A few months ago, some friends from out of town came to visit and, as we drove past the still-unfinished Zion’s Bank building, they wondered aloud why such a quaint town would erect such a large eyesore. Though I got defensive (we need the jobs, I thought — and besides, they were outsiders), the underlying assumptions of their statement were worth taking seriously: bigger and newer isn’t always better.
This year, Provo will be putting that idea to the test. A few days ago, The Daily Herald broke the news that Nu Skin will be expanding its downtown facilities and operations. The article provides a number of details, but the most important are probably that the expansion would involve Nu Skin purchasing and replacing a number of older buildings in the downtown area, and that the Provo City Council is pretty enthusiastic about the idea.
In many respects, the Nu Skin expansion will indeed be a positive thing for Provo. I’ve mentioned before in Rhombus how dismal downtown Provo has become, and anything that puts more people on the streets has to be seriously considered. Even though the expansion looks like it won’t create a lot of new jobs beyond some temporary construction work — it appears to be more of a consolidation of existing workers into one place — it should still theoretically benefit fantastic places like Sammy’s, Stumpy Burger, and Gurus. All in all, the expansion should put more people, money and activity into the struggling area. According to the Herald article, Nu Skin also seems genuinely interested in creating a usable, aesthetically-pleasing community space.
Yet before the city rushes to raze large swaths of Center Street, it’s worth considering what the trade-offs will be. Though I truly believe Nu Skin is well intentioned, I’m not necessarily thrilled about the proposed construction plans. An atrium? A large, six-story building? Maybe these structures will be beautiful, but Nu Skin’s current headquarters has a distinct sleek-but-kitschy aspect to it. They’ve also somehow managed to get their logo painted in the middle of downtown intersections without getting busted for vandalism. Of course, in some areas both the logo and the building would feel right at home; however, Provo has hitched its wagon to the idea of an “Historic Downtown.” Won’t fancy glass buildings look kind of garish among the older structures? Don’t they already?
What causes me the most ambivalence about this whole thing is that no one seems to have even asked questions about the symbolic and historic implications of this expansion. Instead, everyone has indicated progress means tearing down the past to make room for the new. I was astonished, for example, to read Kim Anderson of Provo Art and Frame say “we really need to invest in downtown Provo and get rid of the old nasty squeaky floor buildings and get something that’s sellable and rentable.”
We should certainly invest, but why does that mean destroying all the old buildings? The fact is that Provo has thus far demonstrated an abysmal track record when it comes to historical preservation. In 2004, Hotel Roberts was torn down — in the middle of the night, no less — after it had been allowed to become dilapidated and unsafe. In 2007, St. Francis Roman Catholic Church suffered the same fate. Progress is typically messy and controversial, but these building were landmarks and when I heard about the Nu Skin expansion I couldn’t help but wonder if Provo was setting itself up for another, similar travesty at some point. If the prevailing attitude is that old, “squeaky floor” buildings cannot co-exist with revitalization, then it’s only a matter of time before “Historic Downtown” becomes history.
Ultimately, Provo needs more businesses in the downtown area, and though I’m not particularly a fan of Nu Skin’s business model, I applaud them for sticking with the community. What’s more (and as much as I love charming little bookshops and cafes), attracting companies like Nu Skin might be the only way to keep the city’s center alive (or to resuscitate it). For many permanent residents, this sort of thing also really makes up a lot of Provo’s lifeblood. Still, even if the expansion proceeds, it’s worth asking what the community will have to forfeit. What will be left in a generation or two to remind Provo citizens of the area’s rich history? What of its heritage does Provo want to remember? Will future residents even be able to see why downtown was worth revitalizing in the first place?
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.
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