Throughout the Salt Lake Valley, up and down the Wasatch Front, modern subdivisions are blanketing the once-rural landscape. Nurtured by unprecedented growth, their sidewalks and cul-de-sacs are fertilizing the soil for today's cash crop of single-family homes.Neighborhoods are materializing in an instant - just add water, a development permit, curb and gutter, and a little pavement. New homes, popping up like bread from a toaster, are being consumed by a public hungry for the American Dream.

But are these overnight creations anything more than human parking lots? Do they spawn nurturing communities where caring neighbors help each other through life, or do their sterile designs promote isolation and impersonal behavior?

Some people are beginning to wonder.

Annual home construction permits in the five-county Wasatch Front region more than doubled between 1990 and 1994 - from 4,254 to 9,251. Permits are being issued at about the same rate in 1995 as in the previous year, and industry analysts predict the construction boom could continue into the next century.

"It's a steady growth, and there's a lot of factors that will keep it that way," says David Mineer, owner of the Construction Monitor, a week-ly publication that keeps tabs on commercial and residential development in the greater Salt Lake area. "If there is going to be a downturn, it won't be for two or three years."

Like housing developments across the country, typical Wasatch Front subdivisions are being designed more for the automobile than the families who inhabit them. Main roads lead to narrow streets lined by cookie-cutter homes whose most prominent feature is a two- or three-car garage.

Front porches adorn only a few of the houses, and the landscaping around them is minimal. Kitchens, family rooms, master bedrooms, bathrooms and closets are larger than in homes built a decade or two ago, and entryways are more lavish. And the larger the lot, the better.

These subdivisions, piled one beside the next as far as demand takes them, flourish in a time when a homeowner's electronic friendships may outnumber the neighbors she knows.

Eugene Carr, a community development specialist and University of Utah professor, remembers knowing everyone in the Sugar House neighborhood he grew up in. He now lives in a condominium in a development with a fence around it - a clearly defined neighborhood, at least from appearance.

"I bet I don't know the names of one-fourth of the people in here," Carr says. "The reason is we don't depend on each other that much. It's not a real community. We just live close to one another."

The corner store gave way to the neighborhood grocery long ago, but now it has disappeared in favor of the regional superstore. Tinted windows and garage door openers allow residents to slip in and out without detection. There are few casual conversations on street corners because there are few pedestrians - there's no place to walk to, after all. If the neighbors come by, that's fine. But if they don't, that's fine, too.

Subdivision dominos

The domino chain of subdivisions - and transportation planning that funnels cars onto jam-packed freeways - may have the Wasatch Front spiraling toward the same fate that has befallen Los Angeles, where smog and automobiles rule.

That is the contention of at least one outside observer, land-use attorney Robert Liberty, executive director of a private growth management organization called 1,000 Friends of Oregon. Liberty, who spent two weeks earlier this year analyzing growth patterns along the Wasatch Front, spoke this month at the annual meeting of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and to several other groups in Salt Lake and Davis counties.

Liberty argues that since World War II, community designers have allowed the automobile to dictate the way our suburban neighborhoods have evolved. The result is a pattern of development unsuitable to our present and future needs.

Light rail and other forms of mass transit, for example, can't effectively serve suburban areas that are spread out and connected by only a few major arterial routes. He says light rail might not do more than shift the traffic jam from I-15 to the roads leading to light-rail stations. Streets should be patterned in a grid system, like in downtown Salt Lake City, so traffic is evenly distributed, not concentrated, he argues.

The grid system and a return to other more traditional planning methods are being discussed by the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which is developing a report on the im-pacts of rapid growth here. Its findings and recommendations are to be presented during Gov. Mike Leavitt's "growth summit" in December.

"For mass transportation, high densities work a lot better than dispersed, and the usual costs of providing infrastructure are a little less as well," says George Ram-joue, development planning manager for the council.

Liberty calls for a complete shift in community design that emphasizes high-density and mixed-use residential areas over today's low-density, rigidly zoned neighborhoods. By placing single-family homes, duplexes, apartments, offices and small retail operations in the same neighborhood, Liberty says people would reduce their dependence on the automobile, thus lessening pollution and increasing their social interaction with one another.

"We must discover the wisdom of placing what we need close at hand instead of out of reach," he says. "We need to eliminate zoning barriers that keep needed neighborhood services at a distance.

"New communities should be built to the needs of the people and their movements, not the movement of automobiles."

Not too late

It's not too late to repair the damage already done, Liberty says. Dead-end roads in existing subdivisions can be extended outside those neighborhoods, connecting them with other communities and lessening traffic congestion.

Tina Syddall, a three-year resident of the Georgetown subdivision off 6200 South, just west of Taylorsville-Bennion, would welcome another road or two. There are only two ways to get out of Georgetown, and both roads lead to 6200, "and it's just a nightmare," Syddall says. "If you're trying to turn left (as most commuters do), you have to wait forever. That's the one thing I don't like about the way they built (the sub-division)."

Syddall further laments that her neighborhood is disconnected from others. A huge wooden fence divides Syddall's subdivision from another phase of the same development to the east. Children from the two neighborhoods are friends and would gladly get together more often, she says, if not for the obstacle. They must walk or be driven out to 6200 to reach their friends' homes.

Along with bringing back the corner store and other services, Liberty says residents should be allowed to build on a "mother-in-law" apartment or turn an existing home into a duplex or apartments. Sidewalks should be added to subdivisions without them, and parks and other gathering places should be built within communities - any-thing that encourages residents to interact is a positive change, Liberty says.

"If we don't design communities to create neighborliness, when is it going to happen?" he asks. "It's a very different vision of a community if you have a park in your back yard. Or how about a common area that can be shared?"

A number of Wasatch Front planners and foresighted civic leaders agree with much or part of what Liberty advocates, although most say there is little movement in that direction here.

South Mountain

One apparent exception is South Mountain, a 1,700-unit master-planned community now under con-struction in Draper. It will include a variety of housing as well as business, commercial and recreational facilities, and permanent open space.

Mayor Elaine Redd, who attended one of Liberty's talks, was delighted to hear him promote mixed-use communities like the one now rising on the northern bench below Traverse Ridge. And others are applauding the South Mountain concept as well.

"A lot of the new planning theory is to try to get back to the traditional little community neigh-borhoods and try to reintroduce little stores that people can walk to . . . more of a traditional layout with different types of housing with a mix of people living there," says Brian Maxfield, who recently left Sandy's community development staff to become West Jordan's chief city planner. "Right now, we haven't seen that to be a reality in this area.

"South Mountain I think is a real good attempt at that. Obviously, you have to see how it pans out and who moves in. It'll be fun to watch and see how it happens."

While huge master-plan communities aren't sprouting in Midvale, city planner Mark Mc-Grath says his city is in a unique position because it offers citizens that small-town community feel with its existing old town area. The city has revitalized its historic Main Street district, replacing vacant buildings with vibrant shops, restaurants and nightclubs. McGrath believes the old downtown area gives Midvale's homeowners some-thing residents elsewhere in the valley lack.

Tom Van Voorst, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Greater Salt Lake, says Liberty is on the right track when he says future housing developments must be of higher density. As land prices rise, fewer buyers are able to afford large lots anyway, Van Voorst says.

Larger lots

"One reason we have a problem with affordable housing here or being able to build entry-level homes is that so many cities have larger minimum lot sizes," Van Voorst says. "Personally, I like a large lot. You like to have some space. But there are some trade-offs. If you can afford $200,000 for a new home, that's fine, but we need more of a mix of housing here."

In 1994, 4,495 building permits were issued for single-family homes in Salt Lake County while only 37 permits were granted for duplexes and twin homes.

"People don't realize that we're developing a mini-Los Angeles here but only to a worse degree," McGrath says. "We have virtually no high density outside of downtown (Salt Lake City). They like their big lots, but they don't understand the corresponding traffic levels and pollution that is causing. And taxes increase when you have low density because you have to have more waterlines, more roads, more infrastructure and the whole gamut of city services.

"Another part of the problem is that we're developing all of these faceless, characterless mass neighborhoods that essentially have no personality. People don't have a sense of place."

Ramjoue agrees.

"We used to go with the grid system and true mixed-use development, where you'd have small grocery stores and shopping and possibly on the second floor you'd have a residence where maybe the store's owner would live," he says. "We don't have that kind of development anymore really, and our neighborhoods are becoming isolated, primarily because of the design, and you can't get around if you don't have a car.

"Many planners are calling for a return to the traditional design of a subdivision, which is basically a grid with somewhat higher densities."


But suburbanites along the Wasatch Front are hardly crying out for change. Numerous residents interviewed by the Deseret News said they generally like - with a few notable exceptions - the modern subdivisions they live in.

Deanna Tucker, her husband and four kids recently moved from an older neighborhood in Murray to Pheasant Brook Estates in Draper, where their new home sits on a 1/3-acre lot with an unobstructed view of the mountains and the night sky.

"We always wanted a big yard," Tucker says. "We go out walking in the evening, riding bikes. When you're out, people stop and talk to you. I know my neighbors who haven't moved in yet. . . . Actually, it's been pretty nice."

Living at roughly 13000 South and 300 East isn't as convenient, admits Tucker, who used to live a few blocks from a neighborhood shopping center. Tucker said her family does a better job of planning trips to the store since they can no longer rely on easy late-night runs to grab a few items. One result is that the family spends more time together at home. A corner grocery is about the last thing she wants to see in her neighborhood.

"I think that's why people are coming here - to get away from the craziness," she says.

The Oquirrh Shadows subdivision is likewise removed from the hustle and bustle. Massimo Marini and his wife Debra Ozenghar have lived in a three-bedroom house on a .11-acre lot at the southern end of the huge development, at about 7000 South and 5300 West, for the past 11/2 years.

"We don't feel very safe in a metropolitan area," Marini said.

But the couple is looking for another home, farther away from it all. They are disturbed by the graffiti on the outer walls of the subdivision and other activity they suspect is gang-related. Their 19-year-old son's car was stolen from the driveway, although it was later returned.

And not all of the neighbors reach out. A new family moved into the house across the street six months ago but still hasn't said hello. One of the first things they did was put up a chain-link fence, bordered by jagged rocks.

Making friends

Marini and Ozenghar, meanwhile, have tried to create an inviting atmosphere by filling their front yard with flowers and the back with a vegetable garden. Theirs is the only house on the block with something other than grass visible from the sidewalk.

"If I want friendship with my neighbors, I've got to be able to show I am friendly," Marini says. "Putting up a fence is like a psychological defense mechanism, but it might be misconstrued."

Getting to know your neighbors in today's Utah takes effort. Noelle Sorensen and her husband Doug Jory are willing to do whatever it takes. They are the first residents to move into the Raven Wood subdivision, located near 13000 South and 2700 West in Riverton.

"I liked it because it was farther from all the traffic in the city," Sorensen said of the subdivision where she and Jory built their own three-bedroom home - complete with a front porch - near the end of a cul-de-sac. "I think I'm pretty friendly and I talk to everybody. I'm going to take cookies to everyone when they move in."

Like friendships, changes in planning take a long time to evolve. If Liberty and those who share his ideas are correct, it may take millions of cookies to get Utah's suburbanites through the next few decades.



Single-family homes: Total construction permits for Wasatch front


1990 4,254

1991 5,521

1992 7,506

1993 8,848

1994 9,251

Source: Construction Monitor