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Commentary: Salt Lake City needs to support and protect walkability

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Person with vibram boots treads carefully along the icy sidewalk through Hidden Hollow Natural Area Friday Dec. 30. The snow has apparently not been removed since the major storm nearly a week ago making walking dangerous. When it snows, Salt Lake City Code 14.20.070 requires that you: Clear snow and ice from City sidewalks adjacent to your property within twenty-four (24) hours after the end of the storm. Make a minimum 42-inch wide path, or if the sidewalk is less than 42 inches wide, clear the full width. Clear the full length of the sidewalk, including from corners and curb ramps. Ice must be removed to bare pavement, or made as level as possible and treated with ice melt, sand or similar material. Do not move snow into the street or onto other sidewalks.

Over the last few years, Salt Lake City has seen many new large buildings constructed next to narrow sidewalks. Many of the complaints about Sugar House focus on the discouraging effect on walkability that comes from buildings taller than 40 feet that are all apartments and are within one or two feet from the sidewalk.

But other areas of Salt Lake City are also impacted. If one walks on 200 West between 1100 South and 900 South, pedestrians will see many new buildings next to the narrow 3-foot sidewalks that rise straight up 40 or more feet. The Salt Lake City Planning Commission recently approved a project in the Ballpark Neighborhood with homes next to the sidewalks while ignoring the effect on adjacent single-family home neighborhood with large setbacks. And children walking on the sidewalks will have little leeway to dodge cars coming out of the driveway.

Forty-foot walls are uncomfortable to walk next to on narrow sidewalks. But they also create significant pedestrian safety issues. Often, the parking is under or between the buildings and vehicles must move onto the sidewalk to see if oncoming traffic will allow safe exit. Vehicles often do not stop, especially if they are coming up from parking below. That issue is a constant complaint at the Main Library. The stop sign was moved and emphasized with a big red pavement marking to increase observance of the law to stop before the sidewalk. The obvious danger to pedestrians is ignored when buildings are that close to sidewalks.

The decrease in walkability is not just caused by the 40-feet-plus wall within arm’s reach. There is a significant shadow that discourages walking and keeping sidewalks clear of melting ice.

The lack of public engagement next to the sidewalk also discourages walkability. Pedestrians should have windows and glass that encourages the public to come in and walk in the area.

Fourth South also has many new projects without ground floor pedestrian engagement. They are all apartments next to sidewalks. The sidewalks may not be as narrow, but they become impossible to walk on as snow is deposited on the sidewalks from the streets.

Mixed-use buildings encourage walkability. Ground floor stores and restaurants encourage people to walk the area. That ground-floor public engagement with many showrooms visible from the sidewalk gave Sugar House its eclectic and charismatic character. You can see the effect with one of the last showrooms next to a sidewalk with Sterling Furniture at 2100 South and 1100 East.

One effort to encourage walkability in Sugar House is that Salt Lake City is planning to convert half of McClelland Street next to the Plaza at 2100 South and Highland Drive into a shared bicycle and pedestrian path. That should help walkability in the area that presently has a narrow sidewalk next to many small restaurants.

Salt Lake City should be encouraging safe walkability. Salt Lake City has a Complete Streets Ordinance that requires a checkoff from the city’s Transportation Department. But Salt Lake City does not have an ordinance that requires new tall buildings to have wide and walkable sidewalks. In the cases above, someone in a wheelchair or with a stroller can’t pass a pedestrian on the sidewalk! Salt Lake City should make its Complete Streets philosophy and ordinance effective by implementing a sidewalk ordinance that encourages wider sidewalks and walkability. In mixed use areas, with ground-floor public engagement, 12-foot wide sidewalks are recommended.

Lloyd Cox is a long term Ballpark Community Council member who previously ran for SLC Council. His family was part of the original pioneers that helped start communities throughout Utah.

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