Envision Utah Blog

AdobeStock 199826525 The headlines keep coming: there’s public pushback about some development project because it’s “too dense.” Inevitably, whenever a developer proposes something, one of the first questions is how dense it is. But instead we should be asking how the project is designed. Will it accommodate our growth in a way that will lead to a high quality of life for ourselves and our children?

Density battles have come to a head because we’ve been one of the fastest-growing states in the country for the last several years. A strong economy means our kids—who form the majority of our growth—can find jobs and stay close to home. It also means other people want to join us here to experience our prosperity and quality of life.

At the same time, we’re running out of land in our most urbanized counties. Salt Lake, Davis, and Weber each have dwindling land supplies, as does northeast Utah County. In the past, as we grew we could just add another ring of suburbs, but now that next ring is on the other side of a mountain range. That’s why Wasatch County, for example, is the fourth fastest-growing county in the country.

That’s also why we’re now seeing as many apartments, condos, and townhomes as we are single-family homes; as land supply dwindles, prices rise, and people choose something smaller that they can afford. Accommodating the kinds of housing people can afford means more density. If we want to keep any semblance of affordability, we need to make sure we have ample supply of all kinds of housing, particularly in the places where there’s high demand.

That increased density isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means we use less water, develop less agricultural land, and spend less money on infrastructure. It means our firefighters, police officers, nurses, and teachers can afford to live in the neighborhoods they serve. But how and where we build that density has huge implications for traffic, air quality, and quality of life. Not all density is created equal. Los Angeles, for example, is one of the densest metro areas in the country, but few of us would probably to aspire to be like Southern California when it comes to traffic issues.

The problem is that L.A.’s density isn’t well organized or planned. Density near rail stations, jobs, and shopping can reduce driving by 50% or even more, particularly if the development is designed to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, rather than just cars. Where there’s a grid system of streets—think downtown Salt Lake City, for example—as well as larger roads like freeways, it’s easier to accommodate growth and density without overwhelming the road system.

But simply spreading density everywhere without planning the rail, roads, jobs, and shopping to go with it doesn’t give you the same bang for your buck. That’s why your community should identify where to put village and town centers—downtowns that include jobs, shopping, and dense housing, planned in coordination with public transportation and a connected grid of roadways. The more we mix the jobs, shopping, and housing, the greater the benefits. And the more connected our developments are, the better; if it’s easy to get from the housing to the jobs and shopping, we won’t see as much driving.

If we do this, we’ll accommodate the housing people want and can afford. We’ll use less farmland and water. We’ll ensure people can still get around despite our growth. We’ll minimize the impact on existing single-family neighborhoods. And we’ll create the kinds of town and village centers our grandparents used to enjoy—places where you can walk with your children to buy an ice cream cone, or where workers can walk to lunch. But it’s about far more than just density. It’s about design. Because how we grow matters.

 

031Think Utahns love single family homes? You might be mistaken, at least in the current marketplace. Envision Utah recently charted building permits across the four-county Wasatch Front, using the Ivory-Boyer Construction Database at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, and the results might surprise you.

Historically, about 75 percent of the housing units built have been single-family detached homes, but that all changed when the recession hit in 2008. Since then, half—or more—of our new housing units have been something else: a townhome, an apartment, or a condominium, for example. And the change has been even starker in Salt Lake County, where more than two-thirds of new units are attached products. It’s possible the mix will shift back, but unlikely. Market dynamics point toward a future where more and more of new housing shares walls or even ceilings.

We’re seeing this shift for a couple reasons. First, surveys and other metrics suggest preferences are changing, with Millennials more likely to want something other than a single-family home in a quiet neighborhood. This changing preference has been overstated by many observers—indeed, most Millennials would still prefer a single-family home—but there is a shift going on.

Second, almost all metro areas grow out to a point where a “rebound” starts to happen. When getting an affordable single-family home means driving in from a long way out, many people start to make the tradeoff to get a smaller unit or a smaller yard closer in.

Third, we have a limited land supply in most populated valleys. Envision Utah’s analysis of available land suggests there are only around 40,000 vacant developable acres left in Salt Lake County, 20,000 in Davis County, and 40,000 in Weber County. Utah County has over 200,000 acres left, which is one reason why growth is shifting that direction, although a lot of that land is on the south end of the county or in Cedar Valley.

The impact of this declining land supply is that land prices go up, which in turn drives housing costs up. And because of our mountains, when someone chooses to go farther out to find something more affordable, they’re going to the next valley over. That means a long commute, with implications for family budgets, congestion, infrastructure needs, and air quality.

In other words, get used to the new Utah housing market, because it’s probably here to stay.

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Traffic Congestion

Traffic CongestionUtahns who traveled to see the solar eclipse this week got a taste of the beauty of our universe. But they also got a serious taste of some not-so-beautiful traffic. Eclipse viewers left Idaho bumper-to-bumper and it got us thinking: How do you solve a problem like traffic?

Granted, those northern parts of I-15 don’t normally see so much traffic, but traffic volumes in many other places on I-15 have more than doubled since 1984, and by 2050, projections show each household will spend roughly another ten minutes in a car each day. Self-driving vehicles may make things better, but there are some reasons they might actually increase traffic.

What can be done? There are a lot of solutions including public transportation, good land planning to put destinations closer to home, additional roads, road widening, and so on. But one thing that would make a huge difference is a grid of connected streets. This isn’t a new idea. Joseph Smith’s “plat of Zion” included a grid system of streets, and Brigham Young and other early pioneers incorporated this idea into Salt Lake City and other communities when they got here over 150 years ago. At some point, however, we got away from that. We started building cul-de-sacs. Our residential subdivisions became dead ends, with one or two ways in and out. This pushed people to drive on a few arterial roads if they were going almost anywhere other than a neighbor’s house. And then those roads, predictably, got jammed up.

pioneer culdesac 100

So why does street connectivity matter so much? A street grid disperses traffic throughout the street network. That reduces traffic delay, provides alternative travel routes in the case of an accident or other incident, increases the ability for direct travel, and improves response times for emergency services like ambulances. It also makes it safer and more convenient to walk or bike.

In fact, it’s one the best strategies to improve transportation outcomes. One study in Utah found that a more connected street network could reduce traffic volumes on major roads by as much as 50%.

Take the Daybreak Community as an example. During the development process, planners made a conscious effort to build a connected street network. The results are amazing. Most residents can confirm that they have never experienced a traffic jam in Daybreak. The same can’t be said for the arterial roads right outside the development’s borders. And the residential roads in Daybreak, despite dispersing traffic throughout the network, don’t feel unsafe for pedestrians or for children who are playing outside—in fact, you’ll see more people outside in Daybreak than almost anywhere else.

The Wasatch Front’s transportation planning agencies released the Utah Street Connectivity Guide earlier this year. It explains what street connectivity is and why it matters, and provides tools for implementing better connectivity, both in growing areas and in more established areas.

Let’s follow the early pioneer’s lead and use these tools. Our children and grandchildren will thank us. After all, our street networks are likely to endure far longer than almost anything else we build.

 

Air Quality

Air QualityUtahns love Utah for a lot of reasons. The pollution in the air is not one of them. By far, air quality is the number one thing Utahns dislike about where they live (2014 Utah Values Study, pg. 43). For most of the year, Utah’s air is clean. However, for some periods in the summer and particularly in the winter, pollution levels rise to unacceptable levels in many of our mountain valleys and we see “red air days” that exceed federal standards. So what’s being done to address our poor air quality? The answer might surprise you: A lot. Expect the air to get cleaner over the next few years. That doesn’t mean we won’t have inversions—those are a weather phenomenon that we can’t control—or even that we won’t have fog. But it does mean we’ll be breathing fewer fine particulates and ozone gases, the damaging stuff that we don’t want hanging around our lungs. In 2012, Envision Utah, at the request of Governor Gary Herbert, brought together a diverse group of experts and stakeholders known as the Clean Air Action Team. That group, with the help of Envision Utah and the Utah Division of Air Quality, modeled the impacts of different strategies, developed a list of actions we could take, and brought that list to the public. Three quarters of Utahns chose a package of strategies that would aggressively reduce pollution. Here are some of the Clean Air Action Team’s primary recommendations and an update on what’s happening:

  • Retool refineries to produce lower-sulfur fuel as soon as possible. Yes, our refineries emit air pollution, but it’s a smaller amount than you think (around 3% of what leads to our bad air). Far more important is the sulfur content of the fuel those refineries produce. Currently automobiles are responsible for about half our emissions, but when you put low-sulfur gasoline in your car the pollution control equipment works much better, leading to significantly reduced emissions. So far, Tesoro, Sinclair, Silver Eagle, and Chevron have all committed to produce low-sulfur fuel, also known as Tier 3 fuel, which leaves only two who haven’t committed. air sources of emissions
  • Reduce emissions from existing and new homes and other buildings. As cars get cleaner and our population grows, new homes and buildings will quickly become the main source of air pollution along the Wasatch Front. Most people wouldn’t consider their home a source of air pollution, but every time we burn natural gas, we emit gases that contribute to poor air quality. In other words, your home probably has two smokestacks: one for the furnace and one for the water heater. Natural gas is a LOT cleaner than wood or coal, but there are enough buildings on the Wasatch Front and other places that it will become a large source of air pollution in the years to come. In response to the Clean Air Action Team’s recommendation, a new rule has been put in place that will require most new water heaters to be ultra-low emission, which will reduce their emissions by 70%, starting next year. In addition, many builders are significantly improving the energy efficiency of what they build. For example, Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder, has increased the thickness of the walls in new homes from four inches to six inches. These are significant steps that will pay dividends for decades to come. There are also programs in place to help those who still need to burn wood for heating convert to natural gas.
  • Educate the public about the most effective steps Utahns can take to reduce emissions. There are many things you and I can do to reduce our emissions. Envision Utah helped Provo develop a clean air toolkit that describes what residents, the city, employers, and others can do. UCAIR, a non-profit dedicated to helping people understand the voluntary actions they can take, is conducting extensive outreach every year to make sure people know what they can do. The Salt Lake Chamber is challenging businesses to reduce their emissions and championing clean air.
  • Increase the convenience of driving less and traveling without a car. How we design our communities and infrastructure has a significant impact on whether people can conveniently and safely get around without a car. In Utah, we’ve built 140 miles of passenger rail, and since 2010 a lot of that new growth has happened within a half mile of a rail station: almost half of all multi-family housing units, more than a third of office development, and just under a third of new retail. That means it’s easy for people to walk or bike to a rail stop and reach a variety of destinations.
  • Shift to driving cleaner vehicles as quickly as possible. Every new car has a smog rating that ranges from 1 to 10. A higher number is cleaner—a lot cleaner. A car that scores a 10 has no tailpipe emissions (e.g., an electric vehicle), but just going from a 5 to an 8 can reduce your emissions by as much as 80%. Think about that. That has almost the same impact as walking 80% of the time you go somewhere. Federal regulations known as Tier 3 will gradually require new cars to be cleaner, until most new cars by 2025 rate an 8 or more. That’s great news! But you don’t have to wait—the next time you buy a new car, choose the highest smog rating you can. After all, that car is likely to stay on the road in Utah for many years, even if you sell it to someone else at some point.

Are we all doing a little more than you thought? All of these steps will significantly reduce our emissions and clean our air. There’s plenty of work to be done, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our successes.

 

 

Jordan River

Jordan RiverFor decades, the Jordan River didn’t receive the attention or value that it deserved. In many ways, it was more a dumping ground for polluted water than an amenity. Dredging and straightening altered the river and narrowed its channel, and the invasive vegetation marred the ecosystem. The unkempt banks of the river kept many people away and became a harbor for homeless camps. All that started to change in 2008 when Envision Utah helped bring numerous stakeholders together to form a vision for the river called “Blueprint Jordan River.” Mayors and staff from fifteen cities and three counties participated in the effort, and Salt Lake County played a large role supporting the process that included public surveys and workshops, stakeholder meetings, and other outreach methods. Before long, the vision became clear: Utahns wanted a “blue-green” trail connecting Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake for boaters, cyclists, pedestrians, and wildlife enthusiasts. This vision would create a 7,300-acre linear nature preserve with more natural meanders, wetlands, and biodiversity; improved water quality and water flow; and regional transportation access to the river through trails, TRAX, and other facilities. In 2008, that vision was revolutionary. Now, it’s almost a reality. Envision Utah’s work paved the way for the creation of the Jordan River Commission, which has carried the vision forward. Now, the funding is in place for the last piece to complete the more-than-fifty-mile trail. There’s certainly more work to be done, but this is a monumental achievement. When finished, the Jordan River will boast one of the longest continuous paved trail systems in the United States. We’d like to take a moment to thank Laura Hanson for her tireless dedication for years as the Executive Director of the Jordan River Commission. She’s now taking her talents elsewhere, but our gratitude goes out to her. She oversaw the river’s transformation from a stormwater conveyance ditch to a regional amenity. Thanks to her and to cooperative visions like Blueprint Jordan River, the Wasatch Front is a better place to live. The Jordan River is a shining example: when Utahns work together, we accomplish great things.

 

 

NorthTemple copyHousing prices are skyrocketing in Utah. According to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, single-family home prices were up 8.1% last year, with no end in sight to the increases and apartment rents increasing at similar rates. Why? Quite simply, we’re not building enough housing in Utah. The Institute reports that, for the first time in memory, we added more households than housing units. As a result, home builders have almost no unsold inventory, and existing homes stay on the market a very short time. If you’re a homeowner or a real estate agent, you might think that’s a good thing. Think again. Housing price increases are significantly outpacing wage growth. Your house may increase in value, but will your children be able to afford a home? How about the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, and nurses in your community? If that’s not enough to create concern, think about the impact on our economy. An Envision Utah survey of high-tech employees found that the second most important reason they came to or stayed in Utah—behind having family or friends here—was the low cost of living. If we lose that competitive advantage, our economy will suffer. Think of all the companies that have fled California due to high costs. They won’t be coming here.

California’s housing market can shed some light on our own. Faced with rapid growth, many California communities, and even the state, imposed ever-more-stringent regulations designed to curb development, believing that if they slowed development it would put the brakes on growth. What Californians failed to recognize is that development doesn’t cause growth; growth drives development. So what does cause growth? Basically just two things: biology and the economy. In Utah, biology plays a big role because of our relatively big families. In fact, around 70% of our growth over time has been internal (births minus deaths). In other words, the majority of new Utahns each year are our own children and grandchildren. But the economy also plays a big role in a couple ways. Without a strong economy—read: jobs—our children would have to move elsewhere, and our internal growth would slow. And, significantly, jobs attract in-migration, which accounts for the other 30% of growth. So the only real way to slow or stop our growth is to kill our economy. That certainly slowed growth in Detroit, but it’s probably not what most of us here in Utah want. California’s constraints didn’t slow growth, so demand for housing stayed high. Instead, those regulations simply diminished the supply, and we know what happens next. On the Wasatch Front, we already have geographic constraints on development. Salt Lake County only has around 40,000 acres left to build on, and Davis County has even fewer. If we try to stop growth in our communities by throwing regulatory constraints on top of that, we’ll continue to see housing shortages and skyrocketing housing prices. We’ll also see lower-income people who start to double up in their homes; who have to move far from work, which means they have to drive far, creating congestion and air pollution; and who live in ghettos, which makes it harder for their children to escape poverty. That’s not a picture of Utah that most of us want to leave for the next generation.

What’s the solution? Support your local planning commission and city council in granting swift approval to housing projects, especially those that are well designed and located—such as those that make it possible for more people to walk, bike, or drive short distances to work, parks, schools, or shopping. Good planning is essential, but good planning doesn’t have to mean onerous governmental regulations or restrictions on density. Sometimes it even means getting government restrictions out of the way. In Envision Utah’s “Your Utah, Your Future” vision, over 50,000 Utahns chose the future they wanted. When it came to housing and cost of living, almost 80% chose a scenario in which we build mixed-use live/work/play hubs throughout our urban areas. You can’t have a live/work/play hub without housing. In fact, the best mixed-use centers are as much as 60% housing. In California, it takes years, sometimes even decades, to get a housing project approved. Let’s not go there. After all, that apartment complex that you worry might ruin the neighborhood might just be the place your children move after they finish school.