We were at intermission down at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City. While waiting for the Utah Symphony to return to the stage, my son Timothy and I, ambled through the main entrance out onto the plaza that fronts South Temple. Already impressed by the acoustics of the building, designed "strictly as a concert hall" in the traditional rectangular shape, we were bowled over by the wonderful cityscape that greeted us that cool evening. The plaza is cut diagonally by a line of lighted fountains and is separated from the traffic by a small forest of trees planted on the half side closest to the street. Temple Square sets off the skyline. A block to the west, a light rail train pulled to a stop. The cityscape was completed by the horse-drawn carriage that made its way along the street to our right. We had stumbled into a most inviting and interesting urban scene.
By way of stark contrast, consider what awaits your eye as you leave the Spokane Opera House: a bleak surface parking lot, a garish billboard and a Kinko's. Oh yes, need I mention that we, too, have a fountain at our Opera House -- ours is located in front of the stage door! (This was a joke, right?)
With the prospect of additional surface parking on the way as more buildings come down, we confront a rapidly deteriorating visual situation. The problem has been exacerbated by the PFD's misguided siting of the convention center addition to the east.
As a result of our tax laws, combined with an information age in which place no longer is as necessary as it once was, we encourage the relocation of offices to the suburbs, with the resultant destruction of old buildings. This process inevitably leads to more surface parking. We hope, of course, that our downtown becomes more inviting; that these lots, in the near future, will be home to new urban construction. Moreover, local planning and zoning can work to restrict surface parking. In any case, the onslaught of these oceans of asphalt gives new meaning to the term "urban blight."
So can anything be done to improve things in the short run? More and more cities are turning to urban landscaping. For starters, the city can -- and should -- require that all surface parking lots come complete with greenery. Walk around downtown and compare those few lots that are framed by carefully selected plantings with the many that aren't. All lots should be lined with trees that separate the street from the lot. Indeed, if Spokane Falls Boulevard is ever to become just that, we simply must "green" it up. A proponent of good urban landscape design, Vern Klinkernorg, in a recent New York Times Magazine story, writes of the effect greenery can have: "All the disarray has been filtered out for us. We suddenly glimpse what the world would look like if it were the work of a single hand, a single eye, a world created to please our emotions of places."
On the other hand, James Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, chided Spokane for its reliance on "bark beds and juniper bushes." He pointed out that cities aren't about "scenery," rather they are about interesting street life and good buildings. While we might acknowledge that you can't very well turn a suburban form building into a good urban structure by planting juniper bushes on bark beds, you can mitigate the bad visual effects of surface parking by planting something -- trees, for example. Moreover, the words "mitigate" and "temporary" are important, particularly the latter. Down in our Opera House area, we will soon find upwards of 10 surface parking lots. If these lots aren't developed with urban structures within a reasonable time period, downtown will surely continue to decline. So we seek here temporary fixes.
Now about those billboards: They should come down, most especially in the downtown area. Efforts to accomplish this have always been hindered by civic leaders who have no problem getting behind the idea, say, of a university district, but who would never make a public argument for tearing down billboards that create visual blight. As for the suburban style buildings, if our city would do nothing more than enforce the Downtown Plan, we could go a long way towards protecting against the suburbanization of the downtown.
As I stood with my son in front of Abravanel Hall and breathed in the skyline, the landscaping, the light rail and the tourist carriages, I was struck by the realization that much of what we saw came about because a few years back, Salt Lake civic leaders had viewed their city's major undertaking, the Winter Olympics, not narrowly as "an event," nor even an event expanded in purpose to, say, removing trains from an island. Public investment, whether in the grandiose form of hosting an Olympics or in building an expanded convention center, has to be leveraged to provide the absolute maximum return.
That's why Salt Lake City leaders viewed the Olympics as an opportunity -- even an imperative -- to develop an integrated strategic civic agenda: public transportation, education facilities, downtown revitalization, tourist trade, the arts, everything. Even more important, they have managed to stay the course.