How request for taller buildings in the Depot District could lead to a taller Downtown

Salt Lake City, prepare for a taller and broader Downtown.

The City Council appears to include enough members ready to rethink traditional zoning practices that set up a skyline that tapers out the farther buildings are from the Downtown core.

One application for permission to build higher than zoning allows in the city’s Gateway Mixed-Use zoning area in the Depot District has set off a discussion that could eventually lead to a wholesale change affecting the skyline for good.

“We need taller buildings in Salt Lake City,” planning division director Nick Norris said. “That’s just a fact with how limited land we have to provide all these great uses that we want. That has to happen. It is more complex than I think people think.”

Buildings in the GMU zone — roughly an area bounded by North Temple and 400 South, 400 West and I-15 — can be 75-90 feet tall or up to 120 feet with design review approval.

This graphic shows how Salt Lake City envisions the development of its skyline, peaking in the Central Business District and tapering off as buildings move farther away from the Downtown core. Courtesy of Salt Lake City Planning Division.

Lehi-based Stack Real Estate had asked the city to allow, in a portion of the zone, 190-foot buildings on corners without requiring design review for potential height impacts on the neighborhood. Buildings farther than 100 feet from corners could be up to 100 feet tall (or more, with design review approval).

The city’s zoning envisions buildings that form a pyramid shape, growing taller as they move toward the Central Business District.

Stack representatives said height limits led a tech company to build its headquarters elsewhere, suggesting the city had grown past its own master plans in an era of rampant urban development.

“If we don’t densify around these stations, we permanently impair those stations to function the way they could,” said Nathan Ricks, of Stack Real Estate. “If you look at every major transit station in the world, there’s a lot of density around those stations.”

A rendering of the proposed building near 300 South 600 West in Salt Lake City’s Depot District that has sparked a conversation about how tall buildings should be in the capital city. Courtesy of Stack Real Estate.

The Planning Commission had given the concept a negative recommendation in October. But most City Council members made clear it’s time to look at growing up.

That included Councilman Darin Mano, who was a member of the planning commission until he was appointed to replace now-Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“I’m supportive of additional height,” Mano said. “That area is a perfect spot. It’s right next to the intermodal hub…I’m not super concerned about the pyramid shape of Downtown, and I’m not super concerned about the view from the freeway.”

Still, he said he wasn’t supportive of the exact proposal because the developer would have received concessions from the city without giving much in return, like much-needed low-income housing.

Planning staff already are working on creating what are known as overlay districts within zones, which could grant incentives to developers who include low-income housing or preserve historical buildings.

A change to allow a taller building would also effectively make the private developer’s property more valuable without ensuring benefits for the public.

“I also worry that we get these massive (inaudible) private office buildings or luxury condominium buildings that the public can’t enter,” said Mano, an architect by trade. “I think additional heights need to be tied to things like public uses on the ground floor.”

While it decided not to approve the application at its April 21 meeting, the council made clear they’d like to rethink building heights throughout Downtown, with some ready to move forward quickly or risk losing another tech headquarters to suburban greenfields in Utah County

“We always talk about [how] we’re pro-development,” said westside Councilman James Rogers. “I would be in favor of…looking at (heights) as a way to catapult the rest of the projects in the area.”

“We already are losing to Silicon Slopes,” he added. 

Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, an urban planner who represents Downtown, said she was inclined to support the proposal. But she asked the city and developer to work to find a sort of common ground and study the need for additional height in the broader Downtown.

The city will now spend the next several months looking to balance the demands of private developers who could bring housing and office space to the city with existing master plans and policy goals around what planners believe a modern Downtown should look like.

The study could lead to an exception for the area immediately near the Station Center and intermodal hub, the entire Depot District or some combination.

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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.