Plans for an elaborate mixed-use development on the site of the former Cottonwood Mall have been greeted with opposition from area residents who fear the project will negatively alter the nature of their community by increasing congestion and taxing public services. It is the latest example of the conflict between the need to accommodate rapid population growth along the Wasatch Front and the resistance to new development among many residents who see it as a threat to the quality of life in their respective neighborhoods.
In the center of the conflict are civic planners who now face a tremendous challenge in balancing new housing and commercial development with the values of community preservation and quality of life. Whether it’s in Holladay, Sandy or Herriman or along Point of the Mountain, stresses brought by the prospect of growth are a focal point in local politics, with long-term social and economic consequences for the larger community. In none of the places where the conflict is in play will it be easily resolved in a manner that leaves everyone happy unless communities work cooperatively.
Community planning has long been premised on the determination of the “best and highest” uses of the land in question. Depending on one’s perspective, the best use may be anything from high-rise apartment towers to unfettered open space. Throughout the metropolitan area, planners are now grappling with how to find common ground on the best use of available land, which is increasingly in short supply. Population growth continues at a rate among the highest in the nation, and we are seeing real estate prices grow substantially, putting a squeeze on the supply of affordable housing.
The Cottonwood Mall plan contemplates several hundred mid- to high-density units, which residents who oppose the plans worry will result in untenable traffic congestion. Similar concerns among residents in Herriman about a mid-density housing development proposed there resulted in a citizens petition drive against a change in zoning ordinances. In Sandy, residents upset by years of development including high-density projects took to the polls in November to oust the city’s longtime mayor.
While significant, the proposed development on the 56-acre Cottonwood Mall site pales in comparison to the scale of development contemplated on the 20,000 acres of developable land along the border of Utah County and Salt Lake County, including the 400 acres that will open up when the Utah State Prison is moved from its current location. The commission directing future use of the land has done a commendable job analyzing the impacts of different kinds of development. The commission recently highlighted the need to accommodate growing housing demand in a way that will require a “paradigm shift” in attitudes toward higher-density construction.
In downtown areas and in nearby suburbs like Sugar House, high-density housing is popular among younger residents and retiring baby boomers who appreciate the values of walkable neighborhoods and easy access to mass transit. In places like Holladay, many residents prefer the traditional suburban array of single-family homes with landscaped yards along tree-lined streets. We are hopeful city leaders there will find a way to accommodate the plans of the property owner and prospective developer in a way that is satisfactory to those who cherish the unique allure of their community.
That will be a tough task, just as it will be a formidable challenge in coming years for government in all corners of the Wasatch Front to manage a new paradigm of growth in those places where open land is begging to be developed.