Tom Clyde: This time the sky may be falling
It’s hard to know what to make of the news. You read the headlines, and the conclusion is that the sky is falling. Runaway growth, insufferable traffic, the obliteration of our small-town character, chain stores on Main Street and possibly the Olympics coming back to town. If you picked up a copy of The Park Record from 40 years ago, the headlines would be surprisingly similar. The construction of the Shadow Ridge condominiums was going to knock the planets out of alignment. The world escaped destruction only by moving the Miners Hospital from its original location to City Park.
The fact is that this is a very dynamic community and always has been. The boom and bust cycles of the mining days were replaced by the boom and bust cycles of the local real estate market, and each time it blows up, we think it’s the end. And each time it goes crazy like it is now, we think this time is different and that it will last forever. I’ve watched this movie several times over the decades I’ve been here. Each cycle seems to ratchet up the level of insanity. Chicken Little can be wrong for 40 years, and then someday the sky actually falls.
There are four big proposals on the docket, two in the county and two on the city’s plate. The city has the Park City Mountain Resort parking lot project, and the self-inflicted wound of the arts and culture district. The county has the Tech Center amendment at Kimball Junction, and the apartment complex at Highland Estates. All of them have rightly raised concerns. The Highland Flats project is a new application and requested zone change. The resort parking lot and Tech Center are amendments to approvals granted many years ago. The arts and culture district has the city playing the roles of developer, financier and regulator. What could possibly go wrong there?
I haven’t talked to anybody who said the only thing wrong with their vacation in Park City was that the lift lines weren’t long enough, or they wanted more skiers jammed on the runs. Nobody is complaining that traffic isn’t snarled enough, or that parking was too easy. Locals aren’t asking for their kids’ school classes to be larger, their taxes higher to pay for new school buildings, or their water bills to go up.
There are limits and we are pushing on them. It’s felt that way before. Until S.R. 224 was widened, traffic really was miserable heading to Salt Lake (and the largely vacant Snyderville Basin). Once we got over the shock of that sea of pavement, the ability to drive in and out of town once again made it tolerable. Now it’s S.R. 248 that is the problem.
The existing approval on the PCMR parking lots appears to be uneconomic, so the developer is trying to get amendments that lower the costs. Is there any benefit to the overall community in making that change? Do we need more hotel rooms in town, and more people on the mountain? Holidays and weekends have become unpleasant times to ski. The rest of the season, occupancy is low. Building more hotel rooms seems like a way to make the holiday peak periods worse without filling in the valleys. There is an existing approval. They can build that, or not. It’s not the city’s job to fix their deal.
The Tech Center approval never made sense. The idea was to diversify our economy by building office space for the technology industry. Except that their employees can’t afford to live here. Building office space at Kimball Junction would only result in increased commuter traffic from Salt Lake’s slightly less expensive housing market. There appear to be no tenants interested in that. We made the same mistake with the industrial park by Home Depot. The idea there was to diversify the economy with manufacturing plants. One of them is now the Re-Store and Rocky Mountain Power warehouse and office. There are a lot of storage places. The Triumph gear facility is still there, but has always relied on employees commuting because even skilled machinists can’t afford $2 million houses. The Tech Center approval was a repeat of that mistake. Apparently we don’t learn.
It’s not the county’s obligation to make a bad investment work. Building 1,100 housing units at Kimball Junction is a terrible idea. The shrapnel from that includes new school buildings, more traffic, more water demand, more waste water treatment — really more of everything. There’s a lot of collateral damage for no obvious benefit. The most razzle-dazzle transit center in the world won’t solve it. If the office space approval won’t work, sagebrush is an acceptable alternative. It’s not our problem.
The 410 units proposed at Highland Flats would make a dent in the affordable housing market, but it’s another elementary school and a lot of traffic on already overloaded roads. It doesn’t fit without a huge public investment in new roads, to the detriment of the existing neighborhood. It doesn’t fit. The mayor was quoted as saying we shouldn’t trade affordability for livability. He’s right, but we shouldn’t be willing to trade unaffordability for livability, either. Growth is growth.
With what’s already under construction, there is a single swath of urban development from Summit Park to Daniels Canyon south of Heber. There’s nothing small town about that. The sky may not be falling, but it’s surely got some disturbing cracks in it.
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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