Should downtown Moab extend to the river?

City attempts to balance growth with sprawl

The sidewalk across from 500 West on Main Street ends a short walk from the intersection. According to Moab Planning Commissioner Marianne Becnel, certain lodging regulations could lead to urban sprawl of Moab’s downtown area, as far as and further than the are pictured here. Photo by Carter Pape

Lodging is Moab’s most lucrative business, and as elected officials debate draft ordinances that would regulate new hotel developments, they see an opportunity to leverage that economic opportunity to bring to Moab greater economic diversity in the form of new restaurants, retail outlets and even possibly daycares.

That opportunity, however, could come with the downside of urban sprawl, according to Moab City Planning Commissioner Marianne Becnel, going against certain principles of urban planning such as efficient use of real estate.

“I think [this decision] is going to be the most challenging and could potentially change Moab the most because this aspect is the part that could potentially expand Main Street from where it is now all the way to the river,” Becnel said.

Moab Planning Director Nora Shepard said during a discussion of proposed lodging ordinances for the Resort Commercial zone, which is bounded by the Colorado River and Rubicon Trail one mile south, that the planning commission had “strong feelings on both sides” of the issue.

Monday night, Dec. 2, the issue split city council members as well, with some seeing the requirements on lodging developers to provide space for retail businesses as a core part of the proposed lodging ordinances and others seeing it as undesirable in the northernmost part of town.

How to bring in diverse businesses

The leading proposal regarding how the city could leverage the economic desires of developers to build more hotels in Moab is through mixed-use development requirements. These requirements would necessitate that, if a prospective developer wants to build a new hotel at the north end of town, they must set aside space within the development that is dedicated retail or commercial space.

This could mean, for example, new developments would have to include space for a new restaurant similar to how the Hoodoo Hotel included a restaurant, Josie Wyatt’s Grille, that is open to the public. New hotels could also come with a public convenience store or other possible retail uses, in addition or instead, depending on the new rules.

The list of possible uses, however, is one of the points of contention between council members. Should the city leave developers to choose what kind of commercial operation they offer? Or should the ordinance contain guidance on the specific types of uses they can build, focusing on businesses the town currently lacks? Should open and civic spaces be included in the mixed-use requirements?

As of their Monday night meeting, the council was still seeking consensus on those matters.

What is appropriate for the RC zone?

Becnel told the council Monday that the question of whether to require mixed use in the Resort Commercial zone boiled down to a related question of what the RC zone is meant to be.

“You first have to start with the framework and the structure,” Becnel said. “Are you inviting a magnitude of different businesses between here and the river, or are you inviting hotels and parking lots? That’s the first decision that you need to make.”

The question received many answers from the council during Monday’s meeting, but they did not form a consensus on the issue. On one side, Council Member Kalen Jones said that he would prefer that mixed use not be required in the Resort Commercial zone and that the tool be reserved for other zones like C-2 and C-4. Tawny Knuteson-Boyd voiced a similar opinion. “It’s not going to feel like an extension of Main Street,” Knuteson-Boyd said, referring to the potential results of a mixed-use requirement.

On the other side, Mayor Emily Niehaus described her vision of having the Resort Commercial zone become a retail and commercial node within biking distance of the city’s core.

“The built world that we have in the Resort Commercial is […] the hotels and the parking lots, so it’s hard to reimagine what it would look like,” Niehaus said. “And yet, if we get some anchor tenants, people might be biking up there to go.”

Shepard said during the meeting that the city would not want its urban area to become so expansive and sparse that it fails to “work like downtown.” At the same time, she said, there are some kinds of business and other uses that could effectively be “subsidized” if they are built as part of a larger project and serve the visitors.

“[Those businesses] could serve the visitors who are staying out there so they wouldn’t have to drive into City Market every time they want to buy anything,” Shepard said.