

Knowlton said city planners need to realize that potential businesses will pragmatically evaluate communities, and so planners need to consider the economic viability of a walkable center.

Boyer Corp., a developer that has been involved in many pedestrian-centered projects in the Salt Lake Valley including The Gateway in Salt Lake City and Sugar House Commons at 2100 South and Highland Drive, believes successful town centers must be tailored to the specific community, said Wade Williams, the company's retail development director.

Deseret Morning News graphicDNews graphicWalkable communitiesRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Boyer is working on two walkable development projects in South Jordan, one in Draper and one in Sandy.

Williams said that while walkable main streets and city centers can fit well in urban areas, adaptations have to be made for the suburbs, where residents have been trained to drive everywhere.

In the suburbs, he said, the idea is to have a mix of pedestrian and auto traffic, somewhere where people can walk from dinner to recreation to a specialty shop to a public library — but with a parking lot close by.

Few Utahns probably know as much about the delicate balance of walkable communities than Myles Rademan. As Park City's public affairs officer, Rademan is in a constant struggle to maintain the pedestrian-friendly feel that is the life-blood of the resort town.

"People are sort of missing the old main streets. But they are difficult and hard to protect," Rademan said. "We've been doing this for years and years."

Rademan has learned in those years that a walkable community must offer residents something they cannot get in a mall. Without a reason for being, many idealistic town centers fall flat, he said.

"You have to be careful about creating a space that's dead. You want a lot of action because it breeds more action," he said.

For Park City, the old-town feel is what sustained its walkable community because no strip mall can offer that atmosphere, Rademan said.

The city of Holladay is looking to Park City as a role model as it edges toward creating its own walkable community at 2300 East and Holladay Boulevard. The concept includes a town plaza surrounded by buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments above.

City manager Randy Fitts said the development will be geared toward small local shops and not warehouse retailers, much like in Park City. But Fitts said he is aware of the risk of investing only in speciality shops and is considering recruiting a chain grocery store as an anchor for the development.

"The last thing we want to have happen is closing signs going up in all the windows," he said. "We need to make sure the economics work and that there's going to be synergism to attract people here."

With enough patronage, Knowlton said, walkable communities with smaller shops can give a boost to cities and generate more sales tax per square foot than big-box stores that waste space on parking and inventory storage.

Officials in West Valley City have just such an economic upswing in mind as they work to turn a 100-acre area on 2700 West into a walkable town center.

City manager Wayne Pyle said West Valley has suffered from an image of being a city plagued by crime and blight. He said that image has "become a little bit better" but that it can still be improved, and the town center idea "lends itself to that identity that you look for in a community."

Transit lines

West Valley's plans also include a light-rail spur and an intermodal transportation hub, which UTA consultant Alice Steiner said are critical to the success of the walkable communities popping up throughout Utah.

Steiner said suburban towns need to incorporate mass transit options into town centers so people can get to pedestrian-friendly atmospheres without having to first get in their car and drive to them.

"Those communities that have transit will thrive and grow and succeed. Those communities that don't will atrophy," she said.

UTA is currently working on several projects that will facilitate an east-west emphasis to the light-rail including an extension to West Valley and South Jordan. If people could more easily access the suburbs by mass transit, Steiner said cities could establish themselves as activity centers through the Salt Lake Valley.

"We don't have any psychological anchors that help people organize the valley. These walkable community landmarks will give us a better sense of who we are in the community," she said.

Several cities, including Murray and Sandy, are trying to take advantage of the light-rail stations in their cities by anchoring walkable town centers to the stops.

To better use mass transit in Salt Lake, Dansie said he is working to pass an ordinance that will cluster development along the TRAX line. His proposal would increase the height limits of buildings along 400 South, allowing apartments to be built on top of retail.

"It's been a highway, auto-oriented zone with things like fast-food drive-ins and car washes, but it has to be accessible to transit and pedestrians," he said. "It's not meant to penalize people with cars. It's just acknowledging that pedestrians are important too."

Building up instead of out will give developers more options and will give more residents access to transit. While Dansie noted that some Salt Lake residents oppose taller buildings, he said it is just a matter of time before they get used to the idea of an "urban village."

"A lot of Salt Lake residents think four stories is ungodly and that they're living in Manhattan," he said. "There's this fear of density. But density's not the problem, design is the problem."

Combined with attractive design codes, Dansie said clusters of walkable communities at TRAX stops could open up the valley to people without cars and allow the city to accommodate growth without sprawling horizontally.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com; dsmeath@desnews.com