Mixed results for two developers wanting to build big

Planning Commission meetings don’t alway draw a crowd, but dozens of residents turned out for Wednesday’s commission meeting to voice their opinions over proposed zoning changes to properties directly south of Trolley Square and in Sugar House. 

The commission meeting ran much longer than usual, over five hours, as resident after resident argued for or against projects that would add density to their neighborhoods.  In the end, the planning commission forwarded a favorable recommendation for a rezone of the Trolley Square proposal while deciding to send a negative recommendation for the Sugar House proposal.

With the commission’s favorable recommendation, Trolley Square owner, Khosrow Semnani, has cleared the first significant hurdle in his quest to redevelop a large portion of the 600 South block between 600 and 700 East.  Semnani wants to build a large mixed-use residential project that could potentially include a boutique hotel.

“I’ve always loved the place,” said Semnani. “The biggest asset Trolley Square has is the public support, everyone loves Trolley Square.”

Semnani’s company, Trolley Square Ventures, purchased Trolley Square, an aging shopping mall that had fallen into receivership, in 2013.

Although planning is in the early stages for the project, Semnani told the planning commission that developing larger multifamily residential properties adjacent to Trolley Square is needed to support the mall and that any final plans will need to complement Trolley Square.  

To accommodate a larger project, Semnani requested a zone change for seven parcels on 600 South and 700 East in the Central City Historic District.  The commission forwarded a favorable recommendation for just six of the parcels, with the parcel at 603 East 600 South slated to remain under its current zoning.  The majority of the parcels are currently zoned Multi-Family Residential District (RMF-45), including the largest parcel which is currently a surface parking lot used by Trolley Square.

Under the RMF-45 zone, Semnani could outright build a residential project up to 45 feet.  Semnani is requesting that the parcels be rezoned as Form-Based Urban Neighborhood District (FB-UN2), that would allow for project heights up to 50 feet and reduced setbacks.

According to the Salt Lake planning division,  FB-UN districts are used to create urban and walkable neighborhoods that offer diverse housing, commercial and transportation options.  Under FB-UN zoning the form and scale of the building are what is evaluated over standard land use and height restrictions that are typical under more standard zoning like RMF zones.

According to Semnani, the parcels south of the mall, which include several abandoned houses, housed squatters and other illegal activity.

Many residents who testified agreed with Semnani that the parcels are underused and contribute to safety issues.  One neighbor testified that the abandoned homes attract vagrants and drug users and that she has been woken up before by vagrants sleeping on her porch.

Residents that spoke in opposition to the project expressed concerns about multifamily projects hurting the character of the neighborhood.  Several residents, including the chair of the Central City Neighborhood Council, Michael Iverson, expressed frustration that little was known about the project.

Semnani acknowledged that he has reached out to the community in only a “limited way” but promised to reach out to the community once plans are finalized.

“This is a jewel of the city that needs a facelift. I think it is an opportunity to resurrect, to bring back the whole neighborhood through a win-win situation,” said Semnani.

Trolley Square Ventures still needs various approvals before construction can begin.  City council will need to give final approval of the zoning change.  The project will also need to go before the Historic Landmark Commission for final design approval.

Semnani stated that the project will include affordable housing and that a final design will draw inspiration from the work of Richard K.A. Kletting, the architect that designed the Utah State Capitol, the Old Saltaire Resort Pavilion and the Utah Exposition Building that once stood where Trolley Square is now.

While the planning commission found increased density appropriate next to Trolley Square, they rejected a zoning amendment request for a proposed project on the 1900 South block of 900 East in Sugar House.

Developers, Cottonwood Residential, wanted to change the zoning of several parcels zoned Multi-family Residential (RMF-35) to Residential Mixed-Use (RMU-45).

The zoning change would allow ground-floor commercial space, three-times more density than currently permitted and building heights up to 45 feet, ten more feet than allowed under RMF-35.

“We want this to be a transition zone or buffer,” said Judi Short, second vice chair of the Sugar House Community Council.  “This rezone is not a popular idea.”

Short suggested that townhomes would be a better fit for the parcels.  Under the Sugar House Master Plan, the parcels are zoned as RMF-35 to serve as a buffer between the single-family homes and the commercial corridor on 2100 South.

Representatives from Cottonwood Residential argued that due to the high cost of the land, townhomes wouldn’t be financially feasible.

As with the Trolley project, residents that testified in opposition to the project worried about the density changing the character of the neighborhood.

Although the developers weren’t able to convince the planning commission on the need for the zoning change, the developers can still build a multifamily project up to 35 feet in height, or taller with a special exception request that would need approval from the planning commission before building permits could be issued.

The zoning map for a the area around a proposed project in Sugar House. Image courtesy Salt Lake City.
The zoning map for the area around a proposed project in Sugar House. Image courtesy Salt Lake City.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.