Developer planned the demolition of the historic Fifth Ward meetinghouse

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The investor-owner of the historic Fifth Ward Meetinghouse made plans to tear the entire building down and directly hired a demolition contractor to do the job but without taking the legal steps to destroy the protected landmark.

Jordan Atkin, owner of the real estate development and investing company TAG SLC, hired the company Move Man to demolish the entire structure, Karl Christensen, the owner of the demolition company, told Building Salt Lake.

Atkin took steps that are required by the state but not the city before hiring Christensen to tear into the 114-year-old building at 740 S. 300 W. in Salt Lake City’s Granary District on Sunday, according to interviews and documents received through a public records request.

Christensen was operating his excavator, taking care to pull off historic elements and cornerstones of the building, when city officials showed up and told him he didn’t have permission to do the work he was doing.

By that point, he had already demolished the front portion of the building and his Hitachi EX200 hydraulic excavator was parked on top of a pile of bricks.

Christensen’s excavator sat parked on top of a pile of bricks on Sunday, March 31, 2024. Phto by Austin Taylor

The disruption stopped work that Christensen and public documents indicate Atkin himself ordered completed.

“He hired me and he gave me money to demolish the whole building,” Christensen said.

The new details contradict statements Atkin has made to Building Salt Lake and to a group that said it had spoken with Atkin about buying the property in the days after the illegal work on the building.

Hours after the city issued a stop work order on Sunday, Atkin said the demolition was “incredibly unfortunate,” that the demolition was a mistake, and that he wasn’t the owner of the building despite state and county records showing him as the sole owner.

But the documents indicate he took steps behind the scenes in the weeks leading up to Sunday to knock the building down, a brazen move from a prominent figure in commercial real estate in Salt Lake City.

Documents from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality show Atkin hired an inspector to check for asbestos within the building, a process required as part of the commercial demolition process.

Atkin personally signed for the air quality control permit on March 14 and told the state that Christensen would be demolishing the entire building. He said in an initial filing that the work would start April 4. He later revised that start date to March 28, the documents show.

While those actions satisfied requirements from the state for protecting public health from commercial demolition, Atkin had not gone through the steps required by Salt Lake City’s laws around historic structures. Those requirements include obtaining a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission as well as obtaining a building permit.

He now faces fines of $200 per day until he can come back into compliance with the zoning code, which will require Atkin to show he demolished the building due to economic hardship, which is unlikely. Otherwise, he’ll continue facing daily fines until he restores the demolished portions of the building.

Atkin, whose company TAG SLC is a Building Salt Lake advertiser, has not responded to requests for comment since Sunday night.

Excavator speaks

Christensen said the debacle was also a surprise to him.

“It was just like a regular job up until the point [city officials] showed up to stop work,” Christensen said. “I thought Jordan would come down and show the permit and everything would go back to work.”

But Atkin didn’t have a permit to show.

Karl Christensen | Move Man, LLC | Courtesy of LinkedIn

Christensen, who began work on Friday by clearing brush around the long-neglected property, said Atkin told him he had the proper permitting in place. 

“I’ve done dozens of jobs for him — he’s always done the permits,” Christensen said. “He said he had the permits. I took him at his word.”

Christensen, who said repeatedly that he operates as a one-man operation, has done at least eight other jobs for TAG SLC dating back nearly three years, according to city records. He said in hindsight he shouldn’t have assumed the local permission was in place.

“Maybe that was a mistake on my part,” Christensen said. “I might lose a little skin. I don’t really know.”

Despite the apparent haphazard manner in which the front portion of the building was demolished, Christensen showed appreciation for the building he was hired to destroy.

On Sunday evening, portions of the building that marked its historic status as a meetinghouse for the LDS Church built in 1910 lay strewn around the property. They appeared fragile and lay separate from the pile of red bricks piled beneath Christensen’s excavator.

That wasn’t by accident. When he began working on Friday, a nearby business owner stopped by and told Christensen it would be wise to save those portions from the building, which has also acted as a photo studio, architectural firm office, escort service, Buddhist temple, martial arts studio and music venue that once hosted the grunge band Nirvana.

“I didn’t have any idea that Nirvana played there,” Christensen said. “I wish I would have made it to that concert.” 

He said the front portion of the building, which may have been added in 1937, appeared unsupported and vulnerable to collapse in future earthquakes.

The remaining portion of the building, while damaged from years of neglect and apparent roof leaks and damage from squatters, appeared salvageable, he said.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Christensen said. “It’s well-built, the part that I haven’t torn down is well-built and still I think in good shape.”

Photo by Austin Taylor

Events leading up to the demolition

On Monday, a pair of Salt Lake City LGBTQ+ advocates told Building Salt Lake they planned to buy the building and retrofit it into a “queer community space.” They had recently shared their plans with neighborhood leaders and said they shared them directly with Atkin.

Jacob Buck, founder of the Salt Lake City chapter of Stonewall Sports, said Atkin seemed open to the idea.

“Jordan even said he was going to help us craft our plans,” Buck said.

Buck said Atkin told him on Monday that the demolition was a “dramatic miscommunication.”

The demolition also came three days after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall sent a proposed ordinance to the City Council hoping to add teeth and remedies to what happens when historic buildings are knocked down illegally.

Among the changes would be to spell out the enforcement of violations of the ordinance; prohibiting the redevelopment of a property that is demolished without following the city’s laws for 25 years; establishing a process for reconstructing any illegally demolished historic structure; and other changes. 

The Council has expedited its work in the wake of the Fifth Ward partial demolition, putting the item on today’s agenda.

“Obviously there has to be a remedy,” said Councilman Ale Puy. “The ultimate remedy is to have the building back.”

Email Taylor Anderson

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.