Don’t Get Me Started: November 2009
Are we there yet? and Whither Main Street?
by John deJong
Are we there yet?
It takes time to turn around a behemoth headed down a dangerous road.
Every day I talk to somebody who is disappointed in Barack Obama. Each person cites the one reason they voted for him and then cites his lack of progress on their special interest. As one-issue voters, they get activated only by their special cause.
The Nobel Peace Prize is a typical example. Obama hasn’t achieved nuclear disarmament yet, the argument goes. Well, after 120 peace prize recipients we still don’t have peace; but we’re closer. And we are closer to nuclear disarmament than we were a year ago. Or at least we’re headed in the right direction.
Others fault Obama for not taking the lead in pushing bills through Congress. But he’s just going back to doing things the old fashioned way, the way our founding fathers intended letting Congress work out the details of legislation with the president’s advice and consent. That’s democracy. That’s separation of powers. With a bunch of Matheson-style, Blue Dog “Democrats” to deal with in Congress, Obama is doing an above-average job of herding cats. More specifically: He’s done the wise thing and let Congressional leaders do the cat herding.
Sure, letting Congress take the lead with legislation is messy and takes longer but the result is progress. The result is something that can be built on later. It’s not the Bush-era command democracy where the White House told Congress which bills to pass (after consulting with industry on the exact wording), then issued signing statements contradicting the language and intent of any law that didn’t satisfy the party hacks and ideologues.
Another reason the one-issue folks can’t be satisfied is the large number of issues facing this new administration. Fixing the economy is probably more important than ending “don’t ask don’t tell.” Is dealing with Pakistan more important than Palestine, North Korea or Iran? With so many challenges at hand, it’s impossible to agree on which ones to tackle first. Prioritizing needs, vast bureaucracies to tame and manage—it is naive to think we could possibly be “there” yet, when you think of the condition of the vehicle when Obama took over the steering wheel.
The oil and gas leases Tim DeChristopher bid on last December illustrate Obama’s power and constraints. An Obama BLM appointee recently withdrew most of the lease parcels. But the federal prosecutor in the case is a G. W. Bush holdover. And Dee Benson, the judge in the case, was appointed by G.H.W. Bush. (Benson, by the way, sits on the national Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the outfit that authorizes wire taps.)
Obama would be a saint if he did everything people expected of him in his first nine months in office. Let’s let the historians worry about whether he’s a saint or not 100 years from now. In the meantime, let’s get back behind the causes we believe in and make them reality with the president’s help.
Whither Main Street?
Downtown Salt Lake City is a residential dead zone. With only a couple of exceptions, Salt Lake City from the freeway to 200 East and from 200 North to 900 South (an 88-block area) is devoid of residences. I’m not sure if that’s the plan or whether its a lack of a plan. It could be because of zoning. Or it could be because all the land owners are holding out for the next mall, a 50-story office complex or another mega-hotel.
The dead-of-night-at-6 p.m phenomenon is so bad that urban planners are attempting to “activate” blocks with some sort of activity. Gallivan Plaza is “activated” on Thursday nights during the summer. And, of course, Supernacle Square is “activated” during Conference and on Sunday mornings when the Choir is singing. The rest of the time you could shoot “Thriller” on Main Street.
With millions of square feet of vacant downtown office and retail space (there’s a “For Lease” sign on virtually every building in the downtown area), the last thing Salt Lake City needs is another commercial center. By the time City Creek Rising has risen, and they have come, Salt Lake City won’t need another commercial center for… (in the digital age) …ever. What downtown Salt Lake City needs to “activate” downtown is more residents. Not 100 here and 200 there but 10s of 1,000s.
The L.D.S. Church is working on their end of things with all the residential towers planned for the City Creek Rising blocks. Yet the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce effectively nixed the two most logical sites for the new public safety complex because it wanted them saved for their “highest and best use”—to wit, “commercial/high density” buildings. The way things are going, the Chamber of Commerce parking lot west of the Chamber of Commerce building on the northeast corner of State Street and Fourth South, and Earl Holding’s whole block parking lot between Main Street and West Temple and 400 and 500 South will be used for their lowest and worst uses till the right deal comes along.
Which means we can look forward to surface parking lots in the middle of downtown till we are all flying around with jetpacks. The Hotel Newhouse went down in the early ’80s. Kirkham’s and the Terrace Ball Room came down not long after that. For better (or worse) than 30 years, Earl Holding has been buying properties and bulldozing the buildings. At least Rick Howa and the folks who own the old Zephyr location had the decency not to bulldoze their buildings. Nobody puts the down in downtown like Earl Holding. Apparently Holding hopes he can convince the county to move the convention center to 400 South so he can build a mega-convention hotel. He would then own the three largest hotels in town. Good luck with that!
Not a few downtowns across the country have died waiting for the ultimate commercial development to develop. Downtown Salt Lake City is the wrong place to play Field of Dreams. The solution is simple. Downtown needs magnets but it also needs a lot of iron filings. If each block in the heart of downtown had 1,000 residents, downtown would generate its own activity, 24 hours a day. We could finally put Salt Lake City’s reputation for rolling up the sidewalks at night to rest.
You could say downtown Salt Lake City’s Main Street has hypothermia. To revive, it needs warm bodies, now.
Sometime this holiday season, park your car and stroll down Main St. Maybe invite along someone who has lived here longer than you—or maybe you’re the oldtimer, in which case, bring along someone to whom you can pass on a few stories of a livelier time, when Salt Lake had actual urban dwellers. Drop a few bucks at Sam Weller’s or one of the new restaurants. And thank them. It still is, after all, our Main Street, and we must lend what care we can.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.