Last night the city council discussed possible changes to Center Street. In an article, my colleague Genelle Pugmire reported the sidewalks downtown are beat up after recent construction projects and need to be replaced. The article continues:
Of the four proposals previously shown, the council picked the option that offers not only wider sidewalks, but some plaza areas and places for bistros to put outdoor seating. On Tuesday McGinn brought the council three tweaked alternatives to that option with costs ranging between $224,000 to $4.7 million for the ultimate remake. All dollar amounts are the very high-end estimates and don’t take into account a number of benefits that construction can bring to lower costs.
Apparently some of these costs could be defrayed by having private developers — the LDS Church, for example — incorporate upgrades into current building projects.
Construction on Center Street has created a unique opportunity to improve various things such as bike infrastructure and sidewalks.
After debating the issue online and reading Genelle’s article, I’m inclined to agree that due to ongoing construction this is a great opportunity to improve the city. If the sidewalks and other things are gone or nearly gone already, there’s no reason not to build them back better than ever.
I’m especially excited for any potential improvements to the bike infrastructure, improved outdoor dining, and rumored plazas.
But I say that with a few caveats. First, there are worse places in downtown that desperately need “sprucing up.”
This area of Center Street could certainly improve, but other parts of downtown need improvement much more.
Hopefully the city is thinking just as critically about investing in and improving those areas because unlike Center Street, they actively repel users. University Ave, Freedom Blvd, and 100 South all come to mind.
Center Street just west of the Covey Center is another spot that fails in nearly every way. Hopefully improvements will come to this area someday. I didn’t realize until I took this picture that this street is at least seven lanes wide. That’s wider than many freeways.
Second, improved sidewalks and other amenities are not, by themselves, going to bring a significant number of new people to downtown. This is more or less the argument I made last night in a kind of online debate in the Support Downtown Provo Facebook group.
For the sake of time, I’m going to borrow from the comments I made last night*: the problem in downtown is an insufficient number of people.
My solution to that problem is adding people via density, job creation, etc. Relatedly, there seems to be a sense among some people — including myself in the very recent past — that there is a huge pent up demand in Utah Valley, and if we could just tap into it downtown would flourish. I disagree with that assumption; if it existed, we’d already be seeing it.
In other words, I’m trying to look at this in terms of supply and demand. Right now there is an over supply of sidewalks space, for example, so adding more only cheapens it. And because most sidewalks in downtown tend to be empty much of the time, having more of them will just emphasize the emptiness.
This large section of sidewalk is already underused. The way to fix that problem is to add density, not more sidewalks.
All of that said, Genelle’s article seems to indicate that these improvements aren’t about inducing more demand for downtown space — or in other words directly incentivizing people to come out and patronize the area — so much as they’re about planning for future growth and capitalizing on a unique moment. Development is cheaper and easier right now so it makes sense to do it.
In that context, they’re exciting. The next step will just be adding the people to make all of this worth it over the long run.
The biggest problem here isn’t bad infrastructure, it’s that there simply aren’t enough people in downtown Provo to fill the space. Hopefully coming improvements in downtown will make spaces like these better and will be coupled with increased density.
*My view on this issue evolved last night as I was debating and reading about it. For what it’s worth, I’d highly recommend checking out the Facebook group where that debate took place to see other people’s excellent insights — which persuaded me — and to stay abreast of what is happening in the city. Here’s the link again.