Downtown sports and entertainment district, Part I: City to prepare master plan with virtually no public input

In a much-anticipated public briefing in the wake of this year’s state legislative session, last night Salt Lake City’s chief attorney outlined to the City Council the requirements of SB 272, the bill created for a NBA/NHL stadium and a Downtown sports and entertainment district.

It authorizes the city council to raise sales tax .5 % to generate an estimated $33 to $54 million yearly for up to 30 years. The money will be allotted to a zone not to exceed 100 acres around the current Delta Center arena, the Salt Palace Convention Center, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ holdings adjacent to and west of Temple Square.

The sales-tax haul over the maximum-allotted 30 years is estimated at $1-1.62 billion. According to the enabling legislation, all collected funds must be delivered to the designated Reinvestment Zone. None will go to the City for other budget needs–even though the tax will be collected city-wide only in Salt Lake City proper.

What’s going on, besides the giant public subsidy?

Smith Entertainment Group (SEG), majority owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz which has secured the rights to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with safety, security, and homelessness issues around the Delta Center.

An SEG representative told an audience last month, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, “This is not about a stadium. We don’t want the world’s best stadium if nothing else in downtown changes.”

In late February, SEG head Ryan Smith announced on Twitter, “Our efforts are not about an arena, it’s about revitalizing a downtown that desperately needs investment.”

City officials have been happily humming a different tune, hailing Downtown’s vitality and strong post-Covid recovery as one of the most successful in the country. 

Mayor Erin Mendenhall, a supporter of the arena and reinvestment proposal, told us through representatives that “This is a way to bring sports, art, culture and families together. It will bring vitality, energy, and opportunity to a downtown area that’s growing exponentially.”

Whether the Mayor’s “growing exponentially” hype will conflict with Smith’s “desperately needs investment” rhetoric during closed-door negotiations may never be revealed. 

But Mendenhall’s handling of the homeless population in Downtown, seen as too accommodating to campers by critics, seems to be roiling key legislators as well as Smith.

What other players are involved?

There are other players who will influence the agreement that ultimately gets approved. 

There’s little doubt among insiders that the leadership of the LDS Church is involved–informally and out of the public eye. Temple Square, the church’s spiritual and administrative home, is diagonally adjacent to the northeast corner of the Salt Palace. The church also owns the three 10-acre blocks immediately to the north and northeast of the Delta Center. 

Church representatives have lobbied at City Hall for a Downtown entertainment district before–both in the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics Games and during Mayor Ralph Becker’s initiative to lift the spacing requirement for bars in 2009-10 (only two were allowed per block).

Salt Lake County, which owns and operates the massive (and overbuilt) Salt Palace Convention Center, is an important party to the negotiations.

In addition, the governance rules in SB 272 give major decision-making power to the committee charged to oversee the zone, the five-member Capital City Reinvestment Zone Committee appointed by Senate, House, and Gubernatorial leadership. 

And don’t forget the City Council, the legislative body with “final approval” in state statute.

On Tuesday, Administration officials led by chief attorney Katie Lewis committed to “several public meetings” to vet with the public the outlines of the agreement with SEG. In addition, City Council leadership has scheduled a public hearing as early as its May 21st meeting.

City Attorney Katie Lewis presents to the City Council on April 17th, 2024.

According to the Administration’s preferred calendar, the council will vote on the terms of the participation agreement in July. 

What influence Salt Lake City voters and taxpayers will have is likely to be minimal, given the compressed timeline mandated in the legislation.

Outlines of the mandate

Some of the main terms of SB 272:

  • Written exclusively for an NBA or NHL owner
  • Outlines what the city and owner have to agree on before the city council votes on the proposed agreement and sales tax hike (up to .5%)
  • That includes a tax and financing plan, a master plan, zone boundaries, and arena location, among a long list of elements
  • The increased sales tax is estimated to raise between $33 and $54 million per year
  • Over the maximum 30 years = $1 to 1.62 billion
  • The tax is collected city-wide, but can only be spent in the zone designated around the arena
  • The tax revenue can be spent on virtually anything in the zone, from debt payments and financing private buildings to security patrols and homelessness mitigation
  • The City Council has the right to reject, approve, or amend the agreement reached by SEG and the Mendenhall Administration 
  • The state-appointed Capital City Reinvestment Zone Committee has the power to approve or veto the agreement, not to amend

Deadline for the city to approve, reject, or amend the agreement and transmit it to the state Committee is September 1. SB 272 also mandates that all needed zoning changes required in the master plan be completed by then.

City officials are understandably skeptical of that timeline, given the legal and political parameters required for zoning amendments. City Attorney Lewis told the Council that the Administration is currently working on both tracks–the participation agreement and the zoning changes. She noted that “there is room to possibly move that to December 31, depending on interpretation of  SB 272 and negotiations with SEG.”

The city council will have until December 31 to approve the sales tax hike, once the agreement has been approved by the state committee.

“I would advise that we don’t wait until August 15 to put this on a city council agenda,” Lewis told the council.

The council approved the following timeline:

  • May 7 work session with SEG and Administration negotiating team for an introduction to deal points being made
  • May 21 public hearing
  • July 2 work session, vote that night or later in July

Coming very soon: the city’s fastest small-area master plan ever

Over the decades, community master planning has evolved into a meticulous craft since the participatory era was born in the early 1970s. 

The process literally takes years, usually just a couple. It starts with focus groups, open houses, and an inventory of current conditions, incorporates multiple opportunities for public engagement and comment along the way, goes through multiple drafts created by staff, multiple briefings to the Planning Commission and the City Council, which then each presses its fingerprints into the final plan that’s adopted.

Look at the elements required in SB 272 for a master plan in the CCRZ below. These are just under the master plan heading; other significant performance mandates are included in the legislation.

  • Master plan that:
    • Provides overview of challenges to be addressed including land use, infrastructure, economic issues, public safety issues,
    • 30 year plan for physical development and ongoing management of project area including maps, plats, charts, drawings, time lines, etc
    • Specific plan or specific goals, planned outcomes, and timeline for
      • Financial plan
      • Land use plan
      • Public asset plan
      • Public safety plan
      • Homelessness mitigation plan
      • Transportation plan
      • A parking plan
      • A provision that local government may not provide a direct subsidy
      • Maximum dollar amount that may be used for the benefit of the project participant
      • Clear description of what fund and revenue uses will be used or not considered for the benefit of the project and subject to the limit
      • Terms related to breach of the agreement
      • Requirement that access to funds ceases and shall be repaid

How will the city provide this by the end of August? Abundantly copying and pasting from the existing Downtown Master Plan won’t get it done. It would be hard-pressed to find consultants willing to work under such a deadline, if the city had the time to issue an RFP.

The CCRZ can be up to 10 city blocks. Its scale is perhaps comparable to a neighborhood plan, sometimes called a small area plan in city parlance.

The timelines are clearly unreasonable for the city’s Community and Neighborhoods department, which prides itself on increasing public engagement opportunities in planning processes. The Thriving in Place anti-displacement initiative and the Northpoint area plan, both done in Mayor Mendenhall’s first term, incorporated enhanced and multiplied face-to-face conversations with community members.

While the Administration is staying mum, the city council, for its part, seems daunted at the task of “moving mountains” in the words of District 2’s Ale Puy.

Darin Mano (D5) expressed trepidation of leaving out important elements thanks to the tight timeline. “I work in the design and construction industry and I know that plans change, and for us to have a project of this scale negotiated by September 1st…I just have to expect that we’re going to miss something potentially really important.”

As Mano said this, Lewis’s facial reaction was telling. It said “I feel your pain.”

How will the city’s planners negotiate the situation? At the present, they’re not saying. When asked how extensive the zoning changes might be, Director Nick Norris told us that “Most of the zoning necessary to support an entertainment district are already in place due to the Downtown Building Height and Street Activation code changes adopted last year. Any additional changes are still in the conceptual stage.”

Those concepts are being developed, not by members of the Downtown or larger Salt Lake community, but by the negotiating teams of a Provo billionaire and the Salt Lake City mayor behind closed doors.

What is the city likely to want?

The Mayor’s team has not offered any public signals of their negotiating positions, and Building Salt Lake inquiries to the Mayor’s office about the City’s priorities have not been answered in any detail.

The City Council, while sitting in the back seat for now, has articulated what will likely be important to them when they take the wheel–Japantown.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency has made investment in Japantown a priority, and last received an update in March for plans to beautify the current public space as well as enhance the facilities for cultural festivals.

It is tens of millions of dollars short on implementing those plans, however. 

Council Member Mano went further than asking for that money last night, expressing his strong intention to right the wrongs of urban renewal that decimated the neighborhood from the 1960s to 1980s. 

In the closing comment to Lewis’s presentation, Mano read a statement.

 “As local elected officials sometimes we have the responsibility of undoing the mistakes made by previous leaders. And in this case we have the opportunity to undo the racism-fueled urban renewal project that led to the eminent domain and seizure of Salt Lake City’s historic Japantown to make way for the Salt Palace in the 1960s.”

“I’m so grateful for the willingness of Mayor Mendenhall, Mayor Jenny Wilson, and Ryan Smith to include and prioritize Japantown in these negotiations.”

“The inclusion of true, genuine reparations for Japantown in this project would make Salt Lake City sports and entertainment district the most meaningful, culturally rich, and historically significant sports and entertainment district in the entire country.”

Mano’s charge is likely to be supported by other council members, insiders have told us. To what degree “true, genuine reparations” may surface in the agreement between the city, county, and SEG is yet to be seen. 

But it’s clear that the city won’t get what would be a genuine sweetener to the deal–a slice of the sales tax to help fund other priorities. That would have to come from a revised SB 272. In the meantime, city staff will push to move mountains over the summer, while also dealing with other state mandates, like devising a balanced budget for the next fiscal year and processing land-use applications in a timely manner. 

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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.