Now that the prison is officially, if not yet literally, on its way out of Draper, the dreaming has begun.
Go to Draper’s official city website and you can see an artist’s conception. Where today guards roam perimeters and men and women contemplate their sins, tomorrow will stand gleaming skyscrapers that put downtown Salt Lake City to shame.
It all sounds so familiar. And it all sounds so pedestrian, which is not to be confused with walkable. A bunch of buildings clustered together
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like so many Legos. Everything is included except a sense of place.
Why does it sound familiar? Nearly 30 years ago, I sat through a late-night city council meeting in Sandy where a young mayor named Steve Newton explained his vision. Sandy was a fast-growing city with easy freeway access, the perfect place to lure a corporate headquarters or other big fish; the perfect place to actually design and build a brand new downtown out of raw farmland.
Newton described to me how much sense it all made. Brigham Young himself, were he alive to see the congestion of the rush hour commute in the ‘80s, would look 100 blocks south from downtown and declare the site of a new business core.
It wasn’t until after midnight that night in 1986 that the city decided to purchase the farmland and market it. Twenty-nine years later, Sandy’s downtown is a pleasant place — a smattering of low-rise buildings and a soccer stadium. However, while I may be underestimating tourists passing through on I-15, I doubt many people mistake it for downtown Salt Lake City.
The market has a way of splashing cold reality on master plans. Seven years ago, some of Sandy’s leaders thought they finally had arrived as they unveiled the Proscenium, a planned development that would include three 40-story towers, an ice rink and a 2,400-seat Broadway theater, not to mention housing, commercial and retail properties.
Sandy even commissioned a study to back up its contention that a Broadway theater was a better fit there than in Salt Lake City.
It all sounded so grand until the recession hit. A year later, the city council bought the land. The Proscenium, city officials said, might still be on the horizon, a place where a few real things share space with mirages.
None of this is to say Sandy’s vision in 1986 has failed. The city’s new core is taking shape slowly. But then, so is Lehi’s.
Actually, Lehi is taking shape rapidly, with cranes and mid-rise skeletons popping up like toadstools after a steady rain. Some big-name high-tech businesses are in the mix.
So why is Draper’s plan any different? If every suburban city has the same idea, how will people be able to tell the difference as they drive past?
The answer lies in a regional park. Yes, Draper’s conception of its new downtown includes 105 acres of meandering green space, but I can’t imagine anyone waking up on a Saturday morning and looking forward to taking the kids to it.
But a regional park in an urban setting …
The American Planning Association is quick to provide facts showing how parks are “a source of positive economic benefits” that range from higher property values to attracting businesses and residents. A briefing on the subject notes that, more than a century ago, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted demonstrated how Central Park had raised nearby property values.
It’s amazing how few modern cities consider this option when planning their new business districts, considering the many long-term benefits so obvious in places where big parks exist. Sixty years ago things were different. When the state moved the prison from Sugarhouse to Draper in 1951, government officials set up an authority to design a park that today is one of the city’s jewels, not to mention the eastern anchor to a vibrant business district.
Without a sense of place, Draper would be adding to an endless row of business buildings in Salt Lake and Utah counties. That’s not exactly the stuff of which dreams are made.