Lawmakers are currently considering a proposal to begin moving the Utah State Prison, which sits prominently on the west side of I15 in Draper. The idea is that the prison occupies valuable space along the Wasatch Front that would be better used for new development. More specifically, some people want to create a tech hub in Draper.
Everyone would benefit from more high tech companies in region, but suggesting that the prison needs to move to bring them in is a fallacious argument. Indeed, it would be vastly better to encourage tech companies to locate inside existing development. As a result, cities like Salt Lake and Provo should be doing everything they can to make sure new jobs aren’t lost to future sprawl. That means opposing the prison relocation.
Relocating the prison creates a variety of shorter-term problems. For one, it means more new development even as most cities along the Wasatch Front already have very low densities and plenty of room for more infill. In other words, there is absolutely no need for more massive new subdivisions.
Moving the prison also creates more distant development that requires more driving; Draper isn’t proximate to anything, so new development will require long trips to get anywhere. Historically, Draper has also been filled with car-oriented development, meaning residents have to drive short distances for everyday errands as well. It’s a lose-lose situation, and is particularly baffling at a time when we’re trying to clean up our worst-in-the-nation air.
But city governments should particularly oppose the prison relocation because it effectively stacks the decks against their efforts to win talent and jobs. Why would a tech company move to Provo or Salt Lake, for example, when they can get cheap land from the government in the middle of nowhere?
In other words, moving the prison is a government subsidy for sprawl. It would involve spending hundreds of millions of dollars to just make it less appealing to develop a tech hub in an urban center.
Relatedly, last year I contrasted the new campuses of Amazon and Apple. Basically, Apple is building a huge new building out in the suburbs, while Amazon is investing in the urban core of Seattle.
Lawmakers who want to move the prison are effectively trying to create Apple-style development, even though analysts have said the Amazon version is actually the one that is benefiting its surroundings the most.
Ultimately, there’s no reason cities like Salt Lake and Provo couldn’t, or shouldn’t, create internal tech hubs. Moving the prison, however, makes that harder because it uses government money to pick winners and losers.