Category Archives: utah

Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

Provo is a Bit Grinch-y

Over the weekend, The Atlantic Cities posted a piece about cities that are “real-life Whovilles with demographic characteristics that could turn even the strongest-willed holiday-merriment-haters into jolly good fellows.”

In other words, it’s about the merriest cities in America.

Provo typically ranks highly for volunteerism and giving generally, so I kind of expected to see it on the list. I was, however, disappointed. In fact according to the map included with the article, it’s not even in the top category.

The report on which the article is based, however, wasn’t about measurements of niceness. Instead, it was looking at a variety of city-related factors:

  • Population density: “greater amount of merry people within an area”
  • Costume rental stores per capita: “the Grinch can get his Santa disguise”
  • Selected retail outlets per capita: “more presents for the Grinch to steal and eventually return”
  • Meat markets per capita: “for the roast beast”
  • Musicians, singers, music directors, and composers per capita: “to first annoy, then touch the Grinch’s heart with singing”
  • Night-time light: “to draw the Grinch’s attention”
  • Hospitals per capita: “for the Grinch when his heart grows ‘three sizes that day’ “

The article — which doesn’t mention any Utah cities by name — is intentionally based on a somewhat silly idea so I’m not going too read to much into it. But it does make an important point: dense, vibrant cities offer the most opportunities for Christmas celebrating.

Holiday art by local school children adorns shop windows in downtown.

Holiday art by local school children adorns shop windows in downtown.

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The Free Fare Zone Survives in SLC

UTA announced today that it will keep the free fare zone in downtown Salt Lake City. The actual experience of using the zone will be altered, but people will still be able to ride the bus without paying in downtown Salt Lake City.

The announcement concludes an evaluation that began earlier this year when UTA considered eliminating the free fare zone. Though the proposal was attacked, UTA cited “minimal” financial costs of as much as $200,000 per year, as well as operational inefficiencies, as contributing reasons to get rid of the zone.

Tuesday’s announcement seems to strike the right balance by correcting the inefficiencies of the system while preserving a useful amenity.

As Kaid Benfield pointed out in July, public transit often has numerous “hidden” economic benefits. Richard Florida further noted that families living in transit-friendly areas also benefit.

The point is that while a free fare zone may cost taxpayers a little bit up front, there are an array of benefits to bolstering and capitalizing on the existing system. That’s also true of larger public transit systems which may not always be immediately profitable but offer an economically advantageous amenity for cities.

UTA recently decided that the benefits of a free fare zone in Salt Lake City outweigh the costs. Provo — where this picture was taken — doesn’t have a free fare zone, but the same lesson holds true with public transit generally.

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Filed under commuting, economics, utah

The Time For Public Works Is Now

According to the Salt Lake Tribune’s Lee Davidson, UTA is considering borrowing more money and refinancing current loans. The point is to continue work on public transit projects, some of which are reaching Utah County:

They said Monday they have long planned to borrow about $180 million this year or early next year to finish financing projects that include extensions of FrontRunner from Salt Lake City to Provo, and TRAX extensions to Draper, Salt Lake City International Airport, West Valley City and Daybreak.

It’s refreshing to see much-needed progress on Utah’s public transit system. However, what stands out most to me here is that the question facing the state is when to invest, not if investment should happen in the first place.

UTA is considering investing more money to continue building out projects like this one in Provo.

Of course, the reason to invest right now is the historically low interest rates. Indeed UTA apparently has grasped that this could be a once in a generation period when rates make projects incredibly affordable.

But if that applies to UTA, it also applies to some extent other public projects on the municipal level. The lesson, then, is that this is the time to invest and build.

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Utah Second Most “Thriving” State

According to new information released by Gallup this week, Utah is the second most “thriving” state in America. Gallup offers this explanation of the findings:

Gallup classifies Americans as “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering” according to how they rate their lives “at this time” and “about five years from now” on a ladder scale based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. Those who are thriving rate their current lives a 7 or higher and their lives in five years an 8 or higher. These findings, from surveys conducted with 177,670 U.S. adults from January through June 2012 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, mark a halftime report ahead of full-year 2012 data to be released early next year.

The results also tend to correlate with economic factors in residents’ lives:

The states that do best overall in “thriving” are similar to those best positioned for future livability based on a variety of factors encompassing economic, workplace, community, and personal choices. As such, it remains clear that a broad-based approach will likely fare best in terms of improving how residents rate their lives and their level of optimism for the future.

In the context of other findings — for example, Provo’s ranking as the best U.S. city for business — it’s no wonder that residents would describe their state as thriving. But these results, which deal with perception and well-being as well, also suggest that Utah is getting more right than just economics.

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The Census and Provo

The Census Bureau now has pages for states and cities, and they include some fascinating data. For example, the Utah page reveals that the estimated population of the state in 2011 is 2,817,222. More significantly, 31.2 percent of the population is under 18 while 9.2 percent is over 65. Those numbers are higher and lower, respectively, than national averages, suggesting that Utah has and will continue to have a young workforce.

And of course, that’s an economic advantage. Utah also has higher than average high school and college graduation rates and lower than average commute times.

Provo’s page is even more illuminative. Over the last 10 years, for example, the city’s population has increased by 7 percent to 112,488. Provo’s under-18 population is lower than the state average, as is its over-65 population.

Provo is 84.8 percent white, 15.2 percent Latino, and has very small percentages of other ethnicities. And as homogenous as those numbers are, they surprisingly indicate more diversity than the state as a whole.

Additionally, a whopping 40.3 percent of Provo residents over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, and the mean commute time was 16.6 minutes — which isn’t bad given the national and state averages.

I’d recommend poking around this data; it’s fascinating and organized in an easy-to-read format.

The data hints at why Utah and Provo are ranked highly for business; the workforce is young, educated and — given commute times — closer to economic centers than in other parts of the country. That last point shouldn’t be discounted; commuting time is often wasted time, economically speaking, which means shorter drives (or bus rides) mean higher productivity.

This data also reveals that Provo may need to work harder to keep a competitive edge. If it has a lower population of children, for example, that suggests young families are gravitating to other cities. That might seem obvious just by looking at Utah County’s development over the last decade, but it’s nevertheless something that the city should try to combat over the next decade.

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Steal California’s Jobs (And Indiana’s Marketing)

I’ve written a few posts recently about the lure of schools in Utah County. An underlying assumption behind these posts is that people are, in fact, moving to Utah from other states. That assumption seems to be supported by population booms past and present.

But what if Utah and Provo could do much, much better at drawing people from other states. The Atlantic recently reported on efforts in Indiana to steal jobs from California. The idea is that California is expensive and hostile to businesses, while Indiana is not.

But the same could be said for Utah. In fact, while Indiana is a struggling old Rust Belt state, Utah is a young, educated and entrepreneurial region. If you read much about cities and the economy, you’ll notice that the media’s narrative about Utah focuses on ascendancy and the future — sort of like a BRIC nation. On the other hand, the narrative about places like Indiana is about decline and, at best, resurgence.

The result is that Utah is actually a much better place for businesses to relocate than Indiana, or almost anywhere for that matter. And of course, businesses are coming to Utah; just drive past Thanksgiving Point and you’ll see their buildings rising higher every day.

But the Atlantic article shows how overt, public marketing can be used to lure jobs to the area. This is a zero-sum strategy for the national economy, so local innovation and growth is still important, but if jobs are migrating somewhere, they might as well go to Utah.

In the end, Provo has fewer resources than the entire state of Indiana, but to some extent it could employ similar tactics to bring jobs to the city.

Jobs are migrating across the country. Provo should engage in an overt and concerted effort to bring those jobs to the city.

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Provo’s Schools Don’t Make the Grade

Late last week the Daily Beast/Newsweek released a list of the 1,000 best high schools in the United States. It probably won’t surprise anyone that Utah generally didn’t do very well in the rankings.

Even worse, only one Utah County school made the list, and it was Lone Peak High School.

I happen to think Provo High is a fine school; everyone I’ve met who went there is interesting and intelligent, and it’s more diverse than Lone Peak, where I currently have family.

But the reality is that Provo’s low-ranking schools are a major obstacle to the city’s growth. Many families choose where to live based on schools. I attended Glendora High School — ranked 458 on the list above. My parents specifically chose to live in Glendora because it had good schools, even though it was more distant from my dad’s industry. The same thing happened when my family moved to Utah (after I was an adult) — they picked Cedar Hills so my sisters could attend Lone Peak.

Right now, no one makes similar choices and ends up in Provo. That means the city is losing many of the best and brightest potential families to the north parts of the county and Alpine School District. If Provo wants to stay vibrant and continue growing, it absolutely needs to compete better with other schools in the state, and ideally the country. Doing so won’t be cheap, but the investment should pay off as Provo wins new families and businesses.

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City Creek Not Benefiting Surrounding Businesses

It should come as a surprise to no one, but according to an initial report by ABC 4, City Creek isn’t helping surrounding businesses.

ABC’s article seems to be as much a rough collection of notes as an actual news report, but the main idea it’s trying to convey is that since the opening of City Creek, most other area businesses have returned to their pre-City Creek activity levels.

The article points out that the surrounding businesses haven’t necessarily been hurt by City Creek. However, as an engine of widespread and overall downtown growth in Salt Lake, City Creek already appears to be failing.

As I mentioned above, this fact should surprise no one. Some buildings and developments are designed to disperse people into surrounding areas. Others are designed to contain people within a boundary. Malls — even the best of them — inherently fall into the latter category.

City Creek is beautiful, but as a mall it's generally designed to focus people inward, or in other words to contain them. That means that few visitors actually get out into the surrounding areas of downtown.

Obviously, the long-term impact of City Creek remains to be seen. However, for the time being it appears that the benefits of LDS Church’s $2 billion “investment” in downtown Salt Lake City may be limited to the actual mall facilities themselves.

This news should serve as a major wake up call to Provo. There are people in Provo who would like to see a City Creek-style development in downtown Provo. I’d certainly love to see a major financial investment in downtown, but as City Creek demonstrates, there are better development models to use than malls. In general, any downtown development should be undertaken with an eye to dispersing pedestrian traffic through both new and existing spaces.

ABC’s report may also foreshadow the what is about to happen with the upcoming Tabernacle Temple and the Utah Valley Convention Center: these two developments may ultimately contain their users, rather than dispersing them into downtown. Sadly, no one seems to be seriously considering this very real possibility.

However, City Creek demonstrates that wide-eyed optimism and a mountain of cash simply aren’t enough. Indeed, I can envision a few years from now ABC running almost the exact same report, but with the words “City Creek” replaced by the words “Provo City Center Temple.” And in the case of the temple, it won’t aim to generate any significant income on its own — unlike City Creek — meaning the economic benefits may be fewer than many people hope.

The heartbreaking thing about this whole issue is that unlike Salt Lake City, Provo’s downtown development still has the potential to avoid the the inadequacies of City Creek, but we nevertheless seem to be marching in that direction anyway. Ultimately, there’s no reason to be pessimistic about downtown Provo, but we’d be fools to ignore evidence that may very well spell trouble.

City Creek is a beautiful mall, but it's still a mall and as such doesn't necessarily encourage people to patronize non-mall businesses. Though the objectives are different, Provo's upcoming LDS temple and convention center may also fall into the same trap.

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Provo is Still Exploding

A few days ago, I reported on the remarkable growth that the Provo metro area has experienced over the last 30 years. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, that trend is continuing.

The Tribune reports that from 2010 to 2011 Provo grew by 2.7 percent. That means it’s the seventh fastest-growing metro area in the country, and is ahead of all other major metros in Utah.

Based on these figures, the population in Utah County will conservatively exceed 1 million people in less than a generation if similar growth occurs over the long run.

The article quotes county commissioner Larry Ellertson as saying that the growth may be due to large construction projects, businesses immigrating to the area, and a high fertility rate, among other things.

The census data the Tribune is using also shows population loss in rural areas. Though that may not matter to many people, it’s nevertheless significant because it supports observations by experts that the United States is increasingly a city-dwelling nation. Utah is perhaps closer to its agricultural sector and agrarian past than some states, but the reality is that today the region is an urban one.

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Filed under construction, Downtown, Provo, urban, utah