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Sean Reynolds

No night life downtown? Not so, numbers show

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The New Yorker is one of several dining hot spots located on Market Street. Downtown Salt Lake City is home to an abundance of restaurants. (Ryan Galbraith/The Salt Lake Tribune)

No night life downtown? Not so, numbers show

Downtown Salt Lake City is slowly shaking its long-held reputation as a dead zone for night life, but the perception persists that it remains a few restaurants and bars shy of a party.

Yet residents and visitors alike might be surprised to know that there are nearly 70 restaurants, clubs, brew pubs and taverns in the 15 blocks that surround the Salt Palace, Capitol Theatre and Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Throw in the growing entertainment hubs around The Gateway and new main library, and the number of dining and drinking establishments in the downtown area approaches 100.

Night life? Turns out there's plenty. But planners say Salt Lake City has yet to seize the opportunity to define its entertainment area and make it a destination -- such as the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego, the West End in Dallas or the 16th Street Mall in Denver.

"One of the things we've noticed and pointed out [to Salt Lake City officials] is that there is a nice concentration of restaurants, clubs and bars downtown, but people don't really recognize it because it's so discontinuous," says Michael Beyard, a planner with the Washington-based Urban Land Institute. "There's one here, a couple there, another over here. Creating synergy is difficult because there are so many gaps where buildings have been torn down."

Finding a way to fill those spaces, he adds, is the key to "creating economic vitality on the street and making it a place people want to go. But that's also a very difficult thing to do."

Until now, Salt Lake City's political and business leaders have promoted downtown's night-life assets under one all-inclusive banner. But given the way the city center has expanded in recent years, Downtown Alliance Executive Director Bob Farrington says it may be time to rethink that strategy.

"Part of our evolution is that we've gone from a downtown that includes one or two streets, a relatively compact area, to one that is beginning to develop a series of identities," he says. "We've tried to emphasize all of downtown as the night-life zone, but there is something to be said for creating a literal or figurative way to convey that notion; to identify a street or area which conveys that this is a happening place."

The roots of today's night-life scene probably can be traced to the building of the Salt Palace in the late 1960s and -- perhaps more crucially -- its renovation and expansion in the past decade.

"Those conventions deliver a lot of business," says Eric Dunlap, owner of the Red Rock Brewing Co. "If we had to rely on just the locals, we'd be hurting. The conventioneers keep us going. And they're generally walking, so everybody benefits."

The addition of anchors such as Abravanel Hall, the renovated Capitol Theatre, the Delta Center and the Wagner center has continued to ensure a steady flow of customers. And downtown revelry enjoyed a significant bump from the 2002 Winter Olympics, which sparked a flurry of restaurant and club openings. Keeping the club scene hopping are University of Utah students, who, lacking a true "U." entertainment district of their own have made downtown their hangout.

Add it all up and the impact is startling. Restaurant and food sales now exceed clothing sales downtown and account for 30 percent of all retail activity in the central business district, according to a recent study by the U.'s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. More than 20 percent of the city's clubs and liquor-serving restaurants are in that 15-block area around the Salt Palace. More than ever, it appears that arts, entertainment and culture will guide downtown's future.

For all that, though, city officials seem unsure about how best to nurture the city's growing night-life sector.

Mayor Rocky Anderson has long touted San Diego's Gaslamp district as something Salt Lake City should aspire to. Why? Among other reasons, Gaslamp tax revenue jumped from $892,000 in 1991 to $4.9 million in 2001, according to a study of the area's growing economic benefits.

Michael Stepner oversaw planning for San Diego in the 1970s when the Gaslamp Quarter was getting started. He says property owners approached the city for help to clean up the area, which then was riddled with tattoo parlors and adult bookstores.

Stepner says the city agreed to fund street upgrades on blocks where two-thirds of the property owners agreed to renovate their buildings. The city gave low-cost loans and grants to the owners. It also created an improvement district to promote the quarter and to maintain the landscaping.

"It took seed money from the city and a lot of marketing effort and educational effort," Stepner recalls.

But Anderson hasn't made much headway in selling the concept to Salt Lake City. The mayor got a chilly reception in 2001 when he proposed creating an entertainment district that would include a zoning change to allow more than two drinking establishments per block.

The initiative stalled. Some residents complained the mayor was trying to encourage alcohol consumption, though the change would not increase the number of clubs or taverns -- those are limited by population. Bar owners fretted about more competition. And the police worried about more crime.

Anderson now says it is up to the community to push for such zoning changes. "I'm not going to do it alone again," he says.

A possible alternative: individual zoning variances in which prospective club and tavern owners would make pitches on a case-by-case basis.

"It would cut down on the fly-by-nighters, the smaller, underfinanced operators who would just keep coming and going," says Charles Johnson, operating partner of P.F. Chang's Chinese Bistro.

City Council members seem content to let the market chart the course.

"For it to truly catch on and become ingrained, it's better for it to grow on its own," Councilman Carlton Christensen says.

However, Urban Land Institute planner Beyard believes that, as in San Diego, the city must at least lend a guiding hand if an entertainment district is to truly bloom.

The recent addition of midstreet parking along 300 South and midblock pedestrian crossings are a good start, he says. But the city also must look to visual cues such as landscaping, kiosks or light fixtures. And it needs zoning ordinances that nurture mixed-use development.

"The city needs to create a vision of what it wants, and make sure the regulations and initiatives are in place to achieve that vision," Beyard says. "If you're going to create an entertainment district, you need policies and incentives in place -- not only to encourage investment, but to protect what's there."

Ogden has adopted that approach, sprinkling about $3 million in small-business loans and street improvements to help sprout an arts and entertainment district on historic 25th Street.

The northern Utah city also limits bars to two per block. So 25th Street is home to restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops, along with bars. The city targeted artists by offering business loans and housing grants to get them to live and work on 25th Street.

"In the next two years, every vacant lot on 25th will be under redevelopment except parking lots," notes economic development director Stuart Reid.

An excess of surface parking lots is part of the problem in Salt Lake City's existing night-life hub. And the issue has two sides: The surface lots create gaps between restaurants, clubs and shops -- downgrading the street ambience -- and a perceived parking shortage keeps away business.

Farrington and Christensen say it may be time for the city to build two or three strategically placed, aesthetically pleasing parking garages that would include one or two levels of retail.

"The city has been hesitant to go into this area, but it may be something they need to look at," Farrington says.

Meanwhile, the organic growth of downtown's restaurant and bar scene figures to continue, at some level. The mix of Utah establishments with chains such as P.F. Chang's, Buca di Beppo and the Melting Pot points to long-term investment in the area.

"When I first looked at the site, I scratched my head because I wasn't sure where the people would come from," said P.F. Chang partner Johnson. "But with Gateway, and all the loft and condo projects, it has grown and we're continuing to see more regulars.

"Things are moving in the right direction. It's a matter of keeping the ball rolling."

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Interesting article. I normally don't think of SLC as a downtown with lots of nightlife. Capitalizing on the entertainment district idea like SD did will only help SLC shake it's reputation of having no nightlife.

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