Whether you see it as charming or “gritty,” Ogdenites are proud of their town and have preferred to keep the sweetness of Ogden-life one of Utah’s biggest secrets. But despite efforts by locals to stay hushed and humorously embrace the stigma from its past, newcomers are discovering the endearingly scruffy beauty of Ogden, vacant lots and all.
The revitalization of Historic 25th Street, a thriving community of ingenuitive makers, and the transportation hub next to Union Station that connected UTA’s transit lines from Salt Lake City to Ogden, have all helped put ‘O-Town’ back on the map over the last two decades. Now, after months of planning, Ogden City ushers in a more ambitious ‘21st century renaissance’ of downtown Ogden steered by what has been named MAKE Ogden — a new Downtown Master Plan that was identified as an “imperative next step in planning for the future success of the city.” This will occur in “episodes” or phases in which city investment in the public realm, coupled with developer incentives, will attract private investment to increase land values, density and walkability. Infill and development within the core of the city will be supported through social equity parameters, with a focus on reducing social vulnerability and keeping downtown affordable and accessible to current and future residents. The new Downtown Master Plan, that developers and property owners will be required to follow as they seek to develop land in the downtown area, was adopted by Ogden City Council on September 1, 2020.
As stated in the document, the formal city plan “establishes a 25 year vision for the growth of downtown Ogden through a series of catalytic projects in key locations in and around the Central Business District (CBD).” In part, “The master plan provides recommendations to close fiscal and physical gaps within downtown by implementing Smart Growth strategies to encourage a vital public realm, walkable neighborhoods, essential services and amenities, as well as diversity in employment and housing options for a growing population.’”
It is a vision that reasserts the old city motto: “You can’t get anywhere without coming to Ogden.” But the overarching concern in residents’ minds amidst imminent growth seems not to be as much about “making” Ogden, as, How will Ogden stay Ogden?
“We want Ogden to retain what makes it special and unique but be able to grow and adapt with the changes,” says Brandon Cooper, Deputy Director of Community and Economic Development who spearheaded the MAKE Ogden plan.
For the master plan development, the City commissioned ASLA Award-winning design firm Design Workshop, whose projects helped revitalize Denver and other areas around Colorado, including Millennium Park and Bridge, Pikes Peak, Denargo Market, Cherry Creek North/Fillmore Plaza, 16th Street Mall Extension, 1144 Fifteenth “Skyscraper Center,” the Riverfront Park area near Union Station, and Zephyr Plaza.
The Wonder Block, just south of Historic 25th Street on 26th and Grant, will be the first of many projects in development to be completed, according to Cooper, with a target date of Q4 2021 for commencement. Named after the Hostess Factory, demolished in 2018, on the old “Wonder Bread block”, the new Wonder Block is a five-acre redevelopment plan currently targeting roughly 300 residential units, 67,000 sq. ft of retail/commercial space, 111,000 sq. ft of new office space, a 99 room hotel, and 24,000 sq. ft of outdoor/indoor amenity space. Additionally, two new parking garages are planned with about 1,100 parking stalls. A post on the MAKE Ogden Facebook page states: “The City purchased the old Hostess factory with the purpose of bringing about development that would add to the uniqueness and vibrancy of the downtown and enhance the experience of Historic 25th Street.”
The RiverBend project, along Washington and Park Boulevard, with more than one-hundred new apartments and sixty-four townhomes built in the past few years, welcomed the new Ogden River Brewing Company in late October, 2020. Along the Ogden River, another new commercial building is currently in construction that will add two new dining establishments to the growing commercial district, and the Lotus Current townhome project is underway with thirty new townhomes coming to the area by late 2021.
With many more commercial and residential developments in various stages of planning and implementation, Cooper explains: “Now proposals that come to us from developers and property owners will have to abide by [the new rules] and we feel like they reflect our vision for the city now.”
Kim Bowsher, Executive Director Ogden Downtown Alliance, witnessed what Design Workshop’s decade of work did to revitalize Denver. ”I am always very concerned because I love this town. Yes, we need to grow and Ogden is going to grow no matter what, but I want to make sure that we’re true to ourselves in that growth.”
According to Bowsher, protections for local businesses have been missing, leaving a real threat of franchises dominating the area. ”I don’t want to open up an opportunity where a Starbucks could be adjacent to a Grounds for Coffee or Einstein Bagel next to our Bickering Sisters. I want to protect and preserve those local businesses.” There are things in the MAKE Ogden plan, she says, that would require a call for an ordinance change to allow it.
Based on the plan’s guidelines and recommendations, according to Cooper, the City will adopt further policies and ordinances that will be the ‘rules’, per se, and the planning commission will review site plan applications to determine the applicant’s level of compliance with the master plan, among other things. The Weber County Commissioners are separate from the City and are not subject to the plan, unless they decide to build something in downtown.
This Downtown Master Plan was a holistic, community-driven approach, says Bowsher. Ogden city council member, Angela Choberka is also optimistic about the MAKE Ogden plan, but not without some concerns. “We need to do something because right now we just have these giant plots of vacant land. Every day when I’m on 25th Street, I get concerned that there’s so much vacancy. So, I feel the prospect of more residents and a more walkable city is very encouraging.”
A 16-year resident of Ogden who has previously lived in Chicago and New York City, Choberka would love to see a downtown grocery store or a beautiful corner market similar to those in other cities. Initial concerns she had about Ogden becoming the next “Denver” were relieved when she learned that some of the Design Workshop team have Ogden roots and a better perspective of local culture than other developers and architectural planning groups might.
Housing is a big concern for Angel Castillo, former planning commissioner and Ogden mayoral candidate. “In my opinion, we’re not doing enough as a city to make sure lower and middle income folks have access to be able to live and work in Ogden,” says Castillo.
The small business owners on Historic 25th Street have mixed feelings about what they know about the MAKE Ogden project. Owner Carrie Vondrus of Endless Indulgence Retro Wear, hopes it includes revitalizing what she calls “a dying 25th Street.” “We are losing too many businesses on the street right now,” she said. “It might be a little too late.”
Anna Davidson, owner of Jessie Jean’s Homestyle Cafe & Coffee on 25th Street, thinks it sounds promising with new residential units bringing more locals into the area on foot. “Now, to make it through the economic downturn from Covid so we can enjoy that uptick … that’s the toughest part right now.”
Maybe, for most Ogdenites, a more accurate city motto is, “You can get anywhere by living in Ogden.”
All photos courtesy of Ogden City.
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