Upside down in a Hummer

By John deJong

With oil prices up and people driving less,, why does downtown need a four-story parking garage?
by John deJong
There’s a lot of feverish activity at Downtown Rising on the north end of Main Street. Four floors of underground parking are being built under what will be a “pedestrian friendly” commercial/retail/residential development.

The ironic part is that by the time the project is completed, most Americans will have bought their last automobile. The way the price of oil is going, many shoppers from the suburbs will have to choose between being able to afford driving to downtown Salt Lake City and being able to buy anything once they get there. Some will opt for mass transit. Most will shop at a mall a little closer to home.

The ultimate, and not too distant, fate of all that parking will be as long-term storage/parking for mothballed vehicles that belong to the condominium owners living in that “pedestrian friendly” community. Maybe the real purpose of the sky-bridge over Main Street is so that residents won’t be forced to descend to the “storage levels” to get from Downtown Rising East and Downtown Rising West.

R-ST_DGMS_hummer.jpgIn a grim reminder of the recent mortgage debacle, many owners of large PUTs (Personal Utility Trucks) are upside down on the financing of their vehicles—they owe the bank more than the vehicle is worth. But hey—as the price of oil continues to rise, their owners will likely be driving them less—and they will need some place to store them.

Is that what the Salt Lake Planning Commission, the City Council and the developer Taubman Centers Inc. were thinking? If they were, they got it right. Likely, they weren’t thinking about the price of oil at all. And the Prophet and Seer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Church), a major player, might need a new pair of spectacles, as well.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The way retailing is going, the stores will serve only as “reality” show rooms where shoppers can choose their purchases before they buy online. But I can’t help but think that Salt Lake City and Downtown Rising would have been better served by, instead of spending money on parking structures, building more light rail extensions to the suburbs.

On the bright side: The future is here (well, at least in Europe) and it works. Already graced with mass transit systems that utilize just about every form of transportation except large Single Occupant Vehicles (SOVs), cities in Europe are adopting public bicycle programs like there was no tomorrow – for SOVs.

Driven by the American Dream and directed by car salesmen and real estate developers, it has taken us only 60 years to get into the low-density/ high transit mess we’re in. We don’t have that much time to switch things around. The population density in downtown SLC must grow rapidly if it’s going to support more than a handful of businesses.

If you build mass transit, they’ll come

Our only partners in revitalization are the residents and business owners of Salt Lake City. County support for mass transit will be Balkanized, with each city and township trying to keep its residents shopping at the local strip mall. The same can be said for the legislature which will only begrudgingly spend money for mass transit (or rather authorize the expenditure by local governments) when the air pollution gets so bad they can’t see the top of the Church office building on a “clear” day from their perch on the hill.

If Salt Lake City is serious about revitalization, it is going to have to get serious about making it happen. In the short term, it needs to get on the “internet tax” bandwagon. Internet commerce needs no further breaks; brick and mortar businesses across the country can use every break they can get.

Mass transit will be an intermediate solution. The sooner Salt Lake County is criss-crossed with light rail and interconnecting bus routes, the better. Residential density will be the long term solution. The day parking garages are being torn down to build apartments and condominiums will be the day Salt Lake City turns the corner.

Here’s to the price of gas doubling.

John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.

Utah has taken a big step forward in changing the way it produces and uses energy. A coalition of non-profits, researchers, business representatives, utility experts and economists has joined to study the implementation of a carbon-free and nuclear-free energy policy for Utah, with the expectation of making our state the first in the nation to do so.

This local coalition, led by HEAL Utah, is working closely with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Washington, D.C., which last fall released a massive report examining how our country can transform its energy grid in the next 30 to 50 years to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions without the use of nuclear power.

Why Utah? Well, while most people agree that carbon-based fuel has got to go, the arguments about nuclear power are far murkier. Given that Utah currently receives 98 percent of the country’s low-level nuclear waste, the debate on expanding nuclear power has never mattered more here. Besides Utah’s vast coal reserves, our state also has plentiful renewable resources— solar, wind and geothermal.

Electricity policy happens at the state level, according to IEER President Arjun Makhijani, PhD. “This is where the leadership needs to be because this is where the electricity structure decisions are made—at the level of the grid and the regulatory commissions. I think it’ll be a bit of a surprise when we get done [implementing this study] that Utah will be the most visionary state in the union in terms of renewable energy, the environment and the jobs they create.”

—Sophia Nicholas

This article was originally published on July 3, 2008.