City Planning in Ogden

Patricia Comarell and Fred Aegerter
Beehive History 12

Problems began to develop as Ogden’s population grew. The city changed from an agricultural village to an urban place. The large, one-acre lots were divided, leaving some long, deep lots with houses set near the street. Because most residents no longer grew their own food, the centers of blocks were often empty spaces overgrown with weeds.

New principles of neighborhood planning questioned the wide streets, seeing them as divisive by keeping neighbors from interacting with one another. Other principles emphasized the need to provide a central focus for neighborhoods, usually by developing schools and parks together. When the City Beautiful Movement made its way to Utah, many local proponents in Ogden asked how the city could emphasize its natural surroundings of the mountains and the Great Salt Lake while making a unique image of its own.

To address these and other planning issues, the city in 1946 established a joint Planning Commission for Ogden City and Weber County consisting of ten members (three from the unincorporated areas of the county and seven from the cities). Ogden also hired its first professional planner, George Smeath, a recent graduate of the city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Smeath set about establishing a Citizens Planning Association composed of individuals with diverse interests. Their tasks were to talk about planning and determine the needs and problems of the county, to encourage and support the preparation of a long-range plan as a means of solving the problems, and to bring about through appropriate agencies the completion of planned projects. The three major accomplishments of the Citizens Planning Association and the Planning Commission were the relocation of Weber State College, the emphasis on neighborhoods and the dedication of park land, and the Civic Center Plan.

Weber College, originally located in downtown Ogden, was outgrowing its space. The Citizens Planning Association encouraged the college to move out of the central business district to the southeast section of the city, next to the mountains. This location would give the college room to grow and, at the same time, enhance the campus by the natural landscape. Smeath and several architects drew up the campus plan, indicating a possible design for a grand entrance and the location of buildings. Later, the McKay-Dee Hospital was built across the street. Together, the two institutions have become the major design element of the southern part of the city.

The second effort made by planners was to develop schools and parks together to serve as focal points for the neighborhoods. Developers were required to donate a certain percentage (not to exceed 10 percent) of their subdivisions for park land. This concept, not uncommon nationally, did not become fashionable with local governments in Utah until the late 1970s when many of the cities in Salt Lake County were experiencing rapid growth and adopted the dedication of land, or fees in lieu of land, for cities to develop parks.

The Civic Center Plan (see sketch) reflected the City Beautiful Movement’s concept of a strong central focus in downtown areas. It combined the proposed War Memorial Building with the LDS Tabernacle, a city/county building, a new bus depot, and Union Station—all in an effort to eliminate the blight of 25th Street. It was a difficult plan to sell, primarily because of the sordid image of 25th Street. The LDS church was reluctant to locate the new Tabernacle Square in the area and later chose to place the square at 22nd Street and Washington Boulevard. The second factor was politics, always part of planning. The new mayor, Harmon W. Perry, did not encourage planning and opposed full realization of the plan. Ultimately, Ogden City broke away from Weber County in its planning efforts, and Smeath resigned in 1948.

The efforts of George Smeath, the members of the Planning Commission, and the Citizens Planning Association laid a firm foundation for later planning in Ogden. Plans developed for Ogden neighborhoods have left their imprint on the well-developed street and park systems. The central business district and Weber State College serve as strong anchors in the center and southern part of the city. Many of those planning principles guided the city through the troubled 1950s to the 1970s.

The fifties and sixties saw commercial and manufacturing growth emphasized, sometimes at the expense of residential neighborhoods. The anticipated growth of government and fear that housing would not be adequate to meet the demand prompted the city to rezone the east central area to high density residential (52 units per acre compared to the common 25 units per acre in most cities—equivalent to a 13-story high-rise). This density was overlaid onto already developed, single-family housing. With little long-range planning or major planning project accomplished, zoning started to become rather erractic.

In addition to the altered zoning patterns, the 1960s brought two major emphases in planning: (1) social and racial upheaval created a stronger interest in getting citizens involved in government, and (2) redevelopment agencies became part of the planning structure. Citizen involvement and redevelopment aims renewed interest in long-range planning in the 1970s. Neighborhood plans developed by area residents were recommended to the City Council for adoption, and a Master Plan for the city was developed.

The Redevelopment Agency, formed in the seventies, addressed the problems of the central business district. A new mall in the center of the downtown area, south of Tabernacle Square, was built, signaling a revitalization of the central business district. The type of planning changed during this a period as well. Planners moved away from the grandiose schemes of the City Beautiful Movement, which were too expensive and sometimes impractical. Instead, the concern was to guide development and, at the same time, provide options so that property owners felt encouraged to make developments happen. For example, the plan for downtown Ogden now looks like the Central Business District Plan, 1986 (see sketch), which emphasizes areas of retail/financial, government, and historic focus. Within these guidelines the property owner can work with financial institutions and other business people to provide a building or a business that will enhance both Ogden City’s image and its tax base.

The national bicentennial in 1976 marked a third major event that changed the direction of planning in Ogden. It generated renewed interest in maintaining visual reminders of our history. With impetus provided by the Junior League of Ogden, a preservation movement began within the city. A Preservation Committee researched what other cities were doing in terms of historic preservation and laid a foundation for the city to establish a Landmarks Commission. In addition, two National Historic Districts were recognized by the National Park Service: the Eccles Subdivision (Eccles was the founder of First Security Bank) and 25th Street.

With the assistance of federal investment tax credits and job bill funds and the support of local banks, one-third of the buildings on 25th Street have been rehabilitated to date and house restaurants, offices, and specialty shops. At the end of the street, historic Union Station has become a conference center, a railroad museum, and the site of many festivals and other activities. Finally, planning efforts have built on the successes of the neighborhood plans in the 1970s, and the city is developing a comprehensive plan for the future that addresses community identity and design, economic development, neighborhood revitalization, community facilities, energy, and transportation. It is an exciting time to live in Ogden.