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Building block: Salt Lake City was a model of urban planning from the start

From the very beginning, Salt Lake City was a planned city. One of the first things the Mormon settlers did was to lay out the gridwork of a town.

In 1855, Jules Remy, a visitor to the city, gave this description:

"We entered it by one of the principal streets and saw to the right and left gardens and orchards, in which the trees, especially the peach, were laden with fruit … All the streets are 130 feet wide and run from north to south and from east to west … The streets cross each other at right angles, forming squares of houses, or blocks … The majority of the houses are built of adobes, generally in a simple style, frequently elegant and always clean."

Commercial development was less planned, with residences mixed in with early shops until a business district eventually arose at the center of town.

If you take a long look at one of those downtown blocks, you will see patterns of development that reflect urban growth and may teach valuable lessons about city planning, says Sarah Morrow, a graduate student at the University of Utah in city and metropolitan planning and a member of the South Salt Lake Planning Commission.

Now, when downtown once again transforms before our very eyes, is a good time to do that, she says.

For her master's project, Morrow traced the evolution of Block 75 — the block which contained the ZCMI Center and is bordered by State Street and Main Street on the east and west and South Temple and 100 South on the north and south. She recently presented some of her findings at a brown-bag lecture at the Utah State History Department.

The block gets its designation from the original numbering system, which started at 900 South and 300 East with Block 1 and then accrued up and down the grid.

By 1848, she noted, the 10-acre blocks that had been carved out of the grid were further divided into various-size lots. Because Block 75, which is kitty-corner from the temple block, was a prime location, several lots were given to prominent church leaders, including Jedediah M. Grant, Daniel H. Wells and Ezra T. Benson.

Some church buildings were also included on the block, including the first church historian's office.

Most of the first commercial development, she said, occurred on the 100 South side.

Morrow took a look at the block at roughly five-to-10-year increments to trace various developmental changes.

In the 1860s, the first original buildings were those owned by prominent LDS leaders, she said. In the 1870s, the Salt Lake Theater was added on the corner of State Street and 100 South, the first bank was built and the first ZCMI store added.

By the 1880s, Main Street became more commercial, with the addition of other little shops. But the Gardo House, built on South Temple, also kept a residential presence.

In the 1890s, the Templeton Hotel was built on the corner of South Temple and Main Street. "The middle of the block was also being utilized more," Morrow said, "and 100 South was becoming secondary to the commercial development on Main Street."

By 1911, "there had been a lot of change," she said. The only original building remaining was the Historian's Office. By 1926, it was gone. The Salt Lake Theater was still there, but the Deseret Bank was in a different building. But there was a lot of commercial development, and if you look at a telephone book from this time, you'd see a lot of diversity in businesses, Morrow said.

The 1930s saw the loss of the theater and the addition of First Security Bank, but not a lot of other development, as Salt Lake City and the rest of the country endured the Great Depression.

New building resumed after World War II; the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co. rose where the theater once stood. "The block becomes a tightly knit commercial block, and the big problem was finding ways to accommodate the increasing number of cars that were coming downtown," said Morrow.

By the early '60s, "there was a big parking structure in the middle of the block, and a big gap where the Templeton Hotel had been torn down." The Kennecott Building would be added, "and you also find more and more parking at the sides of buildings."

Huge changes occurred on the block in the mid-'70s, when "the majority of the block was bought up and torn down to make way for the new ZCMI Center. The corners hang on, but we lost a lot of buildings."

In the 1990s, the Eagle Gate Plaza was added, and a makeover added the ZCMI food court.

And now, Morrow says, comes the City Creek Development, which took down the ZCMI Center, to be replaced with some high-rises, more corridors, a mix of residential and commercial space — much like it was in the beginning.

So what have we learned through this evolutionary process? Morrow asked.

"The block has always had its problems," she said. "I tend to be a romantic and think that everything from the past is wonderful, but there were a lot of problems with inferior construction, building-code violations, a failure to consider flow of traffic and pedestrians. I discovered it was not as romantic as I thought."

But that's typical of any age, she said. Problems develop as technologies and usages change.

Still, she said, it is important to keep some of the past. "Cities are locations of progress, but they are also encasements of history. You have to look at what is the lifeblood of the city. What draws people to it, and keep as much of that as you can."

What helps a city, she said, is "keeping a diverse architectural inventory, a range of historic styles that give insight into the city. It's not wise to wipe out everything. A city devoid of a diversity of styles becomes devoid of patronage and genuine interest."

The cityscape is a reflection of people, values and choices in any given era, she said.

Another thing she learned through the study is that "cars have begun to claim more than their fair share of downtown; yet they remain a necessary evil. We can't ignore them; we have to share room with them."

We also have to realize that cities are very different from the suburbs, she said. "For a time, the sentiment was that if it works in the suburbs, it will work in the city. Several decades later, we have learned to value the city core and the suburbs for different reasons."

It's important to remember, she said, that the evolution of tenants and businesses over time — and the fact that they were allowed to evolve — "gave vitality to the area. We don't have to have the same use over and over in the same place."

The City Creek Development is incorporating some of those notions, she said. She is hopeful we can learn from the past and all be more aware of urban-planning issues. She echoed the sentiments of historian Dale Morgan, who wrote in 1959, "still, we may hope that Salt Lake City will not lose itself in growth, that as it has preserved its unique identity through its eras as a village, town and city, it will not lose that identity in its transformation into a metropolis."