Tom Clyde: Jackrabbit habitat
There are a couple of big developments in the news. They pose surprisingly similar issues. One is the Tech Center project near the Visitor Information Center and Skullcandy buildings at Kimball Junction. The other is the PEG Companies’ proposal for the Park City Mountain Resort parking lots. They each have approvals in place that are both ancient and fairly specific. Both applicants are asking to make significant revisions to those old approvals. One is a within the city’s jurisdiction, the other is in the county’s.
The Tech Center was approved years ago as a move to diversify our economy. The idea was to build an office park where technology companies, like Skullcandy, would locate their offices and hire lots of techy people. The problem quickly became obvious: Our messed-up housing market makes it impossible to hire locally. Employees don’t want to commute up from Salt Lake, and all the tech action has moved south to Lehi anyway. There’s no market for office space on that scale, and the proposal is to ditch the tech concept and build a mixed-use project including 1,100 residential units.
On the PCMR parking lots, the hotel plan has been in the works for decades. The current plan includes some employee housing, hotel rooms, commercial space and replacement parking. The applicant, however, wants a reduction in the parking requirement for the new construction. Apparently the thinking is that the hotel guests won’t have cars, and that the employees of the hotel and retail areas will arrive at work through some form of teleportation. Day skiers can park at the grocery store. There are issues with height as well. So they have asked to modify the prior approval.
Both the city and county have been grinding away on these applications for what seems like an unconscionably long time. Call it undue process. There has been an effort to leverage the requested modifications to gain “community benefits.” In both cases, the main community benefit seems to be “world class bus terminals” and some affordable housing. While both of those would be useful to the community, I’m struggling to find a net benefit to either project.
In the case of the Tech Center, adding 1,100 residential units in the heart of the most screwed-up traffic in the county doesn’t make any sense, even if some of the units are “affordable.” At three people per household, that’s over 3,000 new friends and neighbors. A 7% increase in the county population in one lump. It’s more people than live in Kamas, all stuffed on to 60 acres. It seems to be premised on the magical thinking that they will all ride the bus. How many of them will be commuting to Salt Lake is unknowable. It’s a huge impact on the schools, water systems, sewers, roads, air and everything else. The developer has agreed to participate in upgrades to Kimball Junction that might partially mitigate the negative impacts, but the area is pretty much beyond fixing now.
PCMR really needs an attractive and appealing base facility. What’s there now is a hodgepodge of different ownerships, design and function. It’s old, and hasn’t aged very well. Sometimes old becomes quaint. In this case, old is just old. The PEG project doesn’t fix it. Rather, it adds yet another generation of uncoordinated stuff. The efforts to mitigate the negative impacts don’t accomplish much.
In both cases, the property owners have the legal right to develop their properties, and can do that under the existing approvals. Go for it. There’s no obligation on the part of the city or county to grant more, or to modify things to suit present market conditions. We’re not short of hotel rooms in town, and the hotels we’ve got can’t hire staff to run them. There’s no community need for the PCMR project.
For decades, there was a sense that when growth began to pinch, there were ways to build our way out of it. Widen S.R. 224, build Deer Valley Drive, stick up a few traffic lights, build a couple hundred apartments in the Bonanza Park neighborhood, the China Bridge garage. There was always a solution. For a long time, it worked. I don’t see how we can build our way out of current issues. We’ve reached (or exceeded) our comfortable capacity. Growth issues tend to be presented as a choice between density or sprawl. We’ve done both. What if we decided to do neither?
These big developments can operate under their existing approvals. There’s no community benefit to modifying them to grant more density, build more congestion or reduce parking. The jackrabbit habitat at the Tech Center is a real community benefit. It’s not our fault there isn’t a market for office space. Maybe part of the solution for the workforce housing issues is to shrink the workforce. Businesses can figure out how to provide an acceptable level of service with fewer people. We can all dial back our expectations a few notches, recognizing that waiting longer for dinner ripples through the system in terms of less traffic, less demand for subsidized housing and so on.
Rather than comparing the existing approvals to the proposed modifications, we ought to be comparing the existing approvals with the vacant lots. There isn’t a bus stop fancy enough to offset the negative impacts of adding 3,000 people at Kimball Junction. If the property owners want to build what is approved, that’s their right. There’s just no good reason to modify the approvals to encourage building more. Don’t give an inch.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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