It seems like everyone is talking about the “new vibe” in downtown Salt Lake City. Of course, it could simply be that after more than half a decade of construction and cranes, the “vibe” is just a sense of completion and relief at the re-occupation of the city’s center.

All those mixed-use, live-work places we’ve been hearing about for so long are finally on line. All the urban housing we were promised has been built, much of it the last four years. And people who 10 years ago would never, ever, have considered anything less than that big house and yard in the ’burbs are actually considering living downtown.

The Urban Land Institute, a national organization that tracks trends toward more urban-centric living, found in a 2013 survey that three out of four members of America’s youngest generation put a high priority on public transit and living in “walkable” communities that offer shopping, dining and are near their work. That walkable urban community thinking, not coincidentally, has been promoted by Mayor Ralph Becker who has seen 20,000 residents move into downtown in the last decade and TRAX ridership skyrocket.

We decided to check it out with fresh eyes and meet the new downtowners face to face.

A Salt Lake State of Mind

Who: Lisa Elin Craighead, 39; Erik Steen Craighead, 37

What they do: Rebranding Creative Director & Writer, Magazines & Advertising; President of Video Army, a digital marketing agency 

Live at: 3rd and 3rd

Own or rent? Own

Footprint: 1,000 square feet

Lisa Elin Craighead calls Salt Lake City home, at least home base. The bi-coastal citizen of the world is originally from NYC. When the 39-year-old embarked on her career as a creative director and writer, she and her husband Erik did the flyover thing back and forth between the Big Apple and LA. Preferring the sunny winters of the West Coast, she figured LA worked for her base of operations. But then-–skiing. 

“Erik tricked me,” she laughs. “We wanted a place near the mountains in Utah where we found ourselves skiing every season. The original plan was to get an apartment that we could use just for that but we ended up staying.”

The couple originally looked at homes near the canyons’ mouths and in Park City and found expansive properties that didn’t really fit the bill as a base lodge for ski trips. Then they met Cody Derrick from the City Home Collective.

“These real estate guys we were meeting with just didn’t get us,” Lisa says. “Cody gave us the once over and said we needed to think downtown. Now I’m a NYC girl. I didn’t want some half-assed downtown, but once we started looking at places, he was right.”

They bought a condo in the area around 300 East and Broadway (300 South) and, although she can still complain like a New Yorker (“I’d like to shoot the mayor for what he’s done with parking;”) downtown, she says, just makes sense.

Access to Little Cottonwood and the airport are underscored with an emerging city life just out the condo’s door. 

“No one is going to compare it to the East Village,” she says. “But SLC is actually turning into something cool. We go up to Park City for charity events and it’s so old fashioned. Some dude crooning into a microphone in a banquet room. The people living downtown are doing cool shit. There’s a buzz here. I can see it exploding. People are making things happen here.” 

And the word is out. “This town is on the global radar,” she says. “That’s going to be big for Utah. Everything else is hitting a saturation point, being over taken by money. But here I like seeing the independent spirit and seeing people doing things on their own terms. Salt Lake City enables creative people to do that and we love it.”

Reverse Commuter

Who: Jenny Evans

What she does: Technical Writer

Live at: Pierpont Area

Own or rent? Rent

Footprint: 500 square feet

Each day, Salt Lake’s City center fills up with the commuter crowd, who pile into town from up and down the north-south 1-15 corridor to occupy their cubicles and corner offices and then trek home to their spacious boxes, eat dinner from a box, watch a box, turn out the lights, then wash, rinse and repeat, day in, day out. But there are a growing number of people who choose downtown’s smaller living spaces in favor of its spacious cultural opportunities, night life and food scene, even, if they too, have to suffer the commute. 

Take Jenny Evans. She works at Hill Air Force Base and, sure, this single gal could opt to live in one of Utah’s largest employer’s neighboring bedroom communities. But a quick drive to the base and lights-off-at-10 lifestyle is not for Evans.

“I like to interact with people in a community,” she says. “Everything I want to do is downtown.” 

And indeed she does do. The 40-year-old technical writer spends her evenings volunteering at the opera and symphony and the Utah Film Society, walking across the street from her rented Pierpont area loft to the farmers market and summer concerts and Sundancing around Salt Lake come winter. Her community is everywhere she goes, always on foot, around Utah’s urban center. 

“There is a small town feel,” she says. “No matter who I meet, inevitably they know someone I know and all those connections keep growing.” 

Getting up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the Frontrunner north every day is a small price to pay. Even in those early morning hours she finds pleasure. 

“I catch the train at 5:28 but before that I wander through the city with a coffee and take it in,” she says. “Nobody is out and I have this sneak peek of the city before it wakes up—the city nobody sees when they are driving by.”

The Urban Family

Who: Sara Payne, 31; Zach Pendleton, 31; Madeleine Pendleton, 1

What they do: Entertainment and Intellectual Property Lawyer, Software Manager

Live at: City Creek Landing, City Creek Center

Own or rent? Rent

Footprint: 1,000 square feet

Sara Payne moved here from San Antonio to attend law school, met her husband Zach Pendleton, a Utah boy, and found herself loving him and his home state. After marriage, the couple decided they wanted to live downtown. They rented an apartment in early 2013 at City Creek Landing, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, enjoying the salad days of their marriage exploring the city as residents rather than visitors. Still they figured, as their family grew, they’d eventually opt for the white picket fence, big yard, barbecue on the deck—the whole schtick. But when their first child was born they discovered they had no desire to leave their urban abode. 

“Now that we have a daughter, I have fallen in love with downtown and the ease of doing things with a child downtown,” she says. “I thought I’d be living in the suburbs but there are so many benefits to living downtown.”

Sara cites the convenience of shops and access to events. Instead of loading up Madeleine in a car seat, driving into town and fighting for parking, she throws on the Baby Bjorn and walks downstairs to enjoy the farmer’s market, concerts, parks, museums and, with a TRAX stop literally on her doorstep, the entire valley is a rail ride away. She shops at the farmer’s market in season and is so close to the downtown Harmon’s that she’ll often run out with food on the stove to pick up a forgotten ingredient. 

“If we go out at night, we don’t have to leave early like our friends who live in the suburbs,” she says. “They have to drive home, unload, get their kids to bed. Most often, Madeleine falls asleep on the walk home afterwards. We can have a night on the town and get in early because we’re already home.” 

And size matters. In their 1,000-square-foot apartment at City Creek Landing, Sara and Zach are joining ranks with other young couples who see large living spaces as a burden instead of an asset. They prefer acquiring experiences, she says, rather than material goods.

“My father grew up in a 1,200 square foot house with five people,” she says. “I remember going there when I was a child and it never felt tiny. People have gotten used to 3,000-square-foot homes and it’s kind of preposterous. We have all the space we need to live, entertain and feel comfortable. Living in a small space lends itself to choosing the most important things to acquire and not filling your life up with stuff you don’t need.”  

Be Here Now

Cody Derrick's crusade: Live connected

It was driving Cody Derrick nuts. He would talk to people about moving to Salt Lake and how awesome the city was and all they could see was mountains. 

“They’d say ‘we love the mountains but we don’t think it has the cultural scene,’” he says. “They’d just picture these cabins in the woods. I’d tell them over and over again what was truly happening here. And finally I was like ‘we have to start writing this down.’” 

That was the beginning of City Home Collective, first an online collection of people showing off what they are doing to make Salt Lake amazing through design, art and more, and second, a boutique real estate firm that has found itself at the center of Salt Lake’s changing, urban vibe. Derrick has become one of Salt Lake’s most vociferous evangelists. And, although the 30-year-old self-described “Gay ex-Mormon” would most likely cringe at the use of the term evangelical, he certainly pounds the pulpit pretty hard when it comes to SLC. 

“People live the most satisfied life when they are connected and contributing to where they live,” he says. “There’s no room for haters anymore. If you aren’t contributing, helping to move Salt Lake forward, I really don’t have time to have a conversation with you. Too many people are here with like-minded enthusiasm for this place. If you talk shit on Salt Lake, you don’t see it and you should go somewhere else.” 

Derrick believes that Salt Lake is finally realizing its potential as a city because people are realizing that community is important in their lives. 

“When I ask people when they are most happy, when they feel the most joy, the answer is when they feel connected to family and friends and other like-minded people. And the answer to finding those moments is to create a place where they can connect and create with others. That doesn’t happen when you just wave to your neighbor as you drive into your garage.”   

Derrick says he is watching a cultural shift happen before his eyes. Salt Lakers, he says, are choosing experiences over square footage. 

“People are asking, ‘Why do I need this much space? Why do I need a home theater?’ Yeah. Don’t just watch a movie in your basement and then go upstairs and go to bed. Go see a movie with other people then go out and have dinner or a drink and talk about it. The amenities aren’t in your home, they are outside your doorstep.”  

“I feel like every generation figures it out,” he says. “But it’s louder and bigger because of the Internet and social media. Everyone is giving everyone else permission to do what they want. Open a rad little coffee shop. Be artistic. Be creative. Open a Zen center. Whatever. Be bigger and better at being who you are. In Salt Lake it is rampant and that’s why I’m here.” 

A Chapter's End

Ken Sanders' rare book store becomes a threatened species.

It was out of the blue: The owners of the building that has been home for 17 years to Ken Sanders Rare Book Store leased the property to a developer who plans to raze the landmark for a highrise.

Though he’s resigned to the move two to three years down the road, the 62-year-old collector of Utah lore and ephemera finds it an increasingly common paradox: If a developer wants to build in a cool area of downtown to exploit that coolness, will it still be cool after all the stuff that made it cool is razed? 

“We have been an anchor for a lot of what’s made Salt Lake interesting,” Sanders says. “And now the market has responded.”

He can’t help wonder why the urban planners and economic-development hot shots don’t do more to protect cultural contributors like himself and fellow East Broadway tenants.

“They offer all these incentives, tax breaks to places like Ebay or Adobe who come to town,” Ken says. “Where’s them valuing what small businesses provide? How about something to help keep Salt Lake interesting?”

Back>>>Click here for more stories from our Jan/Feb 2015 issue.