Aug 5th, 2013

It takes a light touch

Just as explaining a joke kills it, you’d think cities getting into “tactical urbanism” would snuff the radical energy of people remaking a destitute place on their own.

But reality is: who’s going to bring the dollars to fix up a trashy weed site if not the city?

So Salt Lake City is trying a little urban makeover, dubbing it “lighter quicker cheaper”. Two sites opened two days in a row, Sugarmont Plaza in Sugar House on June 14 and Granary Row on 900 South between 300 and 400 West on June 15, 2013

To suggest, however, that Salt Lake City is the initiator for either would be incorrect. Rather, designers, students, developers, academics and other citizens who have dreamed up catalyst projects, that is to say easy “interventions” that can demonstrate the potential of an area have earned some RDA funds to make them happen.

Take Sugarmont Plaza. Prior to its recent make-over, it was a cracked, patchwork asphalt parking lot by a  vacant thrift store building in Sugar House. Not trashy or weedy per se but a dead zone without immediate prospects for improvement. Current owner: Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency.

Aware of the City’s interest in tactical urbanism, Mark Morris of VODA Landscape + Planning and Amy Barry of the Sugar House Community Council submitted a proposal to turn the abandoned parking lot into “Sugarmont Plaza.” They brought in many “project affiliate organizations” who provided active and sidelines support, including the Utah Center for Architecture. Morris is a landscape architect, current president of the Sugar House Park Authority Board and creative director for Friends of the Sugar House Streetcar.

“We had two goals,” says Mark. “We wanted to make it a useful place, an active place for the community and also test public support for a plaza in this location.” The site is located at a critical juncture where the street car will eventually interface with Highland Drive.

Their proposal was simple. Create a casual public gathering space by painting bright, geometric patterns on the pavement and filling it with inexpensive tables and chairs, similar to other tactical urbanism projects across the country. Add to the sense of place by commissioning an artist to design and paint a mural on the empty building identifying the plaza. Attract people with a bi-weekly evening food truck rally and other attractions, including live music.








Morris and Barry also proposed adding informal signs throughout the Sugar House business district letting people know estimated walking times to nearby destinations. More people willing to walk now, they figured, would enhance street car success later on.

With the RDA’s investment of $10,000.00 for hard costs and the mural creation, Sugarmont Plaza opened on a sunny Friday, June 14.


Molly Robinson, AICP, Urban Designer for Salt Lake City, observes “I think tactical urbanism projects are a creative way for people to engage with the public realm. From the City’s perspective, of course, we want people to ask permission first, get a permit and so on. The reality is that for many of these projects, there is no process or procedure to help the public do this in a reasonable manner. This is something we’re working to address.”

Tactical urbanism won’t fill every derelict corner of the city. Like the Sugarmont and Granary projects, the City will likely invest in places that can be catalysts for accomplishing multiple goals, e.g., improved public safety, economic development, building community spirit, and advancing neighborhood planning goals. That may be a lot for “lighter, quicker, cheaper” tactical urbanism projects to carry.

We’ll see what comes next.

E. Mitchell