PROVO — Gone are the days when freeway interchanges were an afterthought, an ugly hulking mass of gray.
At an expense that sometimes exceeds $1 million, cities along the Wasatch Front are now carving out gardens in and around their interchanges. Where there was just concrete or weeds, there are now saplings and flower beds growing alongside on- and offramps throughout the state.
Salt Lake City paid more than $200,000 to install wrought-iron fencing and decorative lighting around four key interchanges leading into the city before the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. Pleasant Grove just paid $1.7 million to landscape its new interchange, which includes a fountain that glows at night.
Orem's University Parkway interchange, which started Utah Valley's landscaping craze four years ago, practically smells like a flower nursery, with all the wood chips and bark covering its embankments.
Once nothing more than a mass of sloping concrete supported by thick beams of steel, freeway offramps are now a shining entrance, a gateway, a promise, even, that getting off at this particular exit will be worth it.
"I think now city leaders are saying, 'If we're going to have an offramp, let's make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible,' " says Geoff Dupaix, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. "They truly are seen as gateways into communities."
Since Orem landscaped its University Parkway interchange, other cities in Utah have followed suit, says Terry Johnson, UDOT's senior landscape architect. Work is under way to beautify interchanges in Draper, Lehi and Springville.
In the end, the landscaping isn't really about aesthetics. It's about money. The goal is to lure people off the freeway and into the stores just beyond the stop lights, says Richard Jackson, a Brigham Young University professor who teaches urban planning.
"The main reason this is important for cities is sales tax revenue," Jackson says. "Cities want big box stores that generate a lot of sales tax revenue. That's why you will often see a row of auto dealerships along the main entrance into a city.
"Aesthetics generally comes behind issues of revenue generation."
A gateway to the future
Nowhere is that more evident than in Pleasant Grove.
When I-15 was built, city leaders in Pleasant Grove decided against a freeway offramp, fearing it would bring too much traffic and crime to their sleepy little hamlet.
"Well, 40 years later, they are realizing that was a mistake," said Pleasant Grove economic development director Paul Blanchard. "From an economic development standpoint, they really shot themselves in the foot."
Pleasant Grove has watched car dealerships go to Lindon and shopping malls go to Orem, generating enough sales tax revenue in those cities to build parks with waterslides, to renovate libraries and fund recreation centers.
Orem's University Parkway business corridor, the envy of mayors throughout Utah County, generates 35 percent to 40 percent of the city's sales tax revenue. Orem will get about $13.8 million in sales tax revenue this year, about $1.4 million more than Provo, Utah County's largest city. Pleasant Grove, a much smaller city with a population of about 23,000, will get about $2.2 million.
"We're the third-largest city in Utah County, but we have a tax base of a city the fraction of our size," Blanchard says. "We're lagging behind. We're not where we want to be."
This summer, Pleasant Grove's first interchange was completed. Framed by wrought-iron fencing, decorative lighting, trees, shrubs and flowers, the offramp is a sight to behold. At night, the fountain flowing in its median is lit up, as is a rock stream that runs alongside the interchange.
Landscaping for new interchanges is paid for by UDOT, unless the city wants something extravagant that exceeds UDOT's project budget, which was the case in Pleasant Grove. To beautify an existing interchange, cities must pay for the landscaping themselves.
To do so, most apply for federal enhancement funds. Provo's University Avenue interchange cost $600,000 to landscape, the bulk of which came from federal funding. Once landscaping is put in, cities are responsible for maintenance.
Pleasant Grove spent $1.7 million in city funds to landscape its interchange. UDOT kicked in $500,000.
"We saw it as our first opportunity to make an impression on people as they come into the city," said Pleasant Grove City Councilwoman Cindy Boyd. "It's the first thing people see."
The interchange levels out into Pleasant Grove Boulevard, which winds through hay fields and dusty farmland and leads to Main Street, a quiet little strip where napping dogs and farmers in bib overalls wouldn't look out of place.
City officials such as Blanchard and Boyd have big hopes for their new boulevard.
But it is too late to attract such big-box retailers as Wal-Mart and Costco to Pleasant Grove, says City Manager Frank Mills. Those stores have already gone to neighboring cities.
When he looks out at the hay fields that surround the boulevard he sees a walkable community with upscale stores, similar to The Gateway in Salt Lake or The Shops at Riverwoods in Provo.
Because the water table is high near the boulevard, Mills hopes retailers who build along it will build water features like fountains and streams around their stores.
"If we expect developers to do it, we wanted to step up and do it ourselves," Mills said. "We're years behind other cities. We had to do something else as an incentive to bring new people in."
If there is a downside to the beautification of the state's interchanges, says BYU's Richard Jackson, it may be their intended result.
Big-box retailers may generate a bundle of sales tax revenue, Jackson says, but they don't create many high-paying jobs, they kill mom-and-pop stores, and they can destroy historic downtowns.
Springville has long prided itself on its historic downtown, for example, but its new interchange will push the city one step closer to looking like every other town along the Wasatch Front.
And in Lehi, which is now enhancing its I-15 interchange, neon-new development has partially obscured its most recognizable landmark: the Lehi Roller Mills.
"It's just ubiquitous housing developments and urban sprawl all along I-15," says Richard Jackson. New York, San Francisco, Seattle, even Salt Lake, he says, because of the LDS Church, have distinctive downtowns
"If you don't have that sense of place people won't feel as much allegiance to it. They won't be proud to be a part of it."
But it goes beyond aesthetics. Downtowns that are allowed to decline are much more difficult to re-develop, Jackson says, and often become hot spots for crime. Districts in states of decline also attract transients, he said.
The measures that cities are taking to draw big-box retailers, which include landscaping offramps, are also a concern to some state legislators, says Lincoln Schurtz, legislative coordinator for the Utah League of Cities and Towns.
"We want to get cities on the same page as the state," he said. "The state wants to create jobs; most cities want a Wal-Mart because with sales tax it makes it a whole lot easier to balance your budget at the end of the year."
Schurtz said legislation is in the works that would change the way sales tax revenue is distributed. Instead of just awarding cities for the amount of sales tax revenue they generate, the state would also reward cities that create high-paying jobs.
In Pleasant Grove, not everyone is excited about the new interchange.
Main Street merchants such as Melanie Miller complain they have tried to sway city leaders for the past 10 years to give them the kind of attention and money they are now giving the new "gateway" area.
"We feel it's a pitiful shame our city puts us as a low priority," Miller says. "This town has made the same mistake many times. They don't treat businesses with respect here and do what it takes to attract and keep new merchants. And that has almost been the death of us."
City leaders recognize Pleasant Grove's quaint downtown as an asset but say it has proven difficult to lure developers to an area that would require expensive renovations and offers little parking.
"The importance of the downtown area to the community has been diminished," says Blanchard, the town's economic development director. "We have lost stores that haven't been replaced, and if they have been replaced, it's been to other cities."
But Blanchard doesn't think the new interchange will be the death of Pleasant Grove's downtown. He hopes the new boulevard will become a regional draw that will lead people to Main Street.
And as Mills, the city manager, points out, most Pleasant Grove residents won't be able to get on the new interchange without passing through downtown first.
"I think we can have the best of both worlds," says Boyd, the councilwoman. "We can provide every business opportunity in the gateway area and still retain the quaint downtown."