Unless developers of the new City Creek Center downtown project reconsider design principles that already are being discredited in a growing number of American cities, the project will represent merely a city rebuilt ineffectually, not a thriving reborn central business district, according to a New York award-winning journalist and urban critic who spoke Sept. 28 at a forum sponsored by Mayor Rocky Anderson’s office and KCPW-FM radio.
Noting the design’s insistence on insulating the center from meaningful connections to downtown street levels and a proposal to build a skywalk and a convertible roof, Roberta Gratz said the project’s pedestrian-unfriendly features negate potentially strengthening ones already in place around the city’s downtown area – particularly the light-rail transit line and the presence of enterprising, ambitious local business owners.
“I’m not sure what kind of retail is going to be on the outside,” she said, “if all the real activity is going to be in the inside.”
The billion-dollar project, expected to be completed in 2011, will dramatically remake a 20-acre parcel on the north side of downtown where the ZCMI and Crossroads malls were once located. Panelist Bill Williams, representing the developers, showed renderings of the new center, which include a water park and commons area inside the new complex.
Williams was joined on the panel by Keith Bartholomew, a University of Utah faculty member and expert on regional urban planning; local architect Max Smith, and Soren Simonsen, an architect who represents District 7 on the city council.
Gratz anchored the forum’s theme – Creating a City of Lasting Value –with an hour-long presentation that featured photos and evidence from at least 40 cities in which downtown revitalization projects have been undertaken recently.
She is the author of “The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way,” and “Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown.” She is an international lecturer on urban development issues and former award-winning reporter for the New York Post. Most recently, she wrote a report for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, “A Frog, A Wooden House, A Stream and A Trail: Ten Years of Community Revitalization in Central Europe.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Gratz to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2003.
Acknowledging that urban revitalization is an evolutionary process that can take many years, Gratz challenged the value of headline-grabbing projects that seem to impose their intentions without genuine consideration of public input. Likening the process to a forest metaphor, she said that rather than planting “mature trees which provide shade in one spot,” cities should be seeding their urban landscapes so that a diverse variety of trees will reforest the area and spread shade throughout the downtown.
Preferring an approach she calls “urban husbandry,” Gratz said that modest low-cost initiatives – often without the substantial expense of public funds – do a great deal to resuscitate urban areas. In Pasadena, which cleared a historic site 30 years ago to make way for an enclosed mall that eventually failed, local officials and businesses banded together to open up the Colorado Boulevard street area without using public investment. “Rather, they went building by building and today the cafes are overflowing,” she added.
Perhaps particularly relevant to Salt Lake City’s challenge were experiences at New York City’s Lincoln Center and San Antonio’s River Walk district. A skywalk built in the 1960s on the area that included Lincoln Center and the Juilliard Music School has been removed to open up the area on 65th Street although Gratz said street-level retail would still need to be developed.
While the River Walk District in San Antonio fits the effective notion of urban rebirth, Gratz said the city is a victim of its own success, noting that just two blocks away remains an area hardly conducive to the type of pedestrian traffic essential to making street-level retail succeed – again an example that one huge project will not necessarily disseminate benefits throughout the entire central business district.
Among the most effective projects have been efforts to encourage chain retail and big box outlets to coexist with local businesses in urban areas. She cited the success of historic preservation efforts in New York City such as Home Depot’s decision to adapt accordingly to a 23rd Street building with a fully restored cast iron façade and Bed Bath and Beyond’s move into a 6th Avenue property that once housed the city’s top retail shops for women’s fashions.
The presence and functions of doors seemed to dominate most of the ensuing panel discussion and questions. Bartholomew said that downtowns should have “lots of doors,” while Simonsen said the deliberate placement of doors “every 20 to 40 feet” would help ensure that “equal consideration is given to every side” on the block. Smith, recalling his experience with seeing pedestrian activity on various spots along 300 South during a recent monthly art gallery stroll, said the city should pay attention to energizing the “connective tissue” which surrounds these “nodes of success.”
Gratz, meanwhile, challenged Williams’ assertions about the planned street-level doors at the new center. Skeptical about the apparent absence of appealing window displays and ground-floor retail activity, she said the developers had it wrong. “With the entrance on the inside, there’s nothing for them to go outside into the street,” she noted.
Williams also defended the proposal to keep stores shuttered on Sundays, explaining that this has worked effectively in Germany’s urban districts. However, Gratz reminded that the European experience – which has evolved gradually over a much longer timeframe than what is observed in the states – should not be used as a guideline, especially in consideration of the hundreds of residential units being incorporated into the new center.
Mayoral hopeful Ralph Becker, whose most recent poll leads over Republican Dave Buhler have widened to as much as 18 percentage points, attended the session. Undoubtedly, the next mayor will have to contend with the controversy over the center’s design – most prominently, the skywalk. Williams said the skywalk proposal would likely be ready by the first of the year. Nearly 100 attended the forum, which was held in the City Library’s auditorium.
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