Mayor plans to roll out citywide form-based zoning this year

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Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has enlisted her staff to undertake a major rewrite of the city’s zoning code in her second term, implementing form-based zoning in most of the neighborhoods that allow mixed-use development.

That work would include condensing 28 zoning districts into just six, a major simplification of the rules governing development in neighborhoods like Sugar House, the Granary District and the North Temple corridor.

The plan also calls for rewriting transit station area (TSA) zoning, which has successfully spurred development but has been questionable in its outcomes as developers frequently build single-use residential projects that lack ground-floor engagement or public uses.

“Basically there will be a new mixed use chapter in the zoning code that replaces the commercial chapter and then the various other zones found throughout our code that are mixed use,” Nick Norris, the city’s planning director, told Building Salt Lake.

“The biggest reason why we’re doing this is because our code has gotten so complicated because of how many different zones we have and how many regulations are found within each of those zones,” Norris said.

The city is hoping to lean on new form-based code that allows mixed-use buildings and generally correspond with the number of stories a building in the zone can have. (MU-5 would roughly allow for a five-story mixed-use building, for example.)

The consolidation is expected to simplify the rules that govern things like parking requirements, setbacks, open space requirements and much more, giving property owners and developers more clarity around what’s allowed in a given zone.

Salt Lake City’s plentiful zoning types are often panned by flâneurs who mock the complicated nature of the existing zoning code.

Local urbanist Bryant Heath had fun with the opportunity by creating a T-shirt displaying dozens of colorful squares that depict each of the city’s zoning types. 

But the complex nature of the existing zoning code also complicates development, Norris said.

“One thing we’re seeing is when people come in to do something, submitting even a building permit, they’re often missing a lot of the regulations because our code is just hard to navigate because of how many different districts there are,” Norris said. “That’s often costing them time but it’s also costing the city time.”

As the city’s chief planner during a period of intense development and a scant budget for his team to create plans for Utah’s capital city, Norris has gotten creative finding ways to free up time for his team to work on more impactful issues and less on individual requests from property owners.

Norris captained work to eliminate petty requests that had been taking up nearly all of his staff members’ time up until 2020. The work freed up the time of two full-time employees. The next year, his division received a budget hike to add four more planners at a crucial time.

But Norris said the confusion that’s caused by the city’s complicated zoning code is costing taxpayers even more resources, as staffers need to take time away from master planning the city to answer questions about the existing codes. 

“We hope to focus on the things that work really well that are producing better outcomes,” he said. “Whether it’s in the Central 9th neighborhood — even the CB or CM zone is producing the small scale commercial.” 

He added that there are zones, like along 900 South in Liberty Wells, that are letting small-scale investors get creative to add a mix of uses to the formerly residential street, that are still confusing. 

Other updates include rewriting the TSA zone, which largely follows the light-rail transit lines along the North Temple and 400 South corridors and has been a hit with investors who haven’t been adding mixed-use buildings the city hoped to attract when it originally wrote the zone.

“When TSA was created its primary objective was to promote housing. It’s clearly doing that,” Norris said. “But it’s not doing it in a way that particularly around our trax stations that people are seeing the mixed-use and the other aspects that are important to encourage people to use transit.”

The city has also recently changed other ordinances, like its off-street parking ordinance, to decrease the amount of required parking in certain zones, making existing requirements in the TSA and other zones redundant and unnecessary, Norris said.

Even the Sugar House business district, sometimes referred to as Salt Lake City’s “second downtown” is getting a rewrite. The CSHBD1 and CSHBD2 zones would be changed to MU-6 and MU-11 zones under the proposal, according to a draft document reviewed by Building Salt Lake.

The updates would finally update the zoning rules in the red-hot Granary District as well as the Ballpark neighborhood. The Granary has been one of the hottest neighborhoods for investors in recent years, and the city is finally making an effort to update the zoning from the previous car-centric General Commercial to MU-11.

A large amount of the work is assigning existing codes to new ones that largely align with what’s allowed on an owner’s land today, Norris said.

“One of the guiding principles is to not reduce someone’s property rights and development rights,” he said.

And while other recent policy work has taken years to complete, Mendenhall’s team has set a more aggressive schedule for this effort.

Planners hope to wrap up work this month and have a goal to obtain permission from the Planning Commission before the end of the year. 

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.