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Utahns' satisfaction with downtown Salt Lake City is on the rise

SALT LAKE CITY — For George Thaut, living in downtown Salt Lake City brings vibrancy to everyday life.

"I've always loved being in the city," Thaut said. "I love being in the center of everything. … There's so much to do here and it's all so convenient."

Mark Rogers, an equity real estate agent for Clearwater Homes, says he hears similar expressions from others living downtown.

"I think they find the size of the city is big enough to have interesting things going on all the time, but small enough that you don't feel like you're lost in the city," Rogers said. "You feel like you have a sense of belonging, a part of something."

A recent survey by the Downtown Alliance showed that 52 percent of Utahns feel a sense of ownership and connection with downtown Salt Lake City — up 8 percent since last year and 18 percent since 2009.

In an effort to increase community satisfaction further, the Downtown Alliance plans to place a greater focus on residential development in and around the downtown central business district.

Several developments are nearing completion, such as the Broadway Park Lofts where Thaut lives. The building at 360 W. 300 South features 82 units adjacent to Pioneer Park and will be completed next month.

Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, says residential development, particularly targeting young people, adds to the dynamic environment of downtown.

"That impacts safety, that impacts the economy, that impacts the way we feel about the downtown area," Mathis said. "And we've determined that the way to do that is residential development, particularly a less expensive residence."

Last year, resident and visitor satisfaction with downtown was evidenced by an all-time high in retail sales of more than $800 million, according to Mathis. Though sales across Salt Lake County are declining, downtown sales continue to grow and represent a larger portion of retail spending in the county.

City Creek

Linda Wardell, general manager at City Creek Center, says places like the center have become more than a place to shop and eat. Some visitors use the center as a venue for business meetings; others use it as their walking route to work.

Whatever the reason, Wardell hopes residents and visitors continue to find new ways to use the area.

"We're thrilled to see that because that makes City Creek Center a part of the fabric of their lives," Wardell said. "And by having City Creek Center as a part of their lives, that means that downtown has become a habit and downtown has become a part of their lives as well."

Rogers said City Creek Center, in addition to contributing retail tax revenues, offers yet another reason for people to make downtown their home.

"I think it's been a big factor in bringing people back into the city as a place to live," Rogers said. "Not just to be entertained and not just to work, but also to be living there. And I think we're going to continue to grow in that aspect."

Public transportation, such as the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX line, largely contributes to residential and commercial development, according to Scott Wilmarth, senior vice president of CBRE.

"The ridership with TRAX has just gone through the roof," Wilmarth said.

TRAX ridership is up

In 2013, TRAX's 10 downtown stations saw an average weekday boarding of 21,555 passengers, according to UTA.

Commercial space also continues to be filled. Last year, the office vacancy rate was at 17.1 percent — down by 1.7 percent the previous year, according to Mathis.

Wilmarth says healthy levels of unoccupied space are in a state of flux for the city.

"I think the norm has changed where before we would look at 5 percent as being fully occupied," he said. "We're now seeing something that looms closer between 9 and 11 percent, and we see that as being pretty healthy. You still have some larger blocks of spaces that need to be addressed. But overall, we're seeing upward pressure on rents, and that's usually an indication that occupancies are doing well."

Several office developments are underway, the most ambitious of which is a 24-story tower to be built at 111 South Main. The building will feature 440,452 square feet of office space and a gold LEED certification.

Wilmarth says the building is representative of a changing economic paradigm in downtown Salt Lake City.

"The lease rates that will be required to occupy 111 Main will break all records," he said. "And that also is significant because I think it shows that we are maturing as a business community and that we're starting to see the value of having a labor force that can live (and) work in the central business district."