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Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Dorothy, This Ain't Panguitch Any More (Revised)

J C Penney wants to come to the Meadows in American Fork, along with some mixed-used development. This happy news prompts some more general thoughts about attitudes on the Wasatch Front.

Note: It seems contrary to the blogger ethos of leaving whatever is written as it was written and moving on, but -- though I don't actually play golf -- I'm taking a mulligan this time, since I not only dislike the original, but also, and worse, find it is distracting readers from my actual point. The first part is essentially as before; the second part is considerably revised. If you're morbidly curious about bad writing, you can see the original here.

Last Evening's Meeting

The American Fork City Council, the city's Planning Commission, and some staff met together last evening to hear and discuss a proposal for future development at The Meadows, the large retail development on the city's west side. It includes a J C Penney store and some multistory, mixed use (retail, office, and residential) development. I wasn't at the meeting, but I heard enough before the meeting to know that I like the idea quite a lot.

As a shopper, lately, I only infrequently have to go further than the relatively new Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target stores in American Fork. Just a few years ago, I had to cross town for a Wal-Mart -- not even a Super Wal-Mart -- and drive to Orem/Lindon for a Home Depot. Target wasn't even on the radar screen; it wasn't convenient enough in central Orem to be useful to me at all. So American Fork's ongoing retail boom is good for my schedule, because it saves me time. And it is good for my wallet, the environment, and national security, because I don't have to burn as much gasoline to do my shopping. Since I buy at least two-thirds of my wardrobe at J C Penney on an ongoing basis, I'm delighted at the prospect of doing that, too, close to home, rather than driving to south Provo or to Sandy.

It's a compelling proposal. A retail mecca here in suburbia tends to be in some other ways a wasteland. The current mixed-use proposal strikes me as a sensible and promising way to create an actual community -- even a walkable community -- which I consider a good thing. I've been watching for years the rise of a similar mixed-use development in north Provo at Riverwood, including what is now a sizable, attractive neighborhood of upscale condos or apartments just northwest of Borders.

The purpose of tonight's meeting was not any kind of final approval. The developers wanted to know what level of cooperation they might expect from the City Council and Planning Commission. Reportedly, the City Council was perceptibly more enthusiastic than the Planning Commission, with City staff being somewhat divided. Eventually, of course, it's only the City Council which actually votes in a binding way, not that there was any voting tonight.

My Little Primer (Revised)

Here's where I take a mulligan. Even though my examples actually apply much more broadly than to a single city's planning commission's consideration of a single matter in a single meeting, the manner in which I presented them originally distracted from that point and made it seem as if I were simply dissing a few specific individuals' comments in a single meeting (or perhaps the individuals themselves). So, right or wrong, I'm taking another crack at it.

It's always nice to have some idea what you might encounter when you go to a meeting. Therefore, I offer this little primer for folks needing to deal with Utah towns and small cities on an official level. I have accumulated plenty of examples of the sort which follow in American Fork, but also in other municipalities in the area.

Some points of the discussion reported to me from tonight's meeting reflected attitudes which crop up from time to time all over the Wasatch Front, on planning commissions, city councils, and elsewhere, when a developer proposes doing something that is reasonable, but not already completely ordinary in every way for that particular municipality. If I had to describe this widespread, familiar posture in a single word, I suppose I would call it provincialism. Provincialism is not unique to Utah or the Wasatch Front, but it sometimes has a distinctively Mormon spin here, as it does in half of my examples below. It doesn't mean that the officials who exhibit it are bad people or that they don't work hard, and it doesn't mean they don't have a point at all when they exhibit it. It doesn't mean that they should immediately embrace everything a developer says or proposes. It does mean that officials aren't making the connection between actual conditions, current trends, and predictable future developments on one hand, and their own policies, practices, and attitudes on the other. It also means in some cases they are begging to get sued. And sometimes it gets under my skin.

If you go before one of these local governing (city council) or advisory (planning commission) bodies to present your proposal for development in a town or small city on the Wasatch Front, or if you happen to be in attendance when someone else does, you are likely to encounter certain kinds of objections from some, if not always a majority, of the members of said body. For the most part, they are rooted in reasonable concerns, but they have what for some (including me) is an irritating provincial spin, and they are sometimes taken to unreasonable extremes.

I suppose I should first intrude these disclaimers:

  • Though LDS (Mormon) myself, I don't view non-Mormons in my city as an aberration or as less than completely welcome.
  • I like big cities more than a lot of folks do, especially in the West -- at least some big cities. New York, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Chicago come to mind. (I'm not saying any city is perfect.)
  • If more people want to live or do business in my city than it can presently accommodate, I think it makes sense to build buildings, even some that are taller than a couple of stories. (Eventually, Utah County, for example, will reach build-out, which leaves, to coin a phrase, build-up as the only option for growth.)
  • I favor sensible planning, zoning, and so forth, and I prefer good engineering to bad engineering.

But back to those provincial thorns in the flesh -- by which I mean the attitudes, not the people expressing them.

First, I'm sure that if you asked these officials directly, they would assert their awareness that not everyone in their municipality is LDS (Mormon), and that the percentage of Mormons in the population is decreasing, even while the LDS Church grows like crazy elsewhere. Moreover, they would be aware that not all Mormons or Mormon families are alike, with two spouses each staying in their first marriage, and with somewhere between three and ten children (all above average) belonging to both. Yet they will still try to calculate parking and other requirements for developments which clearly are for, and will attract, singles or retired couples, for example, as if the only family were the stereotypical Mormon family.

One might hope they'd make the connection between actual demographics and their policies and practices, and realize that any number of municipalities are not Panguitch any more, if they ever were. (I'm not sure even Panguitch is or ever was Panguitch, in the sense of everyone being LDS and having a large, intact family.) They're not Manhattan, either, of course. But we're more urban and cosmopolitan on the Wasatch Front than some folks seem willing to realize or accept. And the trend is clearly away from, not toward, the 1860s.

Second, one hears in various Utah municipalities that officials mistrust developers' (or other municipalities') engineers, because such and such an interchange, highway, intersection, traffic circle, or other feature has become overloaded, because use (like population) has grown over the years well beyond what was envisioned. But it doesn't necessarily make sense to design and build everything for an existing population as if the area were already at the maximum population it might achieve a century or even a decade later. And sometimes officials and developers alike simply underestimate the crowds that will flock, for example, to a retail development. It makes little sense for me to blame people for underestimating their own future success, especially if I'm one of the officials who approved their plan in the first place -- which means I underestimated it, too.

Moreover, in traffic and similar matters, you don't engineer to accommodate the absolute peak, anyway. (In bridges and other things which might collapse catastrophically, you do.) You don't engineer I-15 for rush hour in Utah County on a weeknight, with a BYU home football game beginning within the hour. Instead, you engineer to a somewhat lower level, say, eight lanes of freeway instead of 20, and try to keep the absolute peak from being an absolute disaster.

Third, there is a widespread tendency to put the cart before the horse, to suggest limiting future development to what the present infrastructure can accommodate. For some reason, when this attitude hits the news, it usually seems to involve fire trucks -- or maybe that's just when I remember it. Of course planning commissions, city councils, and other officials ought to be aware of pressure new development will put on infrastructure, including fire protection. But for some reason some of them seem inclined to disfavor development because it will require the building of a new fire station, or the purchase of a newer, more capable fire truck. I've actually heard (or read) official objections to building taller buildings in several Utah municipalities over the last few years on the grounds that the local fire department's ladders weren't long enough to reach high enough for such buildings.

That might make sense if cities were on fixed incomes from year to year, which they most certainly are not, especially when they are growing rapidly. To me it makes a lot more sense to welcome the development (with the reasonable limits of proper planning, zoning, and so forth) and buy some longer ladders. (Here I want to say, "Duh!" But perhaps I shouldn't.)

Fourth, Mormons generally love their temples. I do, and I happen to think American Fork's (called the Mount Timpanogos Temple) is one of the nicer ones, and in a more majestic setting than most others I've seen. Even some non-Mormons in our communities love those temples, though they are not invited inside when the temples are in operation. Where possible, the Church takes some serious measures to protect the environs of the temple, including great care in locating them in the first place, and restrictive covenants on land surrounding the temple, if the Church owns it and then sells it. For example, some of the land east of the Mount Timpanogos Temple is required by the Church, as part of the land's purchase contract, to be used for single-family residences on half-acre lots, or something like that. For a glaring reminder of why the Church does this sort of thing, one need only go to Los Angeles and drive to the temple there, through block after block of XXX-rated movie houses, billboards advertising female mud wrestling, and the like.

For some local officials, especially in Utah, this fondness for temple and the desire to protect its environs leads to objections to anything developing near the temple, even if the Church itself actually approves. And heaven help you if what you want to develop involves you actually making a profit. (News flash to all non-Socialists and non-Communists: Profits are not inherently evil.) To hear some officials talk, on and off the record, you'd think that the only people who have a right to profit from the temple are the homeowners whose home values skyrocket and the cities whose tax coffers bulge. Don't you dare suggest, for example, a very tasteful wedding reception center near the temple, even if in its purpose, architecture, and landscaping it would actually enhance the neighborhood. Sometimes officials' zeal to protect the temple -- which actually is not part of their oath of office -- leads them to be quite rude on this point, both on and off the record, as if that were an appropriate mode of behavior for a public official.

These provincial attitudes don't surface everywhere all the time, and they are not always in the majority when they do. And, as I said, they are rooted in legitimate concerns, even if good, hard-working officials take those concerns to unreasonable lengths. When they do surface, as you can probably tell -- in fact, as I have already confessed -- they get under my skin.

There. I'm much happier with my Mulligan.

Heidi Rodeback comments (4/12/07):

(Note: This comment was on the original, now deprecated version of this post. I'm keeping it here for whatever relevance the reader or its author may still find in it. In case you're curious, it was not the sole motivation for my desire to take a mulligan; that desire preceded this comment. But it does illustrate the problem of my writing having obscured my actual point.)

Our political system is inherently adversarial, and our Planning Commission rightly asks difficult questions of developers. Their job is to look at any proposal without the rose-colored glasses the developer passes around the room. Moreover, they work long hours late at night analyzing exhausting tediums of detail with absolutely no pay. I deeply regret anything I may have said to you that causes you to portray the Planning Commission in such a negative light.

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