Here are the options for new TRAX lines in the city. Will policy makers get the zoning right in the Granary?

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UTA released its updated long-range transit plan earlier in May entitled Utah Moves 2050, which, for the next 10 years, largely features service improvements along existing routes at the expense of extending its network.

But Phase Two, scheduled to begin in 2033, lays some new rail in Salt Lake City: on 400 West in the Granary and on 400 South west of Main Street on the southern border of the Downtown core.

UTA is currently seeking public feedback on the proposed alignments of what it’s calling TechLink, part of the creation of the Orange Line. The website is “anticipated to run through April.”

The implications of the chosen alignment will be significant. Before we examine the alternatives, let’s take a look at the some of the context that may inform the decision.

Zoning changes coming

The Granary, currently mired in car-centric CG General Commercial zoning that requires a design review process with the city to build with urban design, is slated for one of the new MU Mixed-Use zones. If approved, the Granary will be rezoned to MU-11, denoting an 11-story height limit.

The code will likely contain specific design requirements that the CG zone lacks. Currently, that’s left to a labor-intensive process involving Planning Division staff and the Planning Commission to impose standards based in their interpretation of city policy that hasn’t been codified.

A draft of the transformative zoning ordinance will be ready “towards the end April or early May,” Planning Director Nick Norris told us.

CG zoning has a 75-foot height maximum (with design review) unless a property is in the northern area of the zone: between 300 West and I-15 (~700 West), 400 South and 700 South. There, builders can go to 150 feet.

One wonders whether if the footprint allowing 150 feet is large enough. When asked whether that area would receive MU-11 zoning and thus be downzoned for height, Norris responded “One of the things that we are trying to minimize are reductions in property rights. So the areas in the Granary zoned CG that currently allow taller buildings will likely retain that height allowance.”

And what about the implications of TRAX alignment?

It’s likely too early for the city to be acting on an unfunded long-range plan 10 years out.

But the zoning changes it makes now will shape what exists in 10 years when the new line becomes reality. Will opportunities to build true transit-supporting density be lost in the meantime?

HTRZ: a new tax-increment financing tool

There is also a newly-established tax-increment financing (TIF) zone covering a half-mile radius from the Central 9th TRAX station at 900 South and 200 West. In its application to the state to establish the Housing and Transit Reinvestment Zone (HTRZ) that was approved in December, the city stated it expects over 10,000 dwellings to be built in the area.

Most of those residential units are expected west of 300 West, which is the eastern boundary of the Granary.

The city will be able to use a portion of the increased property tax increment to reimburse developers for the increased cost for land, infrastructure provision, and any affordable units they provide. There’s a requirement that at least 12% of new units are at 80% AMI or below.

HTRZs are initially established for 15 years, with the option to be renewed for another 15.

Here are the expected numbers for the HTRZ around the 900 South TRAX station:

• 1,147,263 commercial SF

• 1,919,842 office SF

• 441 hotel rooms

• 3,596 structured parking stalls

• 10,214 housing units

With the new public funds incentivizing development, how much of the Granary will be built out before the city establishes zoning to allow transit-level densities along the proposed TRAX line?

Developers’ perspective

Not surprisingly, developers focused on the Granary are excited about the prospect of new track through the neighborhood.

Stephen Alfandre of Urban Alfandre, which has projects in the Granary and nearby Central 9th (and is a BSL sponsor), exclaimed in an email: “Mass Transit is a necessary ingredient to any vibrant mixed-use neighborhood and bringing it to the Granary up 400 [West] is ESSENTIAL.” 

How might height limits might affect building methods? Would a 150-foot allowance throughout the Granary, not just in the northern sector, encourage building types different than five framed floors over a 2-3 story concrete podium?

Architect Jarod Hall of di’velept design, also a BSL Sponsor, doubts that the height envelopes being proposed will make a difference in choices of building method.

Hall told us, “The economics and building code mean that a 5 over 2 (75’ish of building height) or 5 over 3 (85’ish of building height) are the most economical.

After that you have to have a pretty big jump before those different methodologies pay for themselves again. I don’t know if the 120′ of building height will be enough, but it might be.”

The newest rendering of Pacific Yard, a seven-story, 88-foot tall mixed use building coming to the Granary District by Urban Alfandre

So why not go higher? Then developers have the choice of building at economical higher densities that might actually support the large transit investment of laying new rail.

Alfandre agrees. “From a policy angle we should absolutely be increasing density allowances for the sites that are closest to mass transit. There are so many benefits from building housing and commercial office adjacent to transit.”

“However, just because a site is adjacent to transit doesn’t automatically mean that it can handle a 150′ concrete structure from an economic standpoint.” Rents will have to be high, he noted, in the $4.00/SF range, which is at the upper end of luxury rentals in the city.

Alfandre’s answer for policy makers at City Hall? “Increase zoning near mass transit but don’t REQUIRE developers to build to the full height if it isn’t economically feasible.”

That way, he says, “a developer can build a smaller wood structure during one market cycle and a taller concrete structure during another market cycle. It adds flexibility for the market to solve the housing crisis based on supply/demand and costs.” 

UTA’s four alignment options

First, the similarities: North of the Ballpark Station at 1300 South and 200 West, the new track heads NW along an existing UTA right-of-way. At 900 South and 400 West, the west side of the Fleet Block and east of Artspace, it heads north, to 400 South.

Also, at Main Street and 400 South, a long-expected extension of the 400 South branch to the west, helping alleviate heavy Main Street TRAX traffic, is planned.

Running on the south side of Pioneer Park, it has the potential to stimulate development in south Downtown, long suppressed by UDOT ownership and management of 400, 500, and 600 West. For decades, UDOT has made these streets on-ramps for I-15, killing walkability in south Downtown.

Introduction of TRAX is unlikely to change the hostile suburban environment created by UDOT’s high-speed, wide streets.

Five new stations are proposed, consistent across all alternatives. One at 400 South and West Temple, another ~350 West 400 South, ~625 S. 400 West, ~785 S. 400 West, and ~1150 S. 300 West.

Alternatives 1 + 2

Notice that the Orange line deviates to go all the way to 600 West and 300 South, the site of UTA’s “Central Station.”

Adding four 90-degree turns within the span of a mile, and blocks out of a rider’s way, it looks designed to fail.

Former UTA Transit Planner and current planner for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority, Leo Masic, commented on Twitter (X) that a huge red flag of this option is the “Orange Line’s deviation to Salt Lake Central.”

“It would add four (4) slow 90-degree turns in the span of a mile—making travel time and perception of travel time (two related but separate things) much worse.”

Masic also notes that “Orange Line trains would have to sit at Salt Lake Central for eight minutes before continuing to the airport or the U. This time penalty + the slow, meandering deviation would turn off a ton of people from riding.”

“That this is even being proposed is deeply disappointing,” he wrote this week.

Alternative 2 maintains the same alignment but builds a bridge over the UDOT rights-of-way over 600, 500, and 400 South – the “Elevated” alternative.

But accommodating Interstate drivers can’t be part of an urban design strategy. Making cars stop frequently at 400 West for trains may be exactly what safety requires for all transportation modes in the area.

If UTA wants uninterrupted train service across UDOT rights-of-way, why not dig a tunnel for the trains? Or build rail at grade and build underpasses for the roads? An elevated option is only the least expensive and least urban-design friendly.

Alternative 3

This option lays train all the way up 400 West, not wandering to service UTA’s “Central Station” at 600 West. It cuts significant time and distance for the proposed Orange Line, and seems to be designed to succeed.

Masic commented, “Luckily, there’s an alternative that rightly routes the Orange Line straight up 4th West. More direct routing, still a great FrontRunner connection, no pointless deviating or 8-minute holds. This would be a slam dunk.”

Alternative 4

Alternative 4 is focused on expediting commuters to Research Park at the University of Utah. It would cut off access currently enjoyed to South Campus at the Stadium and South Campus Stations.

Rice-Eccles Stadium, Marriott Library, the Law School, Social Sciences, Education, and the Huntsman Basketball cluster would lose their nearby stations.

It would also erase one of the most charming passages in the UTA system, squeezing between the old fieldhouse, the home of Utah’s only national championship basketball team (Men’s 1942) and football’s home, Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Photo by Mike Christensen.

Masic, a University of Utah graduate, didn’t mince words about the option of moving TRAX to 500 South.

The “wild proposal to relocate Stadium Station?? You’d make the station less useful for lower campus, place it in a car-oriented hellscape, and remove service to the commercial district on 13th East and its adjacent density. This is breathtakingly bad.”

What’s next?

Utah Moves 2050 will have its next update in 2027. Phase Two, containing the Granary/400 S TRAX extension, is dated to begin in 2033.

Some elements, like the new rails in Salt Lake City, might be expedited.

UTA spokesperson Carl Arky told us it’s possible. The Olympics are the likely window of opportunity.

“In addition to completing a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) document, design, and construction of necessary infrastructure, becoming the preferred local host for the 2034 Olympics could help accelerate these plans if Federal, State, and local funds are available.”

UTA’s online portal for commenting on the TechLink/Orange Line is currently open here.

Editor’s note: This post has been corrected to reflect the new requirement in HTRZ legislation passed this legislative session, in SB 208, for the minimum threshold for affordable units (80% AMI and lower). It is 12%, not 10% of units built.

Email Luke Garrott

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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.