For the past three years, the University of Toronto has published a graphic that encapsulates the grim state of America’s downtowns in a post-pandemic world. Its Downtown Recovery project ranks 51 US cities based on the cellphone data in their downtowns, relative to the same period in 2019. Most cities’ stats are awful: New York City was at 67 percent of its pre-pandemic downtown activity in May 2023. Minneapolis was at just 40 percent.
But not every city is struggling. A few have actually exceeded pre-Covid activity downtown. The No. 1 spot? It’s consistently been held by … drumroll please …
Salt Lake City, Utah.
I first encountered this stat while reporting and producing a series on downtown recovery last spring for Vox’s Today, Explained podcast, and it has been puzzling me ever since. After all, Salt Lake City isn’t exactly known for its forward-thinking urbanism — but by the time I finished a reporting trip to the city in late August, I had begun to think that maybe it should be.
In the past few years, Salt Lake’s policymakers and other stakeholders have been on an aggressive campaign to facilitate the construction of thousands of new housing units in the city’s downtown. It’s transforming the area from a single-use office district to something that fits the remote-work era.
“We want to make downtown or make Salt Lake City a place where people can live and work and play. That’s essentially the umbrella of what we want as policymakers,” Ana Valdemoros, a city council member who represents downtown, told me.
It could be a model for downtown development in other spread-out American cities — if its growth isn’t squashed by a brewing environmental crisis.
Making it easy to build
Salt Lake City was already growing rapidly before the pandemic. And when the early-pandemic lockdowns hit in spring 2020, in-migration from other states surged, driven by access to the city’s outdoor amenities and its burgeoning tech sector, among other things.
That growth has contributed to an already-acute housing crisis: The average single-family home in the city costs more than half a million dollars, and rents are higher than they’ve ever been.
But the city has responded with a ton of new housing — especially downtown. Downtown Salt Lake has built more new apartments since 2020 than downtown Manhattan, according to data analyzed by Tracy Hadden Loh, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brookings Metro program.
“What really struck me about Salt Lake was not just the high rate of growth, but that this growth is at the center of the region that’s in and around the downtown area,” Loh said. “That is really different from the trajectory that most metro areas are on right now.”
Politicians and city planners I talked to cited two major policy drivers behind the downtown housing boom: First, the city laid out a long-term plan for the area before demand spiked; and second, it’s made the permitting process very straightforward for developers seeking to build new housing.
Salt Lake finished connecting its light rail system between downtown and its airport in 2013. Around that time, the city also re-zoned the areas around its transit stations downtown to encourage denser development, and reduced or eliminated parking minimums — requirements that new construction come with a certain number of parking spaces — which drive up the cost of new housing.
“We’re inviting [developers and residents] in to sit down with our teams, and this happens on a monthly basis. We’ll pull up their permit. We’ll look at the process and where the hang-ups were and have a really frank discussion about how did this experience happen? How can we do better? What parts of our system or our policy are encumbering the ease of making good things happen in the city?” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told me in an interview. “Which is how we’ve been able to achieve faster approvals and permitting and inspections.”
The mayor’s office says the result of its outreach is clear: Last year, Salt Lake built more housing per capita than big, expensive cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as more than its fast-growing western peers like Phoenix or Denver.
Mendenhall is up for reelection next month, and her leading competitor has argued that private development is insufficient, suggesting the city build its own social housing instead. Still, downtown Salt Lake’s apartment stock is expected to more than double by the end of next year, as construction currently in progress finishes. That new supply could help bring rents down.
A “virtuous loop”
Downtown Salt Lake City’s new residents are transforming the area in other ways, too. Public transit is free downtown and busier than it was before the pandemic, Main Street is often closed to cars so people can shop and eat on the street, and the area is surprisingly lively during nights and weekends.
“We are transitioning from an eight-hour, five-day-a-week city, to an 18-hour city, seven days a week,” said Jessica Thesing, deputy director of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance.
Longtime area housing developer Dan Lofgren described the story of Salt Lake’s downtown in recent years as a “virtuous loop”: the opposite of the doom loop that many American downtowns are teetering on the edge of.
“[New] residents have capacity and demand for additional services,” Lofgren said. “So more restaurants come, so more services come. So now downtown becomes even that much more [of an] attractive place to live, and it starts to build on itself. It starts to kind of gain its own momentum.”
Macy Weeks has been part of that shift. Last year, the 20-year-old decided to leave the Seattle suburbs in search of a city to launch her songwriting career. She decided on Salt Lake.
“Seattle’s dead, basically, and California’s too expensive. So if I was going to find a place that was going to be affordable-ish and have a good bar scene, it’s here,” Weeks said.
The environmental threat
There is an existential threat to this feel-good story, however: the eponymous Great Salt Lake. The massive saltwater lake is drying up at an unsustainable rate, the result of decades of wasteful water policy that has diverted too much water from reaching it. It was temporarily buoyed by the record rainfall the western United States got over the last year, but before that, it was on track to dry up before the end of the decade — and its trajectory is still concerning.
If the Great Salt Lake were allowed to evaporate entirely, the effects would be wide-reaching. It would be devastating for the millions of migratory birds that stop over there every year, Kevin Perry, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah, told me. It would wreak havoc on the area’s ski resorts, which rely on lake effect snow. And, perhaps most troublingly for people in the Salt Lake metro area, it would dramatically worsen the dust storms that already come off the lake.
According to Perry, dust plumes from the lake, which are created when evaporation exposes portions of the lake bed to the air, are “moving into the surrounding communities and exposing the 2.5 million people that live adjacent to the lake to everything that is in the dust, including arsenic.”
The threat of those arsenic dust storms, which a Utah state lawmaker described to the New York Times as an “environmental nuclear bomb” in a 2022 story, has helped spur the Utah legislature to make some big changes to water policy after decades of inaction. The state dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars last year to reducing water use. Much of that new funding is going toward making agriculture more water-efficient: Currently, alfalfa and other types of hay farming suck up more than two-thirds of the state’s diverted water. But the state’s rapidly growing urban areas need to find water savings, too.
“I think that tension between growth and agriculture [and] water use in general is going to be the tug and pull that will happen over the next decade,” state Rep. Brad Wilson, the Republican speaker of the Utah House, said. “That’s where this is going to get, I think, a little harder, quite frankly, as time goes on.”
An optimistic take on the future of the lake, and downtown
Some media coverage has framed Salt Lake’s looming environmental catastrophe as one where the region has to choose between growth and environmental stewardship. Salt Lake City’s downtown, however, actually provides the road map out of that binary.
Specifically, the Salt Lake City metro has a landscaping problem: Most homes in the arid desert region have lawns, and more than half of all of Utah’s residential water use goes to landscaping. But every new condo or apartment downtown means one less lawn. And with the city’s growth concentrated there, water use has been falling. The population of Salt Lake has grown by about 10 percent since 2000, but the city has reduced its water use by more than twice that over the same stretch of time.
That decrease alone won’t be enough to chart a way out of the Great Salt Lake’s crisis, but it’s still important. If the city can successfully transition away from water-guzzling lawns that were never meant to exist in that environment, it will set the stage for hard conversations about water use across the state.
To me, this story resonates in two ways. First, I think Salt Lake’s downtown transformation can provide a template for other cities that are looking to reenergize their cores but lack the legacy of bustling urban life that cities like New York have. If these changes can happen in a conservative state with a deeply ingrained driving culture, why can’t they happen anywhere?
Second, urban issues often seem like they exist in a zero-sum world: blue cities versus red states; the Northeast versus the Sun Belt; new development versus protecting longtime residents or the environment. Salt Lake City’s trajectory is a helpful reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.
“We are an example of how adding population in the right way actually reduced our water consumption, allowing our city to grow,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t know a city or a town in this nation that doesn’t want to grow.”