A Salt Lake City nonprofit set urbanists nationwide abuzz recently when it pitched the idea of building homes in the medians of the city’s extra-wide streets.
In realty, that specific plan probably isn’t going to materialize. But the attention the concept garnered is helping to push forward to debate over how to repurpose the city’s huge roadways.
The idea comes from the Kentlands Initiative, an urban design-focused nonprofit. In recent summers it’s run a pop-up festival with a beer garden and set up storefronts made from shipping containers, a project dubbed Granary Row, located in a street median within the city’s neglected and underdeveloped Granary District.
The Kentlands Initiative has since floated the idea of making the installation permanent – including building homes in the median.
“We hope it creates new ways of neighborhood revitalization,” said James Alfandre, executive director of the Kentlands Initiative.
To be clear, the idea hasn’t progressed to a formal proposal yet. The group has had two meetings with city officials to explore the possibility of moving forward.
But the city delivered a clear message: it’s going to be tough.
“I don’t want to sound negative, but there’s a lot involved to pull this off and we wanted to give him a heads up,” said Nora Shepard, director of the city’s planning division. “It’s something we are willing to talk about, but not to say ‘great idea, go for it!’”
Delays and technical difficulties aren’t anything new to Alfandre. After debuting to fanfare in 2013, Granary Row was on hiatus in 2014 due to permitting hassles before returning this summer.
Still, he says he’s undeterred after meeting with city staff. He recognizes that he’s proposing something new and different, and that it’ll take some time to figure out how to do it. He’s ready to work within the city’s terms and timeframe.
“We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves,” Alfandre said. “We respect the process.”
Even if his permanent project never happens, Shepard and a local urban design guru both say it’s been a useful thought experiment, and the temporary project has catalyzed new thinking throughout the city.
“The temporary structures at Granary Row, the novelty of it and the interest it has generated have allowed us to think about development opportunities in new and exciting ways,” said Soren Simonsen, a former Salt Lake City councilman and urban planner who teaches at the University of Utah.
But developing in the middle of the road, he said, might be premature for the Granary District, a neighborhood that still needs plenty of traditional investment.
“In fact, it could absorb market share that would otherwise be going to other locations, including vacant properties on either side of the street,” Simonsen said.
First Thing’s First
In cities like New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., developable land is a scarce commodity. That’s not the case in Salt Lake City. At least not yet.
There are plenty of abandoned buildings and vacant lots available for redevelopment in the city’s existing urban core – and especially in the neighborhood that’s home to Kentlands’ Granary Row.
That makes the sort of paradigm-shifting decision to build homes in the median a tough sell, at least for now.
“There are plenty of vacant buildings right next door, and some are crying out for money,” Shepard said. “From my perspective, I’d rather see development there be redevelopment, rather than creating new parcels in the street. Maybe its time will come, but I just don’t think the time is right.”
Just a few blocks away, the city owns a 10-acre parcel seen as a prime redevelopment opportunity. Shepard says the city’s preparing to re-release a call for development proposals on it sometime soon.
“It’s a large area that’s ripe for economic development,” Shepard said. “I’m not inclined to create new parcels in the middle of the road until we’re moving in a specific direction for the area.”
Indeed, Kentlands’ own rendering for its median-development vision depicts a vacant lot on the main corner, right across from where it would build in the road.
Sorting out the logistical hassles is a tough sell when there’s low-hanging fruit so close by.
A Different Vision
But Alfandre didn’t arrive at his proposal haphazardly. It’s the logical extension of a process his group began 5 years ago.
Before the Kentlands Initiative put together Granary Row, it started with short-term events to get people used to the idea of the neighborhood being an active place. Once the idea had taken hold, they rolled out the months-long festival installment. Now that it’s an unqualified success, they’re rolling out the idea to make it permanent.
“This is incremental building and we’ve taken the next logical step after doing a proof of concept,” he said. “We aren’t just saying ‘let’s not rehab buildings, let’s go to the street.’ It was a thoughtful process, and it’s the best way to do it in our opinion.”
That’s partially, he says, because property owners in the area have over-estimated their land value and are holding out for new development possibilities.
“It creates something out of nothing and changes the scale of the neighborhood,” he said of the project. “We know that if we go into the street, the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood will follow.”
Changing the Conversation
Simonsen said the original Granary Row project already pushed the city to reconsider its options with existing roadways throughout the city.
But that actually wasn’t something Lafandre had in mind when he initially pushed for Granary.
“We were just focused on our neighborhood,” he said. “We’ve been working towards revitalizing that neighborhood, to make it a thriving version of what it already is, and not something different.”
Other projects in the city have followed Kentlands’ lead, all the same.
On Festival Street, in the city’s Central Station District, a developer and the city’s redevelopment agency are remaking a two-block portion of the street near the Salt Lake Central transit station, served by city’s light rail, a commuter line and Amtrak.
There, the development team is reducing the existing road, originally more than 110 feet wide, to a more traditional 70-foot width and turning the reclaimed land back to pedestrian friendly homes, shops and offices envisioned for the redeveloped district.
“The Festival Street discussion came about Granary Row making people think, there are other ways we can use these rights-of-way,” Simonsen said.
That project was unveiled publicly in spring of 2015, but it’s still being designed and won’t begin construction until a year from now.
Already under construction, though, is a remaking of Regents Street, an alleyway that had previously been used for deliveries and to access parking garages, which connects the City Center Station shopping district and the Gallivan Center, an event space and ice rink area owned by the redevelopment agency.
The new Regents Street, a $10 million project, will link the two entertainment areas as a pedestrian-focused strip with stores and restaurants. It’ll still be open to car traffic, though it’ll be closed for special events. That project is already under construction and is set to be completed next year.
“Both of those projects are interpretations of discussions that came about from Granary Row,” Simonsen said.