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Utah has what Northeast Ohio wants: Secret sauce for Sustainable Communities

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/03/13 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in NEO Sustainable Communities

Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) capped two decades as the champion of smart growth with its 21st annual conference in Salt Lake City, Utah—the site of the largest state investment in transit anywhere in the U.S.

Quality connected places<br />Salt Lake City's $300 million streetcar line leads to downtown and new development like City Creek Center (pictured).All aboard the new train<br />Salt Lake City got a boost from Envision Utah, a plan that turned values of clean living as transit-oriented development.Green Bikes<br />Bike share is a popular two-wheeled public transit service in Salt Lake City.On track with bikes<br />Miles of bike lanes, cycle tracks (seen here) and green sharrow lanes create a cohesive bike network in Salt Lake City. <br /><br />
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Salt Lake City kickstarted an urban living renaissance with a $300 million six-mile, light rail line connecting the airport and downtown. It fits with the clean living aesthetic favored by this Western city settled by the Mormons.

The brand new Siemens-made streetcars knit together the downtown, and have leveraged $1 billion in investment along the line, including a sleek urban mall, City Creek Center, and The Gateway, a new town center with upscale shopping. (Salt Lake City’s downtown population is still below Cleveland’s but that hasn’t stopped retailers like H&M, West Elm, and even Dick’s from putting stores in walkable districts).

Whether its Church of Latter Day Saints money, or the flood of corporate interest—Goldman Sachs’ second largest presence outside of Wall Street, Adobe, Twitter, eBay—or the mega National Security Administration’s complex, Utah is flush with wealth, and intent on spending a goodly chunk of it on transit-oriented development.

The boom times and the enviable backing of the business community for their Wasatch Choice 2040 plan is a stark contrast to Northeast Ohio.

Envision Utah, their HUD Sustainable Communities initiative, is widely seen as a national model. A big reason for that is it nailed the message of how quality places aligns with the core values of its citizens.

“Utahns love the great outdoors,” Envision Utah director Robert Grow says. “The thief of their personal time, congestion, or air pollution might make them sick or in a bad mood.

“We knew we could connect the scenarios,” he says of the Scenario Planning work similar to what Vibrant NEO is doing. “We had to go from planner speak to things people really care about.”

“We’re looking at a doubling of population,” adds Wasatch Front Regional Council director, Andrew Gruber. “We had a bi-partisan commission all asking, ‘how do we do that and maintain our quality of life? The answer was growth in centers, and that vision is the basis for all regional transportation planning.”

Utah is definitely in rare company for managing growth in to quality places during a boom time.

A panel discussion at CNU about the lessons of their HUD Sustainable Communities initiative was a bi-partisan lovefest featuring directors of MPO, transit agency, Envision Utah’s director, the Director of HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, Shelley Poticha, and the Republican Governor’s former finance director, Natalie Gochnour.

“What is the secret sauce that makes us work together well in Utah?” says Gruber, a New York native. “We have this plan, Utah’s Unified Transit Plan, brought together by the MPO, Utah Transit Agency and UDOT. Shared modeling and a balanced multi-modal approach to our investments. How is it we’ve invested billions of dollars even in the recession? Because we’re on the same page and heading in the same direction.”

Envision Utah was a second-phase HUD grant, while NEO’s is a first phase. That means it built off an existing plan to create tools for local communities to use. For example, local elected officials are trained to use visioning tools, Form Based Code templates and finance strategies to link land use and transportation.

But Gochnour insist the success was the communication—that their regional plan translated the ‘values‘ polling of the community in to building up the central city.

Envision Utah, unlike Northeast Ohio’s HUD Sustainable Communities initiative, has the strong support of the business community—the co-chair was the owner of the Utah Jazz—and the direct involvement of the office of the Governor (a Republican).

Speaking of expressing the values of the community, Gochnour said that language matters, particularly when business titans are leading the Sustainable Communities effort.

“Use the lexicon of business,” she says. “We don’t say Smart Growth. We say Quality Growth. We don’t talk about the most stringent air quality, we talk about cleaner air. We don’t say sprawl, we say, protecting critical lands.”

“Why is the business community so engaged?” she says. “And how will you make the connection?”

“Quality growth works, and our business community was convinced early that it would decrease tax burden and help movement of goods, minimize costly renovations and produce jobs. Business leaders are survivors. When you paint a picture, they’ll see it.

As director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, Poticha was there at the creation of the EPA-HUD-DOT Sustainable Communities collaborative. She has watched the evolution of the program, and agrees that Envision Utah is one of the best because it “formed a coalition that was multi sector. It says government wasn’t going to be the source for all.

“The places that have made the most change fastest involved chambers of commerce and universities gathering data and getting students involved.”

Poticha acknowledges that the winners among the 144 Sustainable Communities grantees will have a strategy for moving forward that is locally derived.

“Some are looking at transit as a central rallying force. Some are looking at food systems and job development...that will drive growth. Others are looking at taking distressed neighborhoods and how do we revitalize those neighborhoods as a starting strategy for reinvesting in the whole community.

“I think that’s fantastic. It’s broadly defined. Health and well being. The environment. I think many of our grantees are realizing you need to start with one of those threads—infill in downtown—and it naturally starts to link up with regional growth.

“It gets back to validating values and how that should be driving what’s happening in communities. I’m super hopeful for this movement.”

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