SALT LAKE CITY — Driving west on I-80, Luke Garrott sees the land reaching out to the shores of the Great Salt Lake as a "classic American view that stretches all the way to Nevada."
From his office in a downtown high-rise, Carlton Christensen sees the land as a chance to create a new, sustainable community on the city's west edge.
The two Salt Lake City councilmen's opposing perspectives will be at the center of one of the largest decisions looming for city leaders next year: whether to allow development in the city's Northwest Quadrant, a 19,000-acre expanse west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
"If we want to be a model for sustainable development, we'll create an urban growth boundary on our western edge," Garrott said. "It seems very strange to me that we'd be building suburban sprawl. I don't care how green it is."
The Northwest Quadrant plan has been in the works since before Mayor Ralph Becker's days on the Planning Commission in the late 1980s.
The version now before the City Council calls for a collection of mixed-use and high-density neighborhoods positioned near the stations of a light-rail line that connects to downtown.
Even with much of land unusable due to flood and seismic concerns, planners believe, over the next 20 years, some 25,000 housing units could be built there — attracting families and enough children to fill 15 new elementary schools.
While Garrott said the cars and commutes are "180 degrees counter" to the city's environmental directives, Becker and others said the plan is an opportunity to create a model for sustainable development while building a green buffer that protects the wetlands and wildlife along the shores of the lake.
"The shores of the Great Salt Lake are an international resource," the mayor said. "We can have development and protect the environment … by setting aside huge chunks of land — the majority of the land that's under private ownership."
Garrott worried how allowing development in the quadrant would affect the city's multimillion-dollar efforts to turn North Temple into a "grand boulevard."
"If we're attracting investment money that far out west, we're going to slow down that development," he said. "We may hamper it for decades."
For his part, Becker disagrees.
"The urban lifestyle we have downtown … is a different lifestyle than someone who's out in the more open spaces of our valley," he said. "I don't see it as being inconsistent at all with downtown development."
Garrott lauded city planners' work on the plan but said their efforts were based on the false premise that development in the area was inevitable.
"We don't know if it's developable," he said. "We don't know if the soil is OK. There could be major liquefaction concerns. We don't know if trees will grow."
Christensen, meanwhile, said he believes development is a matter of "when, not if," and would prefer to have control over the area's growth.
"You only have to look south of this site to see growth has already surpassed this distance," he said. "We have a chance to actually do a lot of what we talk about doing in other parts of the city. If we don't do it right, shame on us."
The plan narrowly passed the Planning Commission earlier this year.
The council is expected to begin reviewing the plan in early January with a vote coming some time in the spring. If the plan is approved, the city could spend another year developing neighborhood plans for the quadrant.
At the earliest, construction could begin in five years, Christensen said.