City set to expand ground floor use requirement—limiting private lobbies, mailrooms, and gyms—in a handful of its most urban zones

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While proposed building height increases in a series of zones Downtown are beginning to grab attention, the city’s bold ideas in the same ordinance for requiring street front uses other than private amenities for building residents have been flying under the radar.

Windows looking into empty spaces have become common in many of the city’s new multi-family residential projects. Current rules — with exceptions only in the Sugar House business district and a small area around Main Street — only require a “permitted or conditional use” at street front, along with percentages (always over 50% of a building’s facade) of window transparency at the sidewalk.

That means developers have the option of placing private lobbies, workspace, mailrooms, or gyms, even if accessible only to their building’s tenants, on a building’s ground floor facing the sidewalk.

That’s about to change — if the City Council passes the Downtown Heights and Street Activation ordinance expected to be voted on in May.

What’s currently in place

There are ground floor activation requirements only in a handful of the city’s zones currently. And they’re not terribly robust.

Along North Temple and 400 South in Transit Station Area (TSA) zoning, as well as Downtown’s D-1 and D-2, “a permitted or conditional use shall occupy” a majority of the building’s façade. Along some main corridors (400 South, 2100 South, and 1100 East/Highland), residential units are allowed only if they are live/work.

Live/work units along the 400 South TSA zone. Photo by Luke Garrott.

This attempt to limit blank walls facing the sidewalk has been largely successful. But private uses like workspaces, gyms, lobbies, and mailrooms have proliferated in many developments in the zones the city intends to be the most pedestrian-oriented.

Given market incentives, most residential developers are keen to avoid the added financing uncertainty and management responsibility that retail spaces create.

The city’s highest demands for active use exist in only two small areas: along 2100 South, Highland, and 1100 East in the Sugar House Business District (CSHBD-1) and the Main Street retail area (W. Temple to State, 100 to 300 South) in D-1.

Within those blocks, the city’s toughest requirements for ground floor active uses exist. Spaces at street level “shall be occupied by residential, retail goods establishments, retail service establishments, public service portions of businesses, restaurants, taverns/brewpubs, bar establishments, art galleries, theaters or performing art facilities” (21A.26.060.H and 21A.30.020.G).

Those are also the standards — with the notable inclusion of residential uses permitted at the ground floor — that could be applied to a sizable handful of zones Downtown under the latest proposal.

What’s proposed

While residential uses will be counted as an “active use” in the new code, its language at large is resolute in its intent: “The ground floor use shall not consist of spaces that discourage walk-in traffic, such as a residential mailroom, common room, back of house functions, or private business offices associated with an active use.”

“Active uses include retail establishments, retail services, civic spaces (theaters, museums, etc), restaurants, bars, art and craft studios, and other uses determined to be substantially similar by the planning director and/or planning commission” (21A.37.050).

Street front activation in D-4, along 200 South between 300 and 400 West. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Zones that will require “active uses” with percentages of at least 75% of the façade, with small reductions allowed for specific “visual interest” alternatives, are the following:

  • D1-4 (Downtown)
  • TSA (Transit Station Area)
  • FB-UN (Form-Based Urban Neighborhood) – except the least intense, FB-UN-1
  • G-MU (Gateway Mixed Use)
  • CG (General Commercial) – only between 200 and 900 South, west 300 West and I-15 (~700 W).

Pushback?

At a public forum this week, local developer Dan Lofgren of Cowboy Partners and Cowboy Properties expressed doubts about new ground-floor active use requirements and minimum height “mandates.”

“I read just yesterday about a significant zone change proposed for SLC’s downtown mandating taller buildings, and the article described, ‘well if we have these tall buildings then we want this in them, and this in them, and this in them,’ well hold on, by virtue of mandating the taller building, and by telling me I have to provide so much shop space you just made it really hard for me to do the affordable housing that our organization does.”

Lofgren noted that 50 percent of the units in Cowboy’s portfolio are “income restricted in some way.” His company was also the first to build the city’s first rental luxury high rise, Liberty Sky at 151 S State.

While possibly conflating different sides of the ordinance, Lofgren focused on the new 100-foot height “mandate” in the D-1 zone – although there is no such thing. Buildings in the current ordinance can be shorter than 100 feet in D-1 with approval through design review, which is maintained in the new ordinance.

Approval in 2019 for such a project under 100 feet in D-1 was granted to CW Urban for their project at the southwest corner of 200 South and 200 East.

Lofgren continued, “A taller building means a different structural system, it means more units, I get it, that’s density, and everybody craves density as a way to reduce cost. But it’s not always the solution because with that density now I have to figure out how to park it, so I have to go deeper in the ground [and incur greater expenses].”

255 State, a mid-rise, mixed-use project that met stringent street-level use requirements from the city’s Redevelopment Agency. Photo by Luke Garrott.

Yet residential units at street level are considered “active uses” in proposed ordinance, and the city is far from forcing developers to build to the increased heights.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the city’s formulas for allowing the increased height maximums in those five zoning categories in and around Downtown (D1-4, TSA, FB-UN, G-MU, and CG).

The city isn’t planning to give it all away, and has specified five public benefits that a developer can choose from to win maximum height allowances: providing affordable housing, a mid-block walkway, intensive ground-floor active use, public open space, or preserving historic buildings. We’ll ask in a future post whether those public exactions can work given the proposed incentive structure.

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected. Cowboy Partners was the first builder of rental luxury apartments Downtown. A previous version credited the LDS Church with that feat.

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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.