Provo Sprawl

10295180_10202527808610244_6186266372679412821_o (1)The Deseret News published an article this week titled “Utah among states with the greatest urban sprawl.”

The article details the alarming trend to pave over and “build out” our rapidly dwindling open space, and it spurred some discussion on local social media. Brigham Young University employee Brigham Daniels posted on the Facebook group Provo Forward:

Future growth seems almost certain. The only question is whether we will help guide that growth or whether it will guide us… Ignoring how we grow is one of the easiest ways to ruin our city, air quality, open spaces, and neighborhoods.

Not everyone is ignoring how we grow. There are savvy men who can see the possibilities, and are making plans to be part of them. They are buying or optioning land, getting regulations passed or revoked, allocating funding for  infrastructure, and putting sympathetic elected officials into office. Most of the public is unaware of what they are doing.

Just last week, Daniels  was invited to a breakfast held in the Provo Municipal Council’s Conference room hosted by Mayor John Curtis. A photo was posted on social media showing a room full of smiling men whom the mayor had invited to discuss, according to the mayor’s blog, “getting more engaged in local politics, transportation, school board, and the City’s future.”

Some have speculated that the photo represents an early effort to find for candidates for Municipal Council. Curtis and the present Council, which took office in January, have already knocked heads over a few issues. The honeymoon is over, and the mayor may be looking around for more amenable legislators.

For example, smiling up from the breakfast photo is Ryan Frandsen, who ran for Council and lost by a small margin to Dave Sewell. Frandsen attributed his loss to a lack of funding. Sewell recently crossed the Mayor on the vote to fund an independent opinion on the BRT route, which did not please the mayor and his faithful supporters.  Insiders believe that should Frandsen run again, he would have Curtis’ financial support.

tosh provoCurtis has amassed a healthy war chest with his own political action committee, and he has sufficient money to fully fund the candidates he chooses and to replace those he considers “uncooperative,” thus eliminating any opposition.

Curtis is a very popular mayor.  But, as one ex-Council member put it, “a dictator is still a dictator, even if he is a totally nice guy.”

Curtis cannot be blamed for expecting a compliant Council. He took office when the Council’s power structure was being virtually dismantled after the elections of 2009. He stepped into a power vacuum. Maybe he has gotten used to having things his own way.

Perhaps Daniels, who is opposed to urban sprawl, would also get Curtis’ support. Daniels, or any other potential candidate, should be aware of, and weigh in on, the mayor’s plans that include sprawl. There are proposals right now for plenty of them: Provo is growing — the 400 acre DR Horton development , the proposed annexation of the foothills in north-east Provo,  and the proposals for development of land the city owns in Provo Canyon, for instance.

The mayor may or may not support  these open-space gobbling projects. It will be interesting to see how anti-sprawl activists, including Daniels, respond to pro-sprawl proposals which have support from the mayor. When push comes to shove, can anyone withstand Curtis’ persuasion skills when he can recruit his allies using Czech pastry, photo ops and hefty campaign contributions?

A particularly controversial example of urban sprawl which is facing Provo right now  is the proposed shopping center at the corner of Geneva Road and Center Street.

ProvoDeputy mayor, Dixon Holmes, under Curtis’ direction, is negotiating with Smith’s, who intends to build an “anchor store” for the complex. Smith’s expects an SC2 zone for the project, which would allow up to 20 acres of commercial development, multiple restaurant pads, 24-hour operations, and function as a “magnet” zone for traffic from the freeway. The west side has been clamoring for a grocery store, but has insisted on an SC1 zone — a neighborhood shopping center that would serve the needs of the surrounding area.

A decade ago, the neighborhood went so far as to sue to stop Smith’s from sprawling.

The mayor has expressed support for developing the Smiths’s corner. He took exception to a grassroots effort to lobby Smith’s to accept an SC1 compromise.  Smith’s wants an SC2. What the neighborhood needs and what Smith’s wants are two different things.  The difference is the very definition of “sprawl.”

Besides the Smith’s development, the now-funded “Westside Connector” will radically change the face of the farmland between I-15 and the lake. The city exercised its eminent domain powers for the first time in decades to get the land for the road across the wetlands to the airport. The continuation of the “Connector” (previously called the “Northeast Connector,”  now called Lakeview Drive)  will create an entire belt route around the city to the west.

The mayor championed an alignment change last year that moved that road further west, resulting in more developable land, and decreasing the wetlands set aside for the Provo River Delta Restoration Project. Reportedly, the mayor’s cousin and business partner Kyle Bateman, is one of the “savvy” men buying up property out there.

The mayor has shown in the past that he is willing to set aside neighborhood wishes in favor of development, claiming the need for increased sales tax revenues. The new Maverik station on Center Street was not what the neighborhood, the planning groups, and two past Councils intended when they passed the design corridor standards for that street.

The mayor advocated setting the standards aside.

Result?

Sprawl.

It is absolutely essential that any candidate being “groomed” by the mayor exerts his (or her)  independence from the start. He (or she)  will need that autonomy later.

Loyalty, collegiality, and the appearance of unity are not worth the price if it means that we sacrifice the balance of power in our city government. One man, even a very nice man, should not make all the decisions.

Anti-sprawl activists need to pay attention, get organized, and hold to their principles.

 

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