Utah has an unprecedented opportunity to master plan growth

Though Utah is best known for its snow-capped peaks, the majority of its residents live in valleys. The Salt Lake valley, situated between the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, is home to more than a million residents. Immediately south is another valley—Utah County, the second-most populated area in the state, with 600,000 residents.

Thanks to the state’s first city planner, Brigham Young, both counties are built on a grid system, with streets running parallel north to south and east to west. Not only are streets straight, they’re also wide enough for a team of oxen and a covered wagon to make a U-turn, an impressive innovation in 1847.

These days, Utah’s leaders are hoping to be just as innovative as they plan for the future of the area that connects the two counties, known as the Point of the Mountain, as well as the Northwest Quadrant of Salt Lake City—each area has been opened up for development by the planned relocation of the Utah State Prison to land near the Salt Lake City airport.

In 2016, the state legislature established the Point of the Mountain commission to determine how to make the most out of the 20,000 undeveloped acres located between the south end of the Salt Lake Valley and the north side of the Utah County, including the 700 acres of prime real estate that will open up as soon as the Utah State Prison is moved to a new location.

And in the 2018 Legislative Session, lawmakers voted to create an inland port in the Northwest Quadrant—acreage near the new prison site that is ideal for transportation and logistics companies.

Point of Impact

What was long home to nothing more than a gravel pit and a state prison has now become one of the most vibrant tech communities in the country. Within several miles of the Utah’s Point of the Mountain area, you’ll find IM Flash, Workfront, Microsoft and dozens of other leading tech companies.

Ari Bruening, COO of Envision Utah, a consulting firm assisting the Point of the Mountain commission, explains why this area is such an attractive location for employers.

“I don’t think there’s another place like this in the United States, where there’s so much available land—not on the edge but in the middle. It’s right in between our largest and most dynamic metro areas, with quality universities, a strong young workforce and great access to outdoor recreation. It’s also a more affordable place to live than the two coasts,” Bruening says.

Moving forward, the Point of the Mountain Commission wants to make sure the area is developed in a way that is both good for businesses and for the population that lives, works and plays in the two counties.

“One thing we know is the growth is coming,” says commission chair Rep. V. Lowry Snow. It is expected that by 2065, Utah County will increase by 500,000 residents and Salt Lake County’s population will triple. “This is a multi-generational plan. It’s not just about the here and now, it’s about the future of our state and the people who will live here for generations to come.”

Before making any decisions about the future of the Point of the Mountain, the commission asked for feedback from the public. Based on focus groups with stakeholders, public forums and survey results from more than 11,000 residents, the commission identified several areas that need to be addressed for the area to thrive over the long-term.

Improving transportation

When asked what improvements residents wanted to see at the Point of the Mountain, transportation was at the top of the list. Despite all of Utah’s wide roads, its mountains create a roadblock between Salt Lake and Utah counties; in fact, the I-15 freeway and Redwood Road are the only passages between the two.

Fortunately, the commission has identified several ways to address the issue. Though there is limited space to increase freeway capacity, there is an opportunity to increase the number of trips offered by FrontRunner, the public commuter train that runs between counties. Bruening says the commission is also looking into the possibility of creating another non-freeway road between Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“It’s also important to make sure we plan the development patterns to balance the jobs and housing in each area so we’re not seeing a lot of people commuting in one direction in the morning and then the other direction in the afternoon,” Bruening says. “That also means planning mixed use centers so people can walk or bike if they are so inclined.”

Maintaining quality of life

The Point of the Mountain area is already known for its outdoor recreation, from open spaces to world-class paragliding. The commission found that residents and businesses not only want to maintain these spaces, but enhance them.

“There are already great things going on in this area—the Corner Canyon trail system, the Jordan River Parkway, Murdock Canal trail,” Bruening says. “Linking all those systems up, and building the parks and open spaces that are in the existing plans will make this a great place to live from an outdoor perspective.”

The commission also believes that there’s room to create an urban environment to complement the outdoor opportunities. The prison site would be an ideal location to develop urban centers—with high-density housing, businesses and shopping centers—without disrupting existing single-family neighborhoods.

Funding the future

Now that it’s clear what individuals and employers want from the area, the commission is ready to figure out the best way to make it happen.

“It will take ongoing cooperation by local governments, Salt Lake County, Utah County and the impacted municipalities to accomplish it,” says Rep. Snow. “But we think it’s the best plan to deal with the population growth, to maintain quality of life and produce the kind of economic growth that we’re looking for.

“Obviously there is a price tag that comes with this type of an undertaking, and how that is accomplished and financed will be a challenge,” he adds. “But it’s the type of challenge the state has always dealt with and we’ve found a way to accomplish it.”