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The Retraining of SLC

Betsy Anderson, Assoc. ASLA

Salt Lake City is a place of large-scale experiences. It seems that every street corner affords at least a glimpse of the Wasatch Range, deeply creased by canyons and rising steeply from the valley floor.

Estimated read time:
18 min

The street corners themselves are breathtakingly poised at intersections so wide that even a fast walker must scurry across in the allotted time to avoid six lanes of oncoming traffic. Shaped by ideology—whether religious or economic—the city’s built spaces are muscular enough to contend with their outsized natural setting. The arguably intentional effect is to dwarf the individual pedestrian. In recent years, Salt Lake’s urban designers and planners have begun to drive chinks into this armor, layering new infrastructure and economic systems onto the old in ways that privilege the human scale. In the historic Sugar House neighborhood, this tactic has resulted in a new plaza and streetcar line that offer a compassionate and intimate approach to inhabiting the city.

Any consideration of public space in Salt Lake City is necessarily done in the shadow of the Plat of Zion, the city plan developed by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith and applied to this desert valley by his successor, Brigham Young, in the mid-19th century. Smith’s 1833 planning vision sought to establish a pious, utopian community through detailed prescriptions for the size and use of blocks and lots and their arrangement around a central hub of temples. Effectively placeless, the plan was designed to apply to all settlements founded by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints. Although Young revised some elements of Smith’s plan to accommodate the geographical and economic realities of an isolated settlement in mountainous terrain, its broad- brush moves can still be experienced today. The most tangible of these is the city’s grid, which functions as a de facto coordinate system to describe at all times one’s distance and direction from the Salt Lake Temple. That distance is communicated in 660-foot increments—the width of each city block, or about the length of two football fields. The blocks are divided by streets platted at the width of two surveyor’s chains, or 132 feet. City lore holds that this was the width required to turn a wagon team around without the driver cursing.

Salt Lake’s landscape architects and planners increasingly view such idiosyncratic platting as an opportunity. “As a planner, I’d think you would welcome having more right-of-way to do things with than not,” observes Kelly Gillman, ASLA. “If you do it right,” he cautions. Gillman is a senior principal of the multidisciplinary architectural firm CRSA, where he’s had the opportunity to make promising inroads into the city’s ample thoroughfares, including a 2013 plan to improve multimodal circulation and streetscape amenities in the Sugar House business district.

The plan called for superposing a network of bicycle lanes, complete streets, and midblock pedestrian connections within existing Sugar House circulation routes. The historic neighborhood’s name commemorates a failed scheme to manufacture sugar from sugar beets, though it has nonetheless been a longtime hive of activity—by turns transforming itself from the home of the Utah State Prison to an epicenter of regional furniture manufacturing to an increasingly expensive hipster enclave. CRSA’s work in the neighborhood began in 2003, with the preparation of design guidelines and a mobility study that have informed much of the subsequent development in the district. In 2005, the firm designed the first restoration of the Sugar House Monument, a blush- colored limestone obelisk erected in 1930 to honor the area’s beet farmers and entrepreneurs.

These previous projects positioned the firm well to lead the landscape design for two of the biggest actions featured in the 2013 circulation plan: the S-Line streetcar and a new plaza around the Sugar House Monument.

The two projects are located more than a quarter mile apart, and you could be forgiven for not grasping their relationship. Yet the agencies and consultants behind their creation have long considered them entwined. Preliminary iterations of the streetcar alignment pulled the S-Line terminus directly into the plaza. The plaza itself was an older idea, first suggested in a master plan for the neighborhood produced in 1985. Its location at the southwest corner of 2100 South and Highland Drive was the site of a busy rightturn lane, which swept irreverently around the art deco monument. It took until the spring of 2015 for the idea of a usable civic space at the intersection to become a reality.

“People would come barreling through here at 40 to 50 miles an hour,” remembers Ben Davis, ASLA, who served as a project manager for the plaza for the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City (RDA). The RDA, funded through tax-increment financing, supports development projects like this

$2.8 million effort to both spur economic growth and help build neighborhood identity. “There was a ‘plaza’ around the memorial, but people would never use it. It had some trees and some benches, but it really wasn’t used, because who wants to go play chicken?”

Standing in the plaza on a late spring morning, it’s hard to imagine a roadway bisecting its immaculate expanse. It’s not hard to imagine the speeding traffic, however, as it is still here, shoved just to the north. Davis assures me that the local community is beginning to embrace walkability, “but it’s still kind of car-centric, as you can see,” he admits— despite the provision of numerous sleek bicycle racks within the plaza itself, multiple bus lines in the area, new bicycle and pedestrian trails, and the completion of the streetcar line. “There is still kind of a Wild, Wild West mentality here,” he explains. Reclaiming public space from a wilderness of cars is an incremental business.

The new plaza feels caught in a tangle of traffic. The Sugar House Monument has long marked a natural point of gravity for the neighborhood, and the project spans the convergence of multiple lines of infrastructure. The plaza lies near the foot of the Old Mormon Trail, and its northern boundary is inscribed by the Lincoln Highway, dedicated in 1913 and one of the first transcontinental auto routes. Beneath its glittering granite and concrete pavers lies the confluence of Parleys Creek and the Jordan and Salt Lake Canal, interred in culverts but hinted at by a 15-by-17- foot splash pad at their intersection, where children can interact with a skim of water on hot summer days.

The more compelling acknowledgment of the site’s watery history is not a feature but a void. The Paseo, as it is called, traces the buried canal’s route with a passageway full of light and air, relieving the distended girth of the adjacent facade. A building once stood on this site, which the RDA needed to purchase and tear down to provide a midblock pedestrian thoroughfare. “Because they’re so big, we try and cut down our blocks as much as we can into these mews, or paseos,” Davis notes.

The Paseo is mercifully sheltered from the hustle of the street. The exposure that characterizes the center of the plaza was one of the biggest struggles for the CRSA design team. “A lot of people ask why there aren’t many trees in the plaza,” Gillman tells me. “There are complexities with all of the underground utilities: We have a canal that runs north to south, we have two very large storm drains that head east to west, and we have all of the other usual business district utilities that are very shallow under the space. We didn’t have a place to put trees because of all this infrastructure, and there was also the goal of having an open space for setting up a farmers’ market or having a concert.”

A majestic sweep of warm concrete pavers will serve these purposes well, but it’s hard not to mourn the snug formation of street trees that gave way for the project. “Would I like to have a few more trees out there?” Gillman asks. “Yeah, I think I would.” But he explains that the healthy purple crown locusts that couldn’t be retained on the project site were transplanted to nearby Fairmont Park and that new trees were planted along the S-Line and in neighborhood parks to offset the loss.

The plaza’s handful of replacement locusts are clustered near the buildings, where restaurant and brewery seating spills genially out of doors. The other site amenities are also gathered along this fringe, including lighting and oversized granite planters-cum-seat walls. These granite monoliths were conceived to evoke the austere grade changes of the Basin and Range ecoregion, says Bryce Ward, ASLA, who served as CRSA’s designer and project manager for the plaza during design development and construction. The significance of the hulking stones is not lost in a city finely attuned to symbolism: They also connote the granite quarried in Little Cottonwood Canyon to the southeast and transported 20 miles along both Highland Drive and the canal to build the Salt Lake Temple.

Commemorative details like these are strewn liberally throughout the plaza, mostly along the ground plane in the form of custom manhole covers, bronze plaques, and a singular teal-tinted terrazzo compass that once marked the entrance to the much-loved Southeast Furniture store that stood immediately to the south. Davis worries that the overall effect is a little busy, and it is, but the jumble has the charming and unselfconscious eclecticism of a family living room. The more elegant, restrained arc of the central plaza was empty during my visit. “The middle of the space probably isn’t used quite as much on a day-to-day basis,” Gillman admits, “which is why we put the movable chairs and tables out there.” But even the movable café seating has retreated to the more comfortable verges.

Despite the design intention to continue the plaza across the five lanes of 2100 South, this rightturn- lane-turned-public-space remains subjugated to the automobile —although with any luck it will not be for long. Plans have been approved to extend the S-Line northward along Highland Drive, which would transform the backed-up lanes of traffic into a busy transit node. Salt Lake’s transit planners and the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) are waiting for the necessary funding and political will to carry the project forward. “Really, our streetcar needs to be expanded in order to reach its full potential,” Davis says.

At the moment the S-Line ends perfunctorily, at the end of the UTA right-of-way two blocks away. But its two-mile trajectory, completed in 2013, is not the result of poor planning or limited vision. Rather, the streetcar, bicycle, and pedestrian conduit—Utah’s first multimodal recreation corridor— suggests what can be achieved through creative, collaborative, and opportunistic placemaking. The linear park stitches its way along the back sides of homes and light industry in Sugar House and the adjacent city of South Salt Lake, providing a missing link in a 100-mile or more regional network of cycle trails and bringing transit riders to the threshold of UTA’s 1,400-square-mile light rail system, one of the largest coverage areas in the country.

The S-Line itself is a remnant and follows an abandoned Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad corridor completed in 1890 to reach silver mines in Park City, Utah. The line was truncated after World War II during the decline of the local mining industry, although a vestige would serve the old Granite Furniture warehouse in Sugar House until 2005. Over the past two decades, UTA has optimized the use of Salt Lake’s deserted rail lines to create its unusually comprehensive light rail system, known as TRAX. The S-Line was no exception, although it was the first streetcar to be deployed in the city in more than half a century. Salt Lake City once boasted one of the most extensive electric streetcar networks in the country, dismantled in the 1940s but still discernible. “For so many of the light rail projects, as we dug up the street to put the rails in, we dug up the old tracks that they had paved over,” recalls Grey Turner, a senior program manager for engineering and project development at UTA. “We’re just coming full circle.”

Except that UTA and its riders had to relearn what it means to have a streetcar. “When this was designed, UTA didn’t have streetcar standards,” Davis says. “They designed this corridor with light rail standards—for 50, 60 miles per hour,” rather than the streetcar’s sedate 20 mph. The typical UTA approach demanded three- to four-foot-high fencing and forbade any kind of midblock crossing, in contrast to what the city imagined. “Our vision was permeability, having people,” Davis says. “One of our city council members said, ‘I envision kids throwing footballs, right next to the train!’”

Davis laughs at the recollection, but this aspiration posed a thorny puzzle for the designers at CRSA, who had to reconcile the city’s dream of unobstructed movement with UTA’s legitimate safety concerns and requirements. “We had a number of meetings,” Gillman says, “trying to figure out how we were going to meet the engineering requirements, the safety requirements, the urban planning requirements, which sometimes were all in conflict.” In the end, instead of a rigid barrier, the designers proposed ribbons of robust arctic willow, mallow ninebark, red osier dogwood, and mountain spiraea to provide the federally required 36- to 42-inch-high separation between the rails and people on foot or bicycle.

“We looked at this as having three lines of defense separating people from the track,” explains Steve Cornell, CRSA principal and project manager for the S-Line greenway. He describes the woody plantings, an adjacent rill conducting runoff down the greenway, and a measured procession of bollard lighting along the paved walking and cycling track. “We finally convinced UTA that this was a better solution than having a solid barrier, because somebody could get stuck behind it and wouldn’t be able to get out.”

Wooden posts laced with sturdy rope served as an interim obstruction while the young plants matured. Today the rope is gone, and the posts in some sections are already obscured by a healthy flush of new growth. You get the sense that the rail line has been reclaimed by the site’s native vegetation. Linear meadows stretch in either direction along the green tract, serving as placeholders in case the cities and UTA decide to install a second track to allow additional streetcar service. Fragments of the original Rio Grande rails frame each meadow juncture, coyly suggesting this alternate future. In May, the planted swaths are spangled with sego lily, Utah columbine, as well as a vigorous crop of dandelion seed heads.

“We imagined the journey of a drop of water, falling in the Wasatch Mountains and making its way to the Great Salt Lake,” recalls Ward, the lead landscape designer for the greenway, who has since moved on to work for GSBS Architects. The grid made it easy to divide segments of the corridor into ecotones, moving east to west and shifting from alpine meadows to a mountain brush community and narrow canyon, which neatly corresponds to a reduction in the width of the right-of-way between 800 East and 700 East. “What are plantings like in these areas with cliff edges?” Ward remembers asking. From here, the S-Line opens up into a conceptual floodplain, where the rail line conveniently bends like a river and slips between willow and maple mallow.

Where the streetcar meets this valley floor, the plantings introduce a temporal gradient, signifying the 19th-century arrival of Mormon pioneers with grid plantings of lavender and Allium laid out at one-twelfth the scale of a standard Salt Lake City block. “This area was designed by looking at early pioneer structures and demarcations in the landscape,” Cornell explains. Ward describes the deliberate introduction of ornamental maple and locust cultivars the team selected to symbolize settlement: “The Mormon pioneers planted slow-growing black locusts to illustrate that they were here to stay. We couldn’t replant the regular black locust because of maintenance concerns, so we replaced it with the smaller TWISTY BABY cultivar.”

While these concepts are too subtle to be read clearly from a moving streetcar or bicycle, they are legible at the scale of the individual pedestrian.

The absence of fences along the tracks sets the tone for a series of intimate plazas that swell at station platforms and road crossings. These generous gathering spaces expand at grade to both sides of the track, and while waiting for the next train—which can take as long as 20 minutes— streetcar riders can pull up a chair to bask in the sun, play bocce, or contemplate sculpture by the local artists Michael Whiting and Jared Clark. “We wanted to create some spaces where people could congregate and commune and just be in the city,” Cornell says.

These nexus points between the rail line and the residential community are a departure from UTA’s ordinarily thrifty station aesthetic. The S-Line’s total project budget of $55 million was bolstered by a $26 million federal TIGER II grant and included an $11 million contribution from the cities of Salt Lake and South Salt Lake, in addition to UTA’s $18 million offering. The greenway would not have come to be without such kaleidoscopic funding. The multiple fund sources are key to the project’s placemaking success, argues Julianne Sabula, the transit program manager for Salt Lake City.

“The UTA approach has been, for many years, bare bones and no frills,” she says. “This project illustrates the complementary investments that cities can make to connect a transit system to neighborhood development.”

Lounging around the 900 East crossing on a sunny afternoon feels a bit like kicking back in a good friend’s backyard. The greenway’s meandering gravel path traverses close to a mile of the S-Line corridor, sidling up to the gardens, patios, and garages behind Sugar House’s houses. Bearded iris tumble back and forth between the perimeter fences, many of which were installed as part of the project.

By all accounts, the S-Line was a largely welcome addition to the neighborhood, replacing the previously weedy and run-down industrial rail corridor. Still, the project team embraced a series of rigorous outreach efforts, including a community design charrette in a nearby warehouse that featured a full-scale mock-up of public spaces along the 66-foot-wide streetcar passage. “We laid out 66 feet of paper across the floor to show how much space each of these elements takes,” Gillman recalls. “You said you wanted to have a soccer field in this corridor?” he recalls the design team’s asking. “Well, that’s not going to happen, but maybe you can get a bocce ball court. People started to understand the spatial constraints.”

Davis even went door to door, “sometimes at night, by myself,” to check in with neighbors about their access needs. An alleyway bordered the old rail line in the block between 800 East and 900 East, and the designers preserved access for two existing garages through slender concrete carriage tracks, slicing gracefully through the Bio- Native fescue mix. An access gate was installed for a resident with a disability whose backyard borders one of the platforms.

Soon front doors as well as back doors will face the corridor: The prodigious new developments sprouting up along the line are given incentives to face onto the greenway and bicycle trail, Davis tells me. “We calculated about $400 or $500 million of new investment that we felt you could directly tie, day one, to the streetcar,” he notes. (Davis recently left the RDA to join PEG Development in Provo, Utah.) Ward estimates that the economic stimulus could total as much as

$800 million, if the city of South Salt Lake is also included. New buildings are burgeoning adjacent to the S-Line and within the Sugar House business district, in response to the streetcar’s current trajectory and in anticipation of its future extension along the north edge of the monument plaza, where it will eventually serve Westminster College and, with luck, connect to the TRAX Red Line stop at 900 East.

Conversations about this future put a damper on the design team’s enthusiasm. The plaza and S-Line were propelled by the pro-transit, pro-bicycle, pro-livability agenda of Salt Lake City’s former mayor, Ralph Becker, and the current administration is less supportive of such infrastructure investments. These challenges are visually expressed in unweeded, under-pruned stretches of the greenway that cause Davis to shake his head. The streetcar and the plaza are hovering, ready to connect but still painfully out of reach of each other. “We have an opportunity to do better,” Ward says. “I hope these projects will continue. Utah is growing up, our population is doubling, and how we develop is important. We could end up with something really sprawled out and car-ridden.”

Such a destiny is patently opposed to the city’s founding ethos, whereby early Mormon pioneers were cautioned against “carelessly scattering out over a wide extent of country.”

“I don’t think Brigham Young’s intent was to have all the streets paved, for vehicles,” Ward says. “In his mind’s eye were grand boulevards of trees and green space. Much of this planning is to bring some of that back to Salt Lake City.” Young likely couldn’t be prouder to see such thoughtful infill, adapting to the needs of today’s communities within an urban framework that has proven itself surprisingly flexible.


Used by permission. Anderson, Betsy. “The Retraining of Salt Lake City.” Landscape Architecture Magazine, November 2017, Volume 107, Number 11. Pages 88 – 101.

Watch CRSA's Senior Principal & Landscape Architect Kelly Gillman discuss the streetcar project in "Streetcar Greenway 2020" on our YouTube Channel.