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Voters Send Mixed Signals On High-Density Growth In The Valley

Photo of new construction.
Julia Ritchey / KUER

Voters in Holladay and Orem weighed in on plans for high-density developments this month, but with two different outcomes that could leave planners and lawmakers with some uncertainty over how to balance growth with residents’ concerns.

In Orem, voters narrowly approved a student housing development across from Utah Valley University that would add 1,600 apartment units. Holladay residents, however, roundly rejected a zoning plan for the former Cottonwood Mall site consisting of 200 homes and a 775-unit high-rise building.

“I think it’s very short-sighted,” said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition of the referendums.

She sees attempts to block high-density developments as evidence of creeping NIMBYism, an acronym that stands for “not in my backyard.”

“If people want to have their children living in their community, then they need to think about density because we need denser neighborhoods,” said Rollins.

She said developers and city leaders need to do a better job educating their communities about the housing crunch while addressing concerns about traffic and the environment.

“People always think density is affordable housing; people think all multi-family housing is subsidized housing, when in fact it’s a choice that people make,” she said.

But not everyone sees the outcome as a clear verdict against multi-family development.

“The incomplete narrative about Orem and Holladay is ‘massive uprising against high-density housing’ — the actual story is more nuanced,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The issue in Orem, he said, was less about housing than about Utah Valley University’s impact on the surrounding community. In Holladay the Utah Supreme Court will have the ultimate say if what voters decided is valid, he said

Neither case tells the real story of what’s going on in the valley, Diehl said.

“We are seeing historic amounts of multi-family housing being built across the Wasatch Front,” he said. “Seven of the last 10 years, you’ve seen more multifamily housing built in Salt Lake County than you’ve seen single-family housing.”

Diehl sees development and affordable housing as policy discussions that local lawmakers will continue to wrestle over during the next legislative session.

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