City proposes new strategy to slow demolitions of closed schools and churches, as well as buildings at least 50 years old

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As both the SLC School District and the LDS Church continue to shrink their real estate footprints in the city’s neighborhoods, buildings that have served as community centers and landmarks for decades run the risk of being demolished for new development.

The number of significant structures coming vacant is impressive. We wrote last year about the Wells Ward building, the Liberty Wells Center, the Douglas Ward and the Rowland Hall St. Mark’s middle school campus. The transitioning (or demolition) of Judge Memorial High School and its Lourdes Chapel are imminent, and Salt Lake City School District recently decided to close four of its neighborhood schools.

Currently, city code softly incentivizes the reuse of historic buildings – but only if they are officially landmarked through the Department of the Interior.

In a presentation last week to the Planning Commission, planners outlined their two-pronged proposal to encourage the adaptive reuse of older and significant buildings. It includes expanding the net of eligible structures as well as making it easier to design developments around an existing structure.

The proposal passed unanimously out of the Planning Commission and will stop next at the City Council for consideration.

What’s eligible and what are the incentives?

The proposal’s “A Incentives” focus on broadening permitted uses. Currently, even if a building is landmarked, city code severely limits residential uses if they not permitted in the base zone.

While a landmarked structure could convert to a non-residential use beyond what was allowed in the underlying base zone (usually Institutional or single-family residential), residential uses were all but banned if the site was zoned non-residential.

The city is casting the net widely: “Buildings that would be eligible for this incentive are generally those that convey high artistic, historic or cultural values and large underutilized structures that are part of the neighborhood fabric.”

The planning report adds, “buildings formerly used for churches, schools, or hospitals, and other culturally or historically significant buildings would also be eligible.”

Examples provided in the Planning staff report.

Eligible buildings in the new ordinance could convert to multi-family residential even if the property is zoned Institutional or Public Lands, “where the only residential use that is currently allowed is living quarters for a caretaker or security guard,” states the report.

In addition, the minimum square footage requirement for a landmarked site, 7000 SF, is discarded.

The second set, the “B Incentives,” focus on the design of a development site that includes the adaptive reuse of an eligible building.

Importantly, it expands the definition of “eligible” beyond those having “high historic, artistic, or cultural value” (like schools, churches, and hospitals) to include any building with a minimum age of 50 years.

It then proposes to streamline the Planned Development process, proposing instead an administrative approval process so that applicants won’t need a hearing at the Planning Commission.

Like in the Planned Development process, designers will be able to get relief from requirements that units have public street frontage, certain open space, setbacks, and parking locations; as well as relaxing rules on lot coverage, width, and square footage (except in the city’s single-family zones).

Combined A and B Incentives would be able to be used on a qualifying project – both an expansion of permitted uses and administrative approval in designing a development site while reusing an existing structure.

What about design standards?

While avoiding “design by committee” in front of the Planning Commission, applicants will still have to satisfy certain design standards in code. According the staff report, they relate to “durable building materials, glass, blank wall areas, screening of mechanical equipment, street facing building entries, and maximum length of a street facing building façade.”

If a property is in a local historic district and deemed a contributing structure, the development would still need approval of the Historical Landmarks Commission.

And parking?

Unless a lesser requirement is written into the base zone, multi-family will continue to require .5 spaces per unit while all other residential uses require one space per unit. Non-residential parking requirements are able to be reduced by 40%.

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.