Friday, March 17, 2006

A Tale of Two Shopping Districts

A recent trip brought me through Magna, Utah. Being on the west end of town, I decided to check out the sprawl in the Southwest areas of Salt Lake County. I ended up visiting the large Jordan Commons shopping district.

Magna is a small blue collar town near the Kennecott Copper Smelter. The town is a beautiful example of some of the early thinking that went into town planning. The basic ideal of the day was that of a Main Street lined with independently owned shops. The center of town had a wonderful collection of small starter homes, a few free standing fourplexes and larger homes for well established families. Magna, itself, is within walking distance to the big chainlink gate that surrounds Kennecott.

To my dismay, about half of the shops in this traditional shopping district were boarded up and closed.

The Second part of my excursion brought me to the Jordan Landing. Jordan Landing is a new shopping concept. A good description might be a Mall on Steroids. A traditional Mall has a combination of anchor stores and smaller clingon stores in a connected enclosed space surrounded by an massive shared parking lot.

The Jordan Landing is more like a strip mall with free standing box stores. The Landing includes the first Sears Grand store, a Sams Club, Walmart, Kohls, Lowes, Circuit City and a string of other traditional free standing stores. The Landing also has a large number of free standing chain style restaurants. The stores are in an area that is almost 2 miles square. Most people, I suspect, drive from store to store.

Regardless, the area was packed. Here we are in the middle of March (not a big shopping season). The massive parking lots were close to half full and people were walking out of all the stores with big carts brimming over with goods.

In part what is going on is a major demographic switch. Unlike downtown Magna and Salt Lake City proper, West Jordan is expanding. The population of the West Jordan is currently something like 85,000. It is projected to grow to 185,000 within the next several decades. I suspect that central Magna (like Salt Lake City) is seeing its population decrease. The Salt Lake City zoning commission is extremely hostile to new businesses and growth. The result is that the natural population growth in Utah can only find housing through sprawl. In 2000, Salt Lake City's population was 181,743. The 2004 estimate is 178,605. Within the next thirty years, West Jordan, West Valley City and Saint George will all have larger populations than Salt Lake City.

The box store concept has many advantages. The selection is greater. Prices are less. Generally towns put a high sales tax on sales in traditional shopping districts.

It is hard to say if the phenomenal success of Jordan Landing is due to this demographic switch or if there really is something about the free standing box store concept that is innately appealing to the American mind.

Looking at Jordan Landing, I do wonder how well the concept will carry through the ages. If the current success is due only to demographic trends, the area might start to languish in the next 40 years or so. I suspect that the founders of Magna thought that they were building a downtown shopping district that would be thriving centuries into the future.

Comparing the blight in downtown Magna to the thriving success of Jordan Landing. I can't help but think that the real secret to long term success is slow sustained growth. Traveling through Europe several decades ago, I noticed that vibrant cultural centers had a long history of buidings being torn down and rebuilt as the area grew.

What the US has done with the our current cities is to create a political structure that is hostile to this sustained growth. A businessman who wants to expand a small business in Salt Lake City can't because the drones on the zoning commission. The truth in business, is that if you can't grow, you can only languish.

The aggressive zoning that dominates traditional downtowns creates this destructive cycle of blight followed by government subsidized urban renewal. Meanwhile, the people sprawl into the countryside because that is the only place were growth is allowed.

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