Tag Archives: orem

Maps and Income: More on Why Provo Feels Less Vibrant

I recently discovered an incredible website that shows you the income levels of different neighborhoods. Called “Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks,” the website uses a heat map overlaid on a Google map and in this case visually represents the income disparity issues I mentioned in this post — i.e. Provo is poorer than the cities to which it is most often compared.

Here’s what Provo looks like:

The city is red because it's on the lowest end of the spectrum.

The city is red because it’s on the lowest end of the spectrum.

Hopefully this image helps disabuse people of the idea that Provo’s low income stats are the result of students or other unique factors. As the map shows, lower-than-average incomes are common throughout the city.

By way of comparison, here’s Boulder, Colorado:

Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder clearly has it’s own area with a high concentration of lower income earners, but its map also includes bigger swaths of more colors. Tellingly, the peripheries are darker, indicating higher incomes. As I argued throughout the series on income and poverty, this is one the biggest differences between Provo and Boulder and is a major reason why the Colorado city may seem more vibrant.

And just for fun, here’s Orem:

Orem, Utah.

Orem, Utah.

Obviously the physical makeup of these cities influences income distribution; Orem is more uniformly filled with single family homes so there are fewer places for low income people to live there. And long term Provo’s more diverse housing and demographics will surely be an asset.

But based on this map Orem has a lot going for it; there’s simply more money there.

No one map or statistic (or blog post) paints a full picture of how income shapes a city’s physical and economic environment. But as I’ve argued before, it will be difficult or nearly impossible for Provo to feel more like Boulder or Ann Arbor when it’s poorer.


Filed under Development, economics

Build Neighborhoods Out of Malls

Malls in Utah County and everywhere else are struggling. If this is news to you trying reading this article that has some background and history, or click here, here, or here for recent posts on the subject.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

The now-vacant Nordstrom space in Orem.

Or just go to a mall. Trolley Square is in serious financial trouble, two thirds of the anchor spaces in the University Mall are empty, and rumors indicate that the Towne Center Mall is about to lose the Gap.

Like many cities, Provo doesn’t seem to have grasped the enormity of this problem; the question isn’t “how can we save the mall?” it’s “what can we do in the not-too-distant future when we are required to move to Plan B?”

I believe the best answer — at least along the rapidly growing Wasatch Front — is to turn malls into neighborhoods.

This idea likely would involve two components: 1) repurposing existing mall infrastructure for housing, etc., and 2) building new (mostly residential) structures in underused mall parking lots.

Repurposing existing mall structures is the most exciting part of this concept. Basically, former retail spaces could be carved up into condos or apartments. Anything would be possible, though a natural outcome would be semi-industrial feeling units — cement floors, exposed ducts, concrete pillars, etc. This type of housing doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it basically doesn’t exist in cities like Provo.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was convert from an old warehouse. It's small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this.

This is a loft in Salt Lake City that was converted from an old factory. It’s small, and therefore relatively affordable, but costs a lot per square foot. Provo has nothing like this but could easily use it’s mall spaces to cater to a similar niche.

In other words, converted mall spaces are the warehouse lofts of tomorrow. Even up in Salt Lake City converted warehouses are popular and command high prices per square foot of real estate. For example, listings here, here, here, and here are all unlike anything in Provo right now. This listing is a new building that’s even trying to copy the aesthetic of a converted warehouse.

Aesthetics aside, this type of development provides the opportunity to create big multi-unit buildings at a fraction of the cost. And because the units can vary in size, they can also remain affordable. Right now, Provo basically loses anyone looking for housing in the nice-but-affordable multi-unit market.

The second part of this concept would involve building more housing — as well as other things like schools, libraries, parks, etc. — where mall parking currently exists.

The advantages of this plan are that the land is open, already surrounded by infrastructure, and privately owned. It would take a horrible space and make it desirable and profitable at a fraction of the cost that similar projects require. And if the owners were on board, it would combine the best aspects of both infill and new development.

And there’s a massive amount of space:

Provo's Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

Provo’s Towne Center Mall, surrounded by staggering parking lots.

At the Provo Towne Center Mall much of the existing parking already goes unused so there’s no reason this part of the plan couldn’t beginning immediately. It’d almost certainly help the mall by adding customers. The development could be single family homes, apartments, condos, etc. The point is that there’s room for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residences in this space.

There are an infinite number of possible configurations, but take a look at the pictures of the Towne Center’s north side:

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Sears and a parking lot in Provo.

Now imagine if front doors were cut out of the Sears wall for condos, essentially turning it into row housing. On the right side of the picture, where there are cars, there could be more row homes, cottages, or tall buildings. I’d favor something that created a pleasant street wall, but regardless it only takes a little bit of imagination to see this as an incredibly vibrant neighborhood. It’d be a narrow little street filled with families. And it’d make a developer rich.

Here’s another picture:

The same spot from a different angle.

The same spot from a different angle.

In the picture above, imagine homes lining the left side of the street. And again, the great thing about this idea is that much of the infrastructure already exists. It’d be like getting a City Creek (with a bit of Daybreak) in Provo that was far cooler and vastly cheaper. It could be done in a way that incorporated some of the mall’s current function as a retail center, or the entire site could be reimagined. There’d be ample space — perhaps the first floor of the Sears that faces east — for a grocery store like Harmon’s.

This idea really coalesced for me after I wrote a series on building houses in the street. People liked the idea, but thought it’d be tough to overcome the political and physical obstacles. Malls spaces don’t fix existing streets, but they are open, underperforming and not ruled by existing infrastructure or NIMBY problems.

In fact, if cities can make something like this work malls may become major assets, much like old factories and warehouses turned out to be beneficial to post-industrial cities.

Variations of this idea already exist. The Atlantic Cities recently mentioned one, and City Creek and The Gateway also probably both fit the bill.

But all of those projects are firmly grounded in a mall mentality and frankly I wouldn’t reside in any of them. Provo and cities like it, on the other hand, have an incredible opportunity to treat their malls as exercises in adaptive reuse. And in the end if we do nothing that’s exactly what we’ll have in place of our malls: nothing.


Filed under building, construction, Development

How to Really Create a “Downtown Feel”

Orem recently approved a new apartment complex for the corner of Center Street and Orem Boulevard. It’ll include a mix of one and two bedroom apartments. And according to an article written by my former colleague Genelle Pugmire, officials want to create a walkable community with a “downtown feel.”

There’s a lot to like about this project, beginning with its intentions to create a more human-scaled environment. Apparently it’ll also conceal its parking, have street level apartments and is designed to take advantage of nearby transit. Not so long ago developers and city officials wouldn’t even have bothered mentioning things like walkability or the need to conceal parking so everyone involved in this project deserves praise for moving in the right direction.

But as is so often the case, these overtures to progress aren’t enough and I expect this project to be more of the same in a currently unpleasant, unwalkable and hostile environment. In other words, they’re almost superficial compared to the existing and upcoming problems.

Take, for instance, parking. The developers claim to want to capitalize on nearby transit and a Target — which includes a grocery store — but are including 1.5 parking spaces for 1-bedroom units and 2 spaces for 2-bedroom units. That gives residents an active incentive to drive, not walk.

It’ll also mean more low-performing paved land, which is rarely walkable or aesthetically pleasing, and will drive up the cost of the development thus reducing the diversity of the residents. By contrast, if some units had no parking, or even less parking, they would be less expensive and would increase the ratio of people to cars. I wouldn’t advocate eliminating all parking for this type of development, but two spaces for apartment dwellers on a transit route and across the street from a grocery store seems excessive.

It’s also entirely at odds with current trends related to driving and everything we know about walkability. It’s a glaring example of (possibly self-imposed) parking minimums at a time when parking minimums are recognized as destructive to cities.

And that’s just one example.

Other problems include adding a 7-11 — a non-local and specifically car-oriented business that has been rejected in other communities — and the fact that there are apparently no changes mentioned for the surrounding infrastructure. That’s important because the current street is horribly designed and utterly unwalkable:

One of the corners in this intersection is going to be the site of a new apartment complex. But no matter how well-designed it is, the surrounding streets are too wide and have too much high-speed traffic to be truly walkable.

One of the corners in this intersection is going to be the site of a new apartment complex. But no matter how well-designed it is, the surrounding streets are too wide and have too much high-speed traffic to be truly walkable.

Would you want to walk here? Even adding some good design elements — which may or may not include the upcoming apartments — won't overcome the fact that the entire area is surrounded by massive parking lots. The crusade to improve this area should start with fixing that problem.

Would you want to walk here? Even adding some good design elements — which may or may not include the upcoming apartments — won’t overcome the fact that the entire area is surrounded by massive parking lots. The crusade to improve this area should start with fixing that problem.

Given the current state of the streets and surrounding development, I expect to see many people actually driving from the new apartments to Target because there are no design elements to make walking easier.

The result is that there’s little reason to believe that this apartment complex will be anything more than another cheap building in an awful, car-dependent location. I hope I’m wrong. But hearing that leaders want something as nebulous as a “downtown feel” indicates to me that they fail to understand that thriving downtowns are the result of smart, longterm economic investment. Good design is part of that investment and has real economic impacts (see previous posts here and here, for example).

Or said another way, achieving a “downtown feel” has less to do with individual elements like apartment buildings and more to do with how all the elements in a place work in concert. And unfortunately, the majority of the elements in this location are out of tune with real success.


Filed under building, driving

Orem Takes Out the Trash Trucks

More often than not, Orem shows up on this blog as an example of a city-related problem — dying malls, over-wide streets, etc. — but today Provo’s neighbor to the north is leading the way with greener garbage trucks.

According to the Daily Herald, Orem is rolling out a new fleet of natural gas trucks Tuesday afternoon:

The natural gas trucks will be the largest fleet operating in Utah. The trucks collect solid waste and recycling garbage. The trucks put out up to 50 percent less nitrogen oxide, which forms smog, and 25 percent less greenhouse gas. They also run 50 percent quieter than diesel trucks.

Utah Valley could definitely use less air pollution, particularly as we head into inversion season, so it’s great to see a larger city proactively working for better environmental stewardship. This development also offers an example for other area cities looking to be more responsible themselves.


Filed under environment

CRAP ALERT!* New Mall Opens in Lehi

In what seems like an exercise in absurdist theater, Lehi has just opened a new mall: The Outlets at Traverse Mountain. Apparently no one from that city has ever visited any other cities and consequently observed that malls are a colossally bad investment. Just last week in fact I mentioned that the best local example of a mall is in serious trouble.

In reality this is Salt Lake City’s mall bubble expanding outward; each successive developer or community thinks a new mall will be an economic savior. And it is, at least until another developer comes along and builds another, better mall.

In economic and development circles, this approach (usually as applied to housing) is often referred to as a Ponzi scheme. Building ever more malls as the existing ones fail seems to fall into the same category.

So who is foisting this Ponzi scheme onto Utah County? Apparently it’s the Craig Realty Group, a Newport Beach-based shopping center developer “that specializes in upscale factory outlet centers.” That quote comes from this BS-laced press release.

Naturally, the Craig Realty Group (via KSL) — which seems to have used a computer and perhaps Google maps but never firsthand observation of the real world — eschewed the phrase “Ponzi scheme” in favor of this justification for the mall’s existence:

The developer wanted the location for a lot of reasons. It is right off the freeway, in between Salt Lake and Provo, and next to Cabelas. The variety of businesses and prime location should attract male and female consumers, especially with the new mall bringing many stores to Utah for the first time.

This is perhaps a good time to remember the many failings and false promises of Cabelas and big boxes generally. (Also, a Scheels recently opened in one of the worst buildings in Utah, and it’s just up the freeway from Cabelas.)

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps in 100 years this mall will be a thriving epicenter of social life and economic vitality. But if that happens it would be truly unprecedented.

Orem has a dying mall. Apparently, Lehi wanted one too.

More likely, this project will provide an example of how not to grow a city. It’s a perfect example of big, cataclysmic investment that operates under a failed model of placemaking. It’s car centric in a world moving away from cars. It’s nonlocal and generic, both in what it offers and in its design. There is no precedent for its long term success — not just economically but as an asset to a thriving and vibrant city.

In other words, in the end it’s just more crap.

*Too often people who build crap aren’t called out for it. The KSL article about the Lehi mall is a great example, failing as it does to critically examine anything regarding malls generally or the project specifically. After my recent post on crap, I decided that if no one else is going to call these people out, I guess I should.


Filed under Development, driving, economics

Poverty Levels in Provo Are Too High

Earlier this week I reported that Provo’s median income is lower than the cities to which it is most often compared. And though the situation may be improving, that still means residents have less money to spend in the local economy, among other things, which naturally translates into a comparatively depressed commercial sector.

But the bad news doesn’t stop there.

Perhaps the most alarming figure in the census data is the number of people in Provo living below poverty level: 31 percent. And just like median income, that figure compares unfavorably with all the other cities I’ve been looking at*:

As is apparent, poverty levels in every other city hover near 20 percent, or roughly 10 points lower than Provo’s level.

By way of comparison, Provo has a higher percentage of people living below poverty level than old, eastern industrial cities like Buffalo (29.6), Cincinnati (27.2), and Pittsburgh (21.9). Next door in Orem — where there is another large university whose students are no wealthier than Provo’s — just 13.5 percent of the population is living in poverty.

In fact, Provo’s poverty levels aren’t much lower than those in Detroit (34.5), and Detroit is notorious for its decimated manufacturing sector and for its struggles with poverty.

Some people will look at these figures and immediately want to explain them. Provo, for example, has a lot of students. Many of those students support themselves, marry earlier than other young people, and have kids quickly. Provo also has a history as a blue collar town meaning many of the city’s older residents never became very high wage earners.

There is a lot of truth to these explanations. But it’s important to remember that all of the cities included on the graph have students as well. Chattanooga and Ogden also both have state schools without huge research agendas and in the latter case many students are even members of the LDS Church (the same is true in Orem). In other words, I chose these cities because they each represent a different kind of college town.

But most importantly, these explanations are beside the point. Whatever the causes, if Provo’s residents are poorer than those in other cities Provo will have less economic vibrancy. In other words, explanations themselves won’t change the problem, which is that lower incomes and more poverty are one big reason Provo feels less successful than other cities.

With higher poverty rates than other cities, it makes sense that Provo would have similarly higher vacancy rates in downtown buildings.

It’s also worth mentioning that people in Provo should be embarrassed by these figures. For strategic reasons, I’ve typically chosen to make mostly economic arguments on this blog — so for example that more money means greater vibrancy. But it’s also simply wrong for nearly 1 in 3 people in our city to be certifiably poor. Provo is a young, educated, business friendly community; having such a high poverty rate is unacceptable. It’s morally outrageous. And, unlike Rust Belt cities, it’s almost never discussed.

In any case, it also effects everyone because wealth and resources are factors that make or break places like Downtown Provo. If the community wants to be as thriving as other cities, these rates will need to change.

*For the next few posts I’m going to be sticking with my original five cities simply because it takes time to compile and graph all of this information. Some readers have suggested several other great possible additions and I hope to discuss them in the future, but for now the cities I’ve included seem to have sufficient diversity to make the point.


Filed under Development, Downtown, economics

Zoning, Parking and Public Transit

Advocates of public transit like to tout the idea that it can lead to more development, higher property values and greater density around hubs. And in Orem, those benefits are already taking shape, even though the transit itself is still unfinished.

According to my colleague Genelle Pugmire, Orem just approved zoning modifications to allow a new five-building apartment complex near the city’s intermodal hub. The development will be located near UVU and will be “transit oriented.”

The changes the city council made to the zone to allow the complex involved lowering the number of required parking stalls because of FrontRunner and bus service, allowing different landscaping and eliminating the requirement for shuttle service to Utah Valley University because of bus service.

The lowering of parking requirements — which is a great start but of course not a sufficient end point — is particularly noteworthy. From the developers’ perspective, it means the ability to construct more revenue-generating housing units with less wasted space. This project consequently offers an obvious message: cities looking to attract development should relax antiquated zoning law related to things like parking minimums.

The project also suggests that the market in Utah Valley is tending toward less parking, not more; developers are clearly banking on public transit to make up for fewer potential drivers.

There’s no reason a similar approach wouldn’t work in Provo; most of the city’s high density and student housing areas already are connected to public transit via buses, most of which will pass through Provo’s own intermodal hub and commuter rail station by December. So despite the historic support for parking minimums, very recent improvements in public transit have rendered them obsolete. The paradigm has shifted and though it may take time to explain that shift to the community, previously ill-conceived parking minimums are becoming increasingly absurd and hard to support.

Recent improvements to Utah Valley’s public transit system have made old laws like parking minimums even more obsolete than they already were.

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Filed under construction, Development

The Post-Nordstrom Mall

In light of my earlier post today on City Creek, I thought I’d share a few photos of Orem’s University mall. These photos were taken a week or so ago, when Laura and I ventured up to the mall to see how it was faring in the wake of Nordstrom’s departure.

The parking lot around Nordstrom was basically empty, much as the mall's north parking lot has been since the departure of Mervyn's a few years ago.

I was prepared for the worst, so seeing even a few people in the mall was a pleasant surprise (economically at least. I have no inherent love for malls). But a few people wandering around hardly makes a healthy mall. Indeed this picture is notable for all the empty space: empty chairs, vacant pathways, etc.

As these pictures show, the University Mall is not terrible, as far as malls goes. Aesthetically it's far superior to Provo's mall. But these pictures also show that at least on the evening I visited, it was far under capacity.

You can be the judge as to whether these pictures reveal a healthy retail environment or a failing one.


Filed under Development, economics

What Can We Do With Our Malls If (When) They Fail?

Several posts ago, I wondered aloud why there wasn’t a more critical discussion surrounding City Creek. The questions raised in that post, however, were promoted by a general sense that malls are bad investments and on the wane. From a piece on a mall in New Jersey from The Daily Beast:

The scale and scope of the project would be breathtaking in its own right. But what makes Xanadu extraordinary is the fact that it is emerging just as the American mall—that most quintessential of American institutions—is in its dying throes, if not already dead. Moribund malls have not gone unnoticed amongst industry analysts and Web sites like Deadmalls.com that feature photos of hundreds of now-abandoned sites. But what were once just worrying signs appear to have finally flat-lined.

That’s a description that could certainly apply to City Creek.

But more importantly on the hyper-local level, what does it mean for the malls in Utah County? I’ve written before that I believe Provo’s Towne Center Mall is better poised to succeed long-term than Orem’s University Mall. I’m more and more convinced of that fact all the time — not because I like Provo’s mall better but rather because Provo seems better managed and Orem seems to be a victim of circumstance.

But long term, will either mall survive? I truly can’t imagine how. Neither mall is particularly successful. Neither is in a particularly good location. And the investment going into both cities, and especially Provo, is directed to other areas.

I have no idea what will happen in the future to the malls in Utah County, but it’d be wise to start thinking about what will replace them in a generation or less.

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Filed under economics, Provo