An example of what the Granary District might have in store.

Grassroots advocates working toward urban-development alternatives in Salt Lake City warn that local architects and developers will have their assumptions rocked when the international Congress of the New Urbanism brings its national conference to town in May.

CNU promotes walkable community development that includes compact streets and housing for all ages and incomes at a scale that encourages the use of bicycles and public transit. In short, their view for the urban development is anything but the glitter and glitz of The Gateway and City Creek Center. 

"It's going to be a shock for some people," says James Alfandre, a leading advocate for a gritty-but-homey Granary District, a westside pocket of industrial grit that developers have so-far missed. "But for a lot of residents, this will be a breath of fresh air. It's about figuring out how urbanism can improve their quality of life."

For the past three years, the residents and property owners in the Granary District—roughly encompassed by 600 South, 300 West, 9oo South and I-I5—have been trying to guide their neighborhood's future away from the usual tear-down-rebuild project toward a more organic solution. Using self-determination concepts such as online crowdsourcing, along with neighborhood parties and workshops, they are promoting so-called New Urbanism, a step back to pre-automobile communities. They are committed to keeping the district's light-industrial, art studios and business roots, while promoting individual ownership of small homesteads in a "human scale" community in the spaces in between.

As part of the CNU gathering, Granary District promoters hope to install a block long temporary demonstration site called Granary Row that will demonstrate the district's New Urban possibilities.

"We will have 1,000 architects, planners and dreamers visiting Salt Lake," says Christian Harrison, a partner in the Granary District initiative. "If you want to attract these people to do projects in your city, this is the way to do it." 

If the district's supporters pull it off, the center strip of 700 South between 300 West and 400 West will become, in May, a pop-up community of housing, urban gardens, food purveyors, a beer garden and even a compact performance space. Most of the structures will be based on recycled cargo shipping containers.

"When people actually see something, they can imagine the potential," Harrison says.

Utah New Urbanists are banking on the potential of Brigham Young's famously wide streets that can be nlled with shops and homes, while still allowing lanes for car, trolley, bicycle and foot traffic.

"It used to be thought that Salt Lake's huge blocks and wide streets were very unfriendly for New Urbanism—you couldn't get that human scale that you find in Portland and New York." In fact, Alfandre says the pioneer Plat of Zion that allowed early Salt Lakers walkable access to their gardens, stores and social centers "is something New Urbanism would like to emulate."

Planning, itself a loaded word in Utah, that preserves a city's grit, industrial sites and low-income homesteaders will not impress many developers, Alfandre acknowledges. "It's not for everybody, for sure. But there is an under served market that would invest in a compact, walkable environment. It's a reaction to market demand."

Back>>>The Big See: Three events you shouldn't miss

Back>>>Read other stories in our June 2013 issue.