Northwest territory: Salt Lake's big planning challenge
There are many good reasons why virtually no one lives in the area of Salt Lake City west and north of the airport. Much of the land is dusty playa that barely supports plant life. It smells of the Great Salt Lake, and there are bugs. But anyone who has spent time birding in the marshes of the lake knows it also has a peculiar, desolate beauty, and that the abundance of avian life there is spectacular.
Given our druthers, we would see this area, known as the Northwest Quadrant, remain as it is. The marshes should be preserved as a bird sanctuary, integral as they are to one of the most important flyways in all of North America. The higher ground should continue to support agriculture, mining, warehousing and manufacturing, not housing. The more open space, the better.
But pretending that the quadrant will escape the pressures of residential development is at once illusory and self-defeating. As the population of the Salt Lake Valley continues to expand, it is inevitable that real estate developers will look to the 19,000 private acres of the Northwest Quadrant, the heart of which is only eight miles from downtown. That's half the distance to Sandy and a quick commute on Interstate 80.
That's why the current debate about the quadrant's future is timely. Rather than pretending that nothing will happen there, the city needs a plan. After more than three years of meetings and studies, the city has developed a draft, subtitled "Creating a Sustainable Community." Now it's time for a full-fledged public discussion.
It is understandable that people concerned for the lake's environment would be alarmed at plans for a village center and talk of 25,000 homes. That kind of development would require a huge infrastructure investment. An influx of domestic pets and humans could jeopardize the avian ecosystem.
But the other reality is that even existing agricultural zoning allows development on quarter-acre lots, and private property owners cannot be denied the potential value of their land without raising takings issues. Plus, development could bring with it the funds to clean up an abandoned landfill, so there are environmental trade-offs.
But before these questions can be answered, the city needs to answer the most basic ones: Would anyone want to live on a dusty playa? Could it be remade as a suburb, and at what cost?
The starting point is for Salt Lakers to get hold of the draft plan at slcgov.com/ced/planning/pages/NWQMasterPlan.htm and read it. Let the debate begin.