Fleet Block update: City’s plans for inclusive and equitable development may collapse under the weight of good intentions

Hoping to include “ongoing accountability” by the city and developers to the community, city staffers briefed the City Council last night on the next steps for the Fleet Block, an 8.75-acre city-owned parcel vacant since 2010.

The highlights: The Mendenhall Administration’s equity and inclusivity priorities are likely to ask a lot of any future developers, and extended community-engagement efforts will delay the issuance of a Request for Proposals until the end of the year.

Leading with their plans for a “community-driven” visioning process to shape requirements and preferences for the RFP, officials from the Department of Community and Neighborhoods (CAN) also told the council that “community members from diverse backgrounds” will be included in the selection committee. They also plan an “inclusive marketing campaign” for the RFP, designed to reach a “diverse range of stakeholders.”

One council member doubted that smaller developers from traditionally-marginalized communities would be able to compete in an RFP process if the city is seeking a master developer for the entire block.

Presenters did not respond to the concern, and it is unclear whether the city is considering dividing the large parcel into multiple pieces to be developed by separate entities.

Ironic results for good intentions may be ahead, where extensive concessions for equity and inclusion make large developers and investors the only viable competitors to win the award – further concentrating wealth where the city is seeking to have a different community impact.

High standards

Indeed, the project seems in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own good intentions.

In addition to mixed-use, walkable development, the city wants incubator labs, maker space, and small business opportunities “particularly [for] people of color and indigenous people,” CAN Director Blake Thomas told the council in a December 2020 briefing.

To those ends Tammy Hunsaker, Deputy Director of CAN, touted the possibility Tuesday for a community benefits agreement, which “could include items such as commercial space for underrepresented populations, local hiring practices, and a dedication of funds for community purposes.”

The city is also talking about alternative ownership housing models, like shared-equity and co-ops, based in the city’s community land trust.

What kind of developers could afford to agree to such terms?

For incentives, the city holds a pretty strong suit. It can award land at a discount – or free – to RFP winners.  

The city’s most recent appraisal, done in January, valued the 8.75 acres at $37.5 million, just over $98/sf.

The importance of the block

From an urban design and redevelopment standpoint, the Fleet Block was once thought to be crucial to catalyze development in the Granary District. Yet despite city inaction – with the exception of RDA loan programs – and outdated CG General Commercial zoning, the neighborhood has become one of the hottest in the city.

Looking south along 400 W, on the block immediately north of the Fleet Block. Photo by Luke Garrott.

A new formed-based zone, FB-UN-3, is set to be applied to the block. The city’s Planning Division has expressed its intentions, while noting its capacity limits, to apply it to other parts of the Granary.

Hunsaker, previously Deputy Director of the city’s Redevelopment Agency, noted that they have already received a lot of community feedback about the need for open space on the Fleet Block. They’re yet to discern “whether the community wants more passive space like plazas or active recreation space” and whether it will be publicly owned and managed or privately owned and managed with a public easement.

Symbolically, due to the murals, the Fleet Block has also become a site of remembrance and community-building for people affected by police violence.

Mural along the north wall of the Fleet Block, on 800 S between 300 and 400 W. Photo by Luke Garrott.

In that December 2020 briefing, CAN Director Thomas pledged to create Fleet Block public space to “honor, mourn, celebrate, and build community for those that have been marginalized in our city. To help those who have not been marginalized to listen, learn, and grow from the experience of others.”

The city has been conducting an “Art Healing Process” led by the Mayor’s Office and City Arts Council for the last eight months. Ashley Cleveland from the Mayor’s Office reported that seven of the families who lost members to police violence in the city participated in the process, and five signed a letter of recommendations to the city.

A master developer?

While the city hasn’t decided, the tenor of Hunsaker’s presentation gave the impression to some that the entire parcel would be conveyed to a single developer, ideally paired with a smaller business from an underrepresented community.

District 5 Council Member Darin Mano cautioned against the tokenism that such forced partnerships can result in, citing his own experience as a minority architect where “they just wanted my face there,” not seeking his actual input.

He also encouraged the Administration to divide the parcel to allow smaller, less-advantaged developers to compete.

Courtesy SLC Dept of Community and Neighborhoods.

“One way to allow individuals, businesses, and potential developers that generally cannot pull off the scale of projects that the city [typically] puts out is to make sure the projects are broken up into smaller chunks.”

“If it’s the entire block, as one developer, I don’t know of a historically marginalized developer that could pull that off…it’s just the big companies that are going to be able to do something like that,” Mano commented.

It’s a legitimate question whether the diversity of design, uses, and housing types desired by the city – not to mention its equity and inclusion goals – can be provided by a master developer.

What is certain is that the city is not yet ready to move ahead with a vision for the Fleet Block, and that implementation of its lofty goals will be a challenge for any potential development partners.

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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.