Archives for the month of: April, 2011

As a native midwesterner, I’ll readily admit to having some skewed perceptions about Salt Lake City. And, you guessed it, much of this is precipitated by the area strong influence and strict lifestyle values fostered by the Mormon Church. But a recent visit to the city shifted my thinking a bit. Actually, a lot, once I felt comfortable ordering a mixed drink at a downtown eatery, albeit a very weak one.

For many outsiders, Salt Lake City is viewed as a place where one must tread lightly to avoid crossing forbidden boundaries. Common refrain, in fact, suggests that letting ones hair down while imbibing a stiff drink is anathema to the strict Mormon culture emanating throughout the city. It was therefore surprising to discover on a recent stopover that loosening ones collar was no problem at all. Moreover, locals seemed very welcoming and accepting of outsiders—a welcome relief  for those harboring misgivings pertaining about the area.

Salt Lake City Mormon Temple

As the state capital and largest city in Utah, Salt Lake City has long had a reputation as a button down, straight-laced environment. Much of this is attributed to it being the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly know as the LDS or Mormon Church). The infusion of Mormon family values is clearly evident as one traverses the downtown core. The center city displays a clean, safe image, with the church grounds serving as the quintessential symbol of the overall area ethos. And my family and I were not in the least bit put off by the throngs of friendly missionaries that approached us marketing their church doctrine and lifestyle. We found them to be friendly, respectful and to be admired for their commitment amid hearing the word “no” on a consistent basis.

Utah State Capitol Building

Strict values aside, my family and I found Salt Lake City a damn good place to visit. And increasingly it is becoming a preferred destination for Baby Boomers and Millennials alike seeking  a  great quality of life locale  where they can put down their roots.

Much of the buzz about the city is emanating from its downtown district, which is experiencing a period of unprecedented economic and housing development. Prospects in this district have been so robust that futurist Joel Kotkin, an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends, and staunch supporter of suburbia, penned a well crafted  piece in support of the rising fortunes of Salt Lake City’s central business district.

During a recent visit to the area, my wife, daughter and I, we were literally taken aback by all of the fervent development activity in progress, complete with noisy jackhammers, tall construction crains and the smell of freshly poured concrete. The downtown district, naturally blessed with quality architectural bones and an efficiently structured arterial grid, provides the ideal setup for a redevelopment renaissance.

According to a “Mountain Monitor” study of the Rocky Mountain Region economy by Brookings Mountain West, Salt Lake City was noted as being among the top U.S. cities in terms of making a swift economic recovery. This was readily apparent downtown where high rise residential projects seemed to be in full bloom everywhere you turned. With empty nesters and emerging professional alike now finding central-city living attractive, recent estimates projected  a tripling of the current downtown population of 10,000 within the next ten years.

There has also been an uptick in interest among small businesses and corporations in relocating to the central business district. Arguably the areas biggest coup was attracting Goldman Sachs, one of the worlds largest investment banking firms to a prized location at the heart of the central business district.  Located in Utah’s first LEED Gold certified high-rise at 222 Main Street, it now the company’s  second-largest office in North America, housing more than 1,500 employees. In addition, perennial Salt Lake business stalwart O.C. Tanner, arguably the nation’s top corporate recognition awards firm, recently relocated its headquarters to the converted Salt Lake City Library at 15 S. State Street. The building, an  architectural gem constructed in 1905, symbolizes the historic character that is infused throughout the inner core of the city.

Downtown Salt Lake City Under Construction

All of this portends a bright future for business and commerce both downtown and in the metro area. In fact, Kip linger Magazine ranks Salt Lake City as the fifth best place to be for the next ten years citing emerging opportunities in fields such as the biosciences and heath sciences as the reason for optimism.

One of the signature features of downtown is The Gateway, a mixed use retail-residential development  featuring shops, boutiques, theaters and eateries in a pedestrian friendly environment. Big names stores like Dicks Sporting Goods, Barnes and Noble, Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch are a huge draw generating civic vibrancy and tax revenues to the area.  And in the works is the Cherry Creek Center, an open-air, mixed use shopping, living and dining development, slated to open in early 2012.

At various stages of planning are myriad other development projects designed to boost quality of life downtown. The one that is most widely talked about is a new public market, a community gathering point featuring local goods as well as specialty items imported globally. It is envisioned that this venue,  as an added enhancement to the already popular farmers market that takes place from June to October of each year, will rival such popular markets as Pikes Place in Seattle and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. There are also plans afoot for a regional transportation connector that links downtown with Salt Lake City Airport as well as commuter rail to Ogden and Provo.

Diversifying the mix of civic amenities and attraction is a wise move for Salt Lake as it repositions itself as a destination of choice for new residents and tourists. The Utah Jazz professional basketball team, long the only game in town for years, had fallen on hard times of late with the loss of its hall of fame coach Jerry Sloan as well as player trades and retirements. Its recent dormancy speaks to the importance of not relying on a storied franchise as the sole source of economic vibrancy for an area.

Ultimately, the primary asset that will continue to fuel interest and investment to Salt Lake City’s center-city is its quality of life.  Its a feel that you quickly get walking the streets—safe, accessible and family oriented. As our taxi cab driver noted when asked why he moved to the city ten years ago as a single parent: “It’s a place where I don’t ever have to worry about my son. Quite frankly, he has a greater chance of being attacked by a grizzly bear while hiking in the mountains with his friends than being involved in a gang.”

So cheers to Salt Lake City for its bright economic and quality of life future. Be forewarned though that happy hour specials are barred in the city, with no mixing of shots allowed. And for all you wine aficionados, local bartenders can pour only a 5 oz glass of wine instead of the traditional six. Oh well, there  are plenty of reasons to celebrate nevertheless.

Michael Scott is the editor of UrbanEngagement WebCity. He can be reached at the urbane journalist dot com

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Few higher education institutions rival the power and influence of Harvard University, or its history – this year marks its 375th anniversary.

As an itinerate student of cities and communities, I have long been intrigued by prestigious academic establishments like Harvard and the impact they have on their local communities. With Harvard’s long history as a bastion for innovation and research, the surrounding area has become a natural draw for high profile firms and emerging companies seeking collaborative academic ventures to fuel their growth. This, in turn, leads to job growth and trickle down dollars which support local economic development.

On a recent March visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard’s main campus, I wandered the local streets, jotting notes on my iPhone app while encountering bohemians, academics, and students–some even disguised as St. Patrick’s Day revelers. As one of the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the university and city each year, I found myself entranced by the rich architecture and intellectual vibe that permeated throughout the local culture. There was an aesthetic congruence to the historic streets, parks and town squares that brought engagement to the social fabric of the area, lending support to Cambridge’s distinction as one of the most walkable and vibrant communities in the nation.

Harvard University

Cambridge is home to an estimated population of 105,594, driven largely by the faculty, staff and student community of Harvard. In addition Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a neighboring higher education institution of high repute is just a stones throw away.

Despite a natural abundance of local assets, Harvard and Cambridge have arrived at a crossroads amidst tight budgets as well as fiscal losses to the university endowment. Last year, in response to a plummeting stock market that wrecked havoc on their investments, the university put the kibosh on a $1.4 billion science facility construction project, raising the ire of neighborhood residents who were suddenly surrounded by the eyesore of an abandoned project.

Declining fortunes aside, Harvard continues to plunge ahead with investments designed to solidify its world stature as the premier educational institution in the world. One example of this is a plan to build a $90-$100 million executive education center that will sit on the Harvard Business School campus off Soldiers Field Road. When completed it promises to be a top-tier facility that will only serve to further the business school’s already pristine reputation.

The university’s efforts to build upon stellar assets such as its business school are just another notch in the belt of its global reputation as the world’s most highly revered education establishment. Of greater note, though, is how these efforts translate into a better quality of life for Cambridge and the surrounding communities. A walkable paradise, the area boasts a high per-capita percentage of commuters who walk to work. Cambridge, in particular, has a nearly perfect score in terms of walkability, according to Walkscore.com.

The pedestrian landscape, replete with a traffic-calming mechanism in the city’s downtown core, creates an oasis of urbanity that resonates well with the university’s more stoic academic confines. The infamous Harvard Square is the spoke for community activity and embodies the spirit of Greek agoras—those long ago gathering places that attracted intellectuals, curiosity seekers and people simply passing through. Located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street and JFK Street, it is a hustle-bustle locale, as well as a feeder system for the Red Line train that travels to and from Boston proper.

Downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts

For voracious readers, the immediate vicinity features a rich collection of bookstores that cater to virtually every interest. There are over twenty-five bookstores situated in a six-mile radius, giving Cambridge the distinction of having more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. Harvard’s influence is acutely felt in these stores, many of them featuring exclusive sections of books written by the university’s rich cadre of academics—high-profile writers like Clayton Christenson, Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Moss Kanter, and the late Rev. Peter Gomes.

The Harvard factor further extends itself into the region’s demographics, serving as an attraction point for a mosaic of people from every corner of the world. The surrounding city has long been revered for its diverse population – racially, culturally and economically – leading to the frequently used moniker of the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Questions still remain, though, about the future of traditional higher education and its lasting impact on the social fabric of communities like Cambridge. My bet is that the repute of Harvard will continue to attract the best and brightest minds, infusing the surrounding diaspora with a spirit of community, diversity and service that is unmatched anywhere else.

Michael is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at The Urban Journalist dot com.