McGillis School shares plans to expand onto vacated LDS Douglas Ward on 1200 East

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Public school enrollment is down in Salt Lake City, but one east side private school has found a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to expand its footprint within its current neighborhood, just four blocks south of the University of Utah.

The McGillis School, a private K-8 school that occupies the historic Douglas Elementary School building at 700 South and 1300 East, is asking the city to approve a zoning change and master plan amendment so they can purchase and reactivate the closed LDS Douglas Ward house at 711 and 721 South 1200 East.

McGillis School’s frontage on 1300 East and 700 South. Photos by Charles Uibel.

Founded in 1990, McGillis moved into their current location in 2003 and in 2010 completed a renovation, retrofit, and addition to the former Douglas public school built in 1915.

Their next move will be to expand a block away, at a closed church that used to serve the Mormon-affiliated residents of the neighborhood.

The application to rezone the .57-acre property at 721 S 1200 E from R-2 to Institutional received unanimous support at the Planning Commission, and is now at the City Council for consideration.

Development plans?

McGillis officials have told the city that they have no development plans for the parcels beyond updating the 1960 structure to current fire and accessibility standards.

Jim Brewer, McGillis’ Head of School, told us that the school is proud of its historical preservation record. “We tripled the square footage of the old Douglas School and some people can’t tell the new building from the old one.”

Yet the >.5 acre parcel, if upzoned to Institutional and cleared of the austere Modern-era ward house, would provide a significant gain in value for the property’s owners.

Brewer acknowledged as much in a phone conversation with us, but insisted that growth is not in the school’s plans.

“The school’s enrollment has stayed steady for the last five, even 10 years. We’re at 390-400 students, and even with the added space at the Douglas Ward, we won’t get above 450.”

The McGillis School, center top, and the Douglas Ward, bottom center-left. Images courtesy Google and SLC Planning.

That increased space is earmarked for the school’s growing programming for students with “language-based learning differences” like dyslexia. Those students, who receive a 1:4-5 teacher:student ratio according to Brewer, will use the main building at 700 South and 1300 East for pickup and dropoff, and walk a block to and from the ward house site each day.

“We did that in 2010 on a daily basis and it worked out well,” Brewer said.

Development potential

At R-2, the missing-middle development potential of the .57 acres is significant, especially with the city’s new Affordable Housing Incentives likely to kick in this May.

Yet the future of the property looks educational.

McGillis’ Brewer called the under-contract Douglas Ward “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – how often does a property like this become available in a dense urban environment?”

“We lost two previous bids on the property. But the third time the Church came back to us to ask if we were still interested.”

The two-parcel, .57-acre property is assessed by Salt Lake County at $1,250,000.

Brewer hopes to have city approvals in pocket by the end of the year. Building upgrades could then be completed before the beginning of the 2024 school year, McGillis’ preferred timeline.

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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.