In surprise vote, Planning Commission opposes creating a new historic district in Yalecrest

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Residents in a portion of one of Salt Lake City’s wealthiest neighborhoods are hoping the city will make it generally more difficult to demolish homes and do things like replace windows and paint trim by creating a new local historic district.

The Planning Commission rejected the idea on Wednesday night.

The vote displayed the difficult balance between preserving historic architecture and creating more bureaucracy that could act as yet another barrier to allowing affordable housing in an area that is distinctly not affordable.

“If there was something passed to allow, say, four units per lot, if a developer decided the only way to accomplish four townhome units on that sized lot was to demolish that structure, it would seem difficult within the local historic districts to achieve this,” said Commissioner Andra Ghent, who made the recommendation to oppose the historic district.

The city has been pushing on multiple fronts to preserve existing housing stock while allowing construction of new units to meet existing and future demand to prevent housing prices from going even higher.

It’s a tall task.

The City Council recently suggested it was open to possibly getting rid of exclusive single-family zoning. It also is considering an ordinance that would allow for up to four units on a single lot, provided that a portion of the new units were deed restricted to remain less expensive than market-rate housing.

Creating a new local historic district could prevent that from happening, some on the Planning Commission feared. It would subject demolitions and other exterior changes to oversight by multiple city entities, at least slowing down future changes, making them more expensive and possibly blocking them altogether.

Ghent said that creating a new local historic district violated three goals within a guiding document known as Plan Salt Lake. Those three goals include creating access to a wide variety of housing types for all income levels throughout the city; creating a transportation network that connects people with places; and promoting clean air.

Single houses on large lots generally spread people further apart, which in turn promotes driving single-occupancy cars that in turn has myriad negative health benefits.

And while the area near 1300 East and Laird Avenue is lined with massive sycamore trees that make it pleasant to walk around, particularly on 105-degree summer days, the proposed district has middling walkability for accomplishing daily tasks on foot, in part due to the lack of density and mixed use zoning.

The brief debate on Wednesday night highlighted how hard it is to find balance between promoting affordability while also holding onto old and well-kempt homes during a time of population growth.

Already, the cost of land is among the biggest barriers to affordable housing anywhere near this area. Several members of the commission expressed fear that they would be adding yet another barrier, and a majority voted against the idea.

Still, after a period of rapid growth that has come at the expense of historic structures like the Utah Theater, there is much sensitivity around finding the right balance between affordability, density and historic preservation.

One supporter of the historic district’s roughly six-dozen supporters suggested the area had “relative affordability,” an assertion that is hard to fathom and one that didn’t sit well with a man in the audience.

“These houses are, essentially, the ones that are currently listed on the market average about $1.8 million,” the man said. “The assertion that this is affordable housing is meaningless.”

Commissioner Anaya Gayle made a point that she supported the creation of the new local historic district, but not for the same reason as some of the neighbors who proposed it.

Supporters had pointed out that former mayors, members of Congress and other noteworthy individuals had lived in the area over the past century. That history mattered less to Gayle than the buildings themselves.

“The importance to me on this is that we’re preserving historical architecture and character,” Gayle said. “The history of who lived in what house does not matter. We can keep those record elsewhere. And frankly those types of things to me…come across as elitist.”

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-4 to ask the City Council to not create the local historic district. But that wasn’t before one member sent a barb about the idea that the move would lead to more housing being created in Yalecrest.

“To actually think that forwarding a negative recommendation would equal more housing, I feel like that is just nonsensical,” Commissioner Amy Barry said.

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.