Why SLC Downtown Surpassed The Pandemic And Is Ahead Of The Competition

Downtown Salt Lake City isn’t just recovering from the pandemic. He flies beyond.

New geolocation analysis of mobile phone data shows that regular visits to a wide range of points of interest in the urban core – from businesses, shops and offices to monuments, parks and community centers – have jumped 155% from their levels a year before the pandemic.

That’s more than any of the 62 US and Canadian cities surveyed — by far.

Only three other medium or large cities in North America – Columbus, Ohio (112%) and Fresno and Bakersfield in California (108% and 117%, respectively) – have seen anything come close to this type of recovery. downtown visits this past spring, compared to March to May 2019.

The findings, drawn from research conducted by the Institute for Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, clearly show that Utah’s capital is marching at a different pace right now.

Other downtowns surveyed ranged from 92% of pre-pandemic visitation in Omaha, Neb., to 31% in San Francisco from March to May this year, according to the study titled “The Death of Downtown? ” which was based on a computer analysis of GPS data from 18 million smartphones in North America.

Continued caution over COVID-19 infection has been accompanied by business closures, the persistence of working from home and a shift to online shopping to reduce downtown activity and prevent other metropolitan areas from bouncing back. Dwindling office occupancy and slowing retail sales have even sparked questions about whether a nationwide revival of downtown living that emerged before the pandemic might have been derailed.

In the case of Salt Lake City, however, these slowing factors appear to have been overwhelmed by the city’s increasing population and continued economic growth and by the leaps in new investment and residential construction in the downtown area. city, where the number of full-time residents is now on track to double in just a few years.

Many of these new residents are not originally from Utah, and anecdotal data and evidence suggests they are embracing downtown life, bringing renewed interest in its sights and experiences as well as its restaurants, bars , theatres, cultural venues and a growing urban vibe. .

The city, ironically, also seems to have benefited from less use of public transport compared to automobile travel compared to other mid-sized cities, one of the study’s co-authors, Karen Chapple, professor emeritus in urban and regional planning at UC Berkeley. , said in an interview.

This made returning to the city center easier for some, Chapple said, compared to areas more reliant on public transit.

Utah’s urban center also has more enclaves of single-family homes located closer to downtown than other cities, said Chapple, who is also director of the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new TRAX station near the intersection of 600 South and Main Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Public transit usually helps revive downtowns, but a new study shows a relative lack of public transit has contributed to the recovery of Utah’s capital.

“It’s kind of funny because city planners always want to see more density and more transit use,” Chapple said. “But in reality, lower density and a relative lack of public transportation use are factors that help Salt Lake City.”

The city’s downtown has a more diverse employment base than metropolitan areas such as New York and San Francisco, which are more dominated by professional services such as law firms, accountants, architects, consulting and technology companies.

These sectors have tended to retain work-from-home models even as the pandemic subsides, leaving many other city centers quieter during the week. In contrast, Salt Lake City’s strong presence of manufacturing, construction and hospitality jobs has brought more employees back to the workplace, which has spurred regular visits to downtown. town.

“What really helps Salt Lake,” Chapple said, “is its economy.”

What does rebound look like

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diners enjoy the weather on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Saturday, August 13, 2022.

The UC Berkeley analysis leveraged smartphone geolocation trajectory data, aggregated by a San Francisco company called SafeGraph, which tracks physical visits to points of interest based on proximity, length of stay and location characteristics, such as location type. Business hours.

“We track pings,” Chapple said. “And you actually have to go in and spend some time there to get tracked.”

The study comes against a backdrop of dramatic population growth over a decade in Utah, with the state growing by 18.4% between 2010 and 2020, due to its high birth rate and the arrival of people abroad.

In 2021, according to demographers from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, immigration soared to account for 59% of the state’s population jump last year, the largest annual share of its overall growth in recent history, as people fled more populated areas for Beehive State.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Construction in downtown Salt Lake City of housing and office towers, slated for May 2021, continues to soar.

Downtown Salt Lake City currently has 3,846 existing apartments, with 3,974 under construction and another 4,405 apartments on offer, according to a recent count. The number of downtown units is projected to be 103% higher by 2024, compared to 2021.

In terms of returning visitors, the real turning point for the city center appears to have occurred between late summer and early fall 2021, according to the study. After dropping below 50% of spring 2019 attendance levels with the onset of the pandemic, it steadily gained visitors until the end of 2020, but then hovered between 75% and 90% until August 2021.

Visits then exceeded 100% of pre-pandemic levels in September 2021, exceeded 120% in November, reached 140% in April and reached 155% at the end of May.

Some credit the state’s response to the pandemic as well as a growing economy, including an industry-tailored guide for employers on how to balance health precautions with returning workers.

“Utah has really walked that fine line of aggressive and public health feedback,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, representing downtown merchants at the Salt Lake Chamber. “Opinions differ on this, but we’ve looked at getting back to work and done it faster than in other areas.”

With its outdoor attractions and five national parks, Utah also continues to attract a large share of the national recreation tourism resurgence, according to Brewer. “They felt safe traveling in Utah, with its wide open spaces and reputation for cleanliness and safety,” he said. “It generated a lot of visits here.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz fans fill Vivint Arena during the 2021 playoffs. Sporting events like this help downtown Salt Lake City rebound.

Entertainment venues such as Vivint Arena, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, Abravanel Hall and a host of others also reacted relatively quickly to resume in-person events, Brewer noted, and that boosted visits to the downtown and shifted activity in the urban core more towards nighttime hours than daytime.

Significantly, downtown’s revival came even though one of the state’s biggest tourist draws, Temple Square and its iconic Latter-day Saint temple, was largely closed during a renovation. of five years.

Night-time visits to downtown were about 85% of pre-pandemic volumes in June, according to the alliance’s own research, while visits by office workers are at 63% from pre-COVID. And while business travel and conventions still lag behind, sporting events such as Utah Jazz matches, volleyball, fencing, jujitsu and weightlifting attract thousands of people from all over the country.

The majority of the highest 25 days for downtown visitors over the past two years, Brewer said, have focused on multiple large in-person events or business gatherings.

“The social economy,” he said, “bounced back much faster than office people.”

‘A long way to go’ to full recovery

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A couple enjoy drinks at a sidewalk cafe on the open streets portion of Main Street in Salt Lake City on Saturday, August 13, 2022. Restaurants have rebounded from the dark days of the pandemic but still struggling with staffing and supply issues.

UC Berkeley’s findings are being borne out by many downtown retailers and hospitality establishments, where fortunes looked bleak just 18 months ago for foot-traffic-dependent businesses.

“I was really surprised,” said Adam Tye, co-owner of Diabolical Records at 238 S. Edison St. with his wife, Alana. “We’ve had a hell of a rebound,” said Tye, who reported plenty of new faces among those sorting through his stock of vintage music on vinyl.

“I have regulars who now come from Lehi, Draper, a couple of [South Jordan’s] Daybreak,” Tye said, adding that many are recent transplants in Utah. “And there is a different mindset. These are people who are more used to traveling long distances because they are not from here.

City Creek Center, the downtown core mall, has seen a “significant post-pandemic recovery,” according to Linda Wardell, its chief executive. Foot traffic, Wardell said, was bolstered by events, the resumption of office work and the return of conventions and tourism.

“We are extremely encouraged,” she said, adding that the mall is experiencing continued consumer demand, especially for mall tenants whose brands are unique to the city.

Even downtown restaurants – among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of job losses – have started to see significant gains in their retail customers after nearly two years of struggling with distancing rules. 6ft social, moving to curbside delivery and limiting the number of people they can serve.

“Things are looking up in downtown Salt Lake,” said Melva Sine, head of the Utah Restaurant Association, “but there’s still a lot of work to do to reach pre-pandemic numbers.”

Restaurants have reduced their hours and gotten creative with their menus, Sine said, but they still face major challenges with hiring workers, supply chain issues and inflation.

“A long way to go,” she said, “still.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendance at the Eccles Theater, which premiered in March 2021, has helped revive downtown Salt Lake City.

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