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'One Foot In Memory, One Foot In Prophecy'

Utah visionary points the way to regional planning, public transit in Michigan

October 9, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Salt Lake City is growing quickly, but an expanding public transportation system and regional planning are slowing sprawl.

GRAND RAPIDS—Meet Robert J. Grow, a lawyer, industrialist, and life-long resident of Salt Lake City, the largest metropolitan region in the most conservative state in the nation. He is the affluent father of six, has kind blue eyes, soft silver hair, an easy smile, once ran a steel company, has terrific relationships with top state Democratic and Republican leaders, and could easily fill out a Santa suit without much additional padding.

Oh, by the way, Mr. Grow is also one of the most effective social activists in America.

Robert J. Grow    

In 1997 the aptly-named Mr. Grow co-founded Envision Utah, a regional, non-profit, “quality growth” planning organization intended to introduce the Salt Lake region’s 1.6 million people to two big ideas: First, the hyper growth that overtook Utah in the 1990s would continue until 2050 and push the region’s population to five million people. Second, it was up to the citizens of 10 Wasatch Front counties, where 80 percent of Utahns live, to figure out how best to accommodate all of those new people in ways that made their communities more beautiful, prosperous, economical, and neighborly.

Robert J. Grow – A Short Biography

Robert Grow served as chair of the Coalition for Utah's Future from 1995 to 1999, and from 1997 to 1999 as the founding chair of Envision Utah, a public/private partnership for quality growth seeking to develop a long-term growth strategy for the Greater Wasatch Area. He currently serves as chair of the Assessment and Renewal Subcommittee of Envision Utah, which is planning the partnerships’ strategy for the future.

Mr. Grow graduated from the University of Utah with a B.S. in electrical engineering magna cum laude in 1973 and then attended the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University. For eleven years, Mr. Grow practiced law with the Salt Lake City law firm of Parr, Waddoups, Brown, Gee and Loveless, where he specialized in real estate, land use planning, and business law.  In 1987, Mr. Grow helped lead the acquisition team that purchased Geneva Steel's mill from USX Corporation, became Geneva’s chief operating office in 1990, its president in 1991, and until early 1997 directed all facets of the company's operation and modernization effort.

His leadership in the American steel industry triggered his election in 1995 as vice chair, and in 1996 as chair of the American Iron and Steel Institute. AISI, the premiere industry association for steel companies in the U. S., Canada, and Mexico represents approximately 50 companies on trade, human resources, the environment, technology, product development, and other issues.  In 1997 he won the Gary Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American steel industry on one of its own. From 1992 to 1998 Mr. Grow directed the National Association of Manufacturers and chaired that organization's Environmental Quality Steering Committee, which directed the association’s environmental efforts on behalf of approximately 16,000 companies. 

Both Governors Norman H. Bagerter and Mike Leavitt appointed him to the Utah State Economic Development Board, where he served for six years. In 1994, he was selected as Utah's Entrepreneur of the Year. He received an Official Citation from the Utah State Senate; Governor Leavitt declared June 10, 1999 Robert J. Grow Day, in recognition of his public service to Utah. In 2003 Mr. Grow joined O’Melveny & Myers LLP, a 1,000-lawyer firm based in Los Angeles, as senior counsel resident in Salt Lake City. 

Source: Alliance For Regional Stewardship

Earlier this month Mr. Grow spent a day in Grand Rapids, where he explained to 200 public transportation advocates how Salt Lake City is achieving those goals. The region has built 19 miles of light rail transit lines, is constructing 44 miles of commuter rail, and has purchased enough rail right-of-way for a 300-mile regional transit system. Dozens of communities have rewritten their master land use plans, and several have new zoning requirements that prompt builders to construct new homes and businesses within walking distance of planned transit stops.

Businesses are building in lively centers of commerce along highways that not long ago were car-choked runways of fast food and big-box sprawl. New parks are appearing. New programs are conserving thousands of acres of farmland and open space. And communities are mixing homes the working class can afford with those for the wealthy.

Salt Lake City is doing this by steadily replacing the market incentives and political decisions that produced the 20th century’s spread-out sprawl with new incentives and more thoughtful government decisions designed to bring people closer together in the 21st. The benefits, said Mr. Grow, are self-evident.

“Land use and transportation defines the way people live and how communities grow,” Mr. Grow told the Grand Rapids audience gathered to consider ways to strengthen the city’s public transit system. “We looked at what was happening in our region and asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing to our children’s future?’ We were laying on the backs of our children the responsibility to pay for all of this. We’re dooming our children to not live near us.”

Responding to a Summit’s Call
What’s extraordinary is not only the visible improvements in neighborhoods, job prospects, and the general sense of well-being in the Salt Lake City region, but also where and how they occurred. Utah is the reddest of the red states, a place so fond of the bedrock Republican principles of faith, small government, lower taxes, property rights, and deregulation that it voted to give George Bush four more years in the White House by a margin of three to one.

But like a surprising number of other red states, Utah also is devoted to an entirely different set of public interest values when it comes to improving its own communities. In 1995, for instance, Republican Governor Mike Leavitt, now a member of President Bush’s cabinet, won wide applause for putting the state government to work on land use issues. He convened the Growth Summit and asked it to figure out how to welcome millions of new residents by 2030 without sacrificing Utah’s scenic beauty.

Two years later, Mr. Grow responded. He helped to recruit 100 well-known and influential allies, among them Super Bowl quarterback Steve Young and Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, to build credibility for his new organization, Envision Utah, and its program of regional planning.

Mr. Grow was well suited for the task. He is what Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the best-selling The Tipping Point, describes as a “maven” and a “connector,” a person capable of inspiring confidence with his good sense, expertise, and extensive contacts. A lawyer by training, Mr. Grow specializes in planning, zoning, and real estate development. He once managed Geneva Steel, a major manufacturer and served on the state economic development board.

He is also heir to a long line of adventurous social activists. His 16th great-grandmother, he said, is Anne Marbury Hutchinson, a Pilgrim banished from the early 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony for advocating religious diversity and social equality. A great uncle, a Mormon pioneer from Hamtramck, Mich., was among the earliest settlers of the Wasatch Front. Mr. Grow is a religious man, active in the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1999 the governor named a day in his honor. 

Mr. Grow, in short, is a member of Salt Lake City’s power elite, the rare activist known and admired by the influential, and capable of putting the arm on his wealthy friends, as well as on colleagues at banks, businesses, and foundations. They in turn invested millions in Envision Utah to hire some of the country’s best planners, conduct path-breaking research, and convene hundreds of meetings in which resident developed a surprising and very progressive consensus about what would go where in the Salt Lake region in the 21st century.

Big Ideas
Within three years of Envision Utah’s founding, a regional vision took hold. Wasatch Front residents embraced the evolutionary, perhaps revolutionary idea that spending less time in a private vehicle would significantly improve the Utah way of life. Citizens decided that putting homes, jobs, schools, shopping, and recreation in closer proximity, and linking destinations with a fast and convenient public transit system, would produce measurable benefits.

Envision Utah commissioned studies that showed containing sprawl, designing more walkable communities, and building many more-affordable apartments and townhouses would reduce the average housing lot from .37 acres to .29 acres. Just that one, tiny, 0.08-acre change saved over 125 square miles—or 80,000 acres—of land across the region, much of it farmland. Taxpayers would save $15.5 billion by 2025 because they would invest in new rail and rapid bus lines and save big by reining in expensive, high-maintenance, sprawl-spreading water, sewer, and road construction.

Envision Utah studies also showed other big advantages to building in, not out. With fewer vehicles on the road, the region’s traffic flow and air quality would improve. Working families and just-starting-out college graduates could afford new homes built close to approximately 300 planned transit stops, and they could save money by owning just one vehicle, not an expensive fleet. And Utah’s quality of life and its decision to not build in the mountains that everybody loved would attract 21st-century knowledge employers and the high paying, intellectually rewarding jobs they offered.

It’s important to note here that land use and transportation plans that promise, but utterly fail to deliver big results take up acres of shelf space in dark closets all over America. But the conservative residents of Utah—suspicious of big government, resentful of tax increases, supporters of the free market, critics of regulation, and enamored with property rights—acted on their vision in ways that confounded conventional expectations. 

‘People Like You and Me’
In 1999, with broad public support, the Legislature passed the Quality Growth Act, forming a commission that recognized and rewarded the best examples of compact, walkable, environmentally sensitive new development. In 2000, by a wide margin, voters in the three largest counties approved a sales tax increase—an extra 25 cents for every $100 spent—to generate $43 million annually. The local money is leveraging billions more in federal dollars for transit lines.

Citizens gathered at city commission hearings to call for zoning changes that produced more open space, more compact developments, and more housing choices. Developers promoted neighborhoods and business designs that fit the new market demand. By 2005 Salt Lake City was throwing out its obsolete, 20th-century economy and embracing a greener, cleaner, more energy-efficient and economical 21st-way of life.

Envision Utah is now recognized as one of the most successful, broad-based, long-term growth strategies for a major U.S. metropolitan area. The project has put the Salt Lake City region at the forefront of the Smart Growth movement, joining Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Seattle, Dallas, Charleston, Chicago, and Grand Rapids as metropolitan areas that developed planning programs that produced results. Envision Utah has won the planning equivalent of four Oscars—the Urban Land Institute’s Award for Excellence, the Alliance for Regional Stewardship’s Gold Recognition Award, the American Planning Association’s Daniel Burnham Award, and the American Public Transportation Association’s Distinguished Service Award.

More than a year ago Mr. Grow, who has stepped down as the chairman to take up new duties as a public speaker and a land use attorney, told an interviewer with The Planning Report, a Los Angeles-based publication, what Envision Utah’s central accomplishment was.

“It worked with the public to see what the public’s vision was for the future,” he said. “From that emerged a strategy for growth. But the reason our region is changing is because the governmental entities, which actually do have responsibility for transportation and housing and other aspects of the future, are evolving and changing. Their policies are now beginning to more clearly reflect what the public said it wanted in the long-term future.”

In Grand Rapids, Mr. Grow expanded on that idea, telling a rapt audience “regional planning has one foot in memory and one foot in prophecy. People like you and me understand why we like where we live. People like you and me can also decide what we want our communities to become.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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