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South Salt Lake Journal

Salt Lake, national designers yield ideas to resuscitate Salt Lake County’s heart—The Jordan River

Aug 06, 2019 01:33PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

The combined team of Blalock Partners and Loci informed their work on the design competition by having both offices get on bicycles and ride parts of the Jordan River trail system. The strategy worked: The duo cleaned up the $20,000 grand prize and another $2,500 award for its “Weave” concept. Competitors “Lighter Than Air” charged that the Blalock/Loci design was “the worst possible choice” for the environment.

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

Some of Utah’s own—either in competition with or in partnership with, much-larger design firms from both coasts of the United States—ended up with top nods in a competition to make the Jordan River more developed, with a stated promise to maintain conservation.

“On the River’s Edge” was a creative way of generating urban, architecture and landscape design ideas and, hopefully, generating as much community interest in Salt Lake County’s efforts to reimagine a 3.5-mile stretch of the Jordan River Parkway and then revitalize the Jordan River through development of these ideas. 

The compact contest—spanning a three-month window from announcement to judging—culminated in having winners announced in a very apt location: South Salt Lake’s General Holm Park (proximate to the Jordan River Parkway Trail).

The event took place June 27 with an audience of approximately 60 design competitors, municipal and county officials, and other interested parties. Winners were announced and design boards from all competitors were displayed.

Competition categories included activation, connectivity, conservation, economic development and other areas of innovation for reimagining the river.

Resuscitating the heart of the county

The Jordan River Parkway spans 45 miles and covers three counties. Long neglected, the river became the recipient of formalized caretaking with the 1979 establishment of the Jordan River Foundation. 

With Salt Lake’s burgeoning population and challenges with the closure of The Road Home shelter, the river, particularly in South Salt Lake, has become a magnet for homeless camps, compromising perceived safety and recreation amid the bigger issue of humane management of the area’s homeless.

The river is, nonetheless, “the heart of the County,” according to Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and is in need of serious resuscitation, particularly along the area running from State Route 201 (21
st South Freeway) to just south of 3900 South.

Urban design theory holds that river-facing design encourages residents to frequently visit and, in so doing, “take ownership” of the river. This then builds resident-stewards of the river, not only discouraging abuse, but allowing the river to thrive as an amenity, versus an eyesore or problem.

Salt Lake County, the Jordan River Foundation and municipal mayors from Millcreek, South Salt Lake, Taylorsville and West Valley City wanted to spur creative idea generation to help inform a master plan for the area, and, in turn, serve as an inspired source to lobby the Utah Legislature to fund the river’s conservation, economic development, recreation and connectivity potential. Wilson indicated wanting to deliver a master plan in 2020 and hit the legislature up for funding in next year’s session.

Jordan River reimagination draws national competition

To yield best-in-class creative and technical assets for the Jordan River development future, the call for aid went both far and near.

Nationally advertised, the competition drew a healthy blend of competitors from both coasts. Teams were often comprised of collaborative firms, with often one of them based in Salt Lake, and others—most often, environmental consultants—based elsewhere.

“There are not many competitions like this in Utah,” said landscape architect and planner Tyler Smithson of Park City-based Bockholt. “So, when you see one? You jump on it.”

Sixteen teams competed for more than $35,000 in prizes, which were donated by the Sorenson Impact Foundation, Mark Miller Subaru, Central Valley Water Reclamation and the Utah Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands.

A jury of a dozen individuals with varying degrees of design expertise judged the competition. Residents’ choice awards yielded what Salt Lake County says were nearly 1,400 votes.

Why design competitions?

Design competitions are common in the architecture, urban planning and landscape architecture space. 

Participating designers enjoy flexing their creative and technical skillsets for problem solving.

Sponsoring entities receive a lot of creative concepts at minimal cost. (In this circumstance, Salt Lake County and the Jordan River Foundation received numerous concepts across five categories for administration costs only, since designers charged nothing for their ideas, and underwriting sponsors covered all of the prize money.)

Businesses that win projects use that those credentials to earn additional business, and possibly be awarded the vendor of choice for work on projects associated with the Jordan River.

On the Rivers Edge competition was the brainchild of new Salt Lake County Deputy Mayor Dina Blaise. Blaise, who became accustomed to running such competitions while working on the “Downtown Rising” campaign for Salt Lake City, wanted to bring the design contest idea to the county and leveraged a unique blend of partners to sponsor and judge the competition.

Their eye on the prize—and the Jordan River

The combined team of Salt Lake City-based Blalock Partners and Loci were broadly considered the big winner of the competition for its combined “Weave” entry, wining $25,000 in prize money and, likely, the much more important honor, the prestige of winning. The entry won the Top-Jury Award, the Connectivity Innovation Award, and the Economic Prosperity Innovation Award.

Seattle-based MIG won the Peoples’ Choice Award and the Conservation Innovation Award for its “Jordan Rising” concept.

The combined team of Salt Lake City-based Landform Design Group and Amherst, Massachusetts-based Place Alliance won the Recreation Innovation Award for the duo’s “Reimagine the River’s Edge” concept.

Three Salt Lake City-based teams—AJC Architects, ArcSitio Design and Bonneville Research—
won the Activation Innovation Award for its three-worded  “Live + Work + Recreate”  entry.

Dignitaries and residents seek to weigh in

On hand at the awards ceremony were Wilson and Blaise from the county, Jordan River Foundation’s Lynn Larsen, Jordan River Commission Executive Director Soren Simonsen, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, Taylorsville Mayor Kristi Overson, and West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow.

“Energized, excited, with wheels turning” is how Wilson described the impact of the entries, which were submitted as digital renderings, accompanied by in-depth technical descriptions.

Resident participation on the front end and voting process seemed severely thwarted by technical execution limiting how they could see, then evaluate entries, as presented via social media. There was also no ahead-of-judging public exhibit of the projects.

Julie Holbrook, a member of the South Jordan Planning Commission, a former mayor and a woman educated in chemical oceanography, expressed frustration with the execution of the project. Holbrook says she took the time to register, only to see virtually illegible, thumbnail-sized images, without the ability to be informed by backup data.

“Too hard to read,” she surmised.

Move from being on the edge to being involved

Blaise indicates the project is an evergreen one, and that she and other members of the county plan to exhibit the project boards—which some firms estimate they spent two weeks’ time researching and creating—in multiple venues over the next several months.

Competition information, including project narratives and design boards from winning entries, is available online courtesy of the county, at

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