Planning Commission denies proposed new mixed-use building Downtown over its lack of height

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The Salt Lake City Planning Commission voted to deny a developer’s request to build a mixed-use project that was less than the minimum 100 feet tall in the Downtown area.

It’s only the latest setback for the project, which has gone through multiple iterations over the years since it was first proposed in 2018.

It was also the first test of the Planning Commission’s willingness to stick to the requirements outlined in a recently updated city ordinance that calls for taller buildings near the Downtown core. 

The proposed building at 250 S. 200 E. would be about 83 feet tall, one to two stories short of the new minimum. Buildings in the D-1 Downtown zone can be up to 200 feet tall without needing additional approval through a design review. There is no maximum height for Downtown buildings above 200 feet that meet certain requirements and receive city approval.

Representatives for J. Fisher Companies, the developer who hopes to build 201 units plus multiple retail spaces in the Central City neighborhood, said they designed a shorter building to keep rent down. 

“The No. 1 reason [for the shorter building] is probably not for context,” the project’s architect said. “The No. 1 reason is probably for housing attainability.”

Buildings that are shorter than 85 feet tall can be built primarily out of wood. Above 85 feet and the building code requires the use of steel and concrete, which is much more expensive.

Ironically, J. Fisher previously planned a building that would have been nine stories tall and 108 feet high. The Planning Commission approved that project despite it being taller than what was allowed by the previous edition of the city’s ordinance, which promoted tall buildings on corners and limited buildings to no more than 100 feet mid-block.

The architect estimated that rent in buildings made of steel and concrete is $1 more per square foot than in buildings that are designed primarily with wood. The design of the Edison Street Apartments is commonly known as 5-over-2 construction, with five levels of wood-framed apartments above two levels of a concrete podium.

Commissioners feared they would set a precedent that other developers would follow if they voted to allow shorter buildings in the D-1 zone despite the recent changes that promote taller buildings.

“Moving forward I don’t know how we would distinguish this application from future applications that are sure to come in and ask for a reduced building height in a zone that specifically was designed to encourage taller buildings,” Commissioner Anaya Gayle said. “If we set this as a precedent, what are we going to do with the next three or four or five applications that are going to come in down the road?” 

Brenda Scheer, a member of the commission and a retired long-time professor of architecture at the University of Utah, led the opposition among a commission that appeared poised to approve the project despite the height before a lengthy debate.

Scheer pointed out that builders are actively constructing Worthington Tower, a high-rise stretching over 300 feet tall, on the same block as the proposal.

“I know there’s a propensity to stay in the 4-over-2 or 5-over-2 building type because that’s somewhat less expensive to build — certainly less expensive to build than going into steel and concrete construction,” Scheer said. “But I think the intention of the minimum 100 feet was exactly that: to get people away from that building typology and move into a higher density so that we would have a downtown that is much denser than it is now.”

With its 6-2 vote to deny the project, the commission established a firmer stance toward enforcing the city’s planning and zoning codes.

The decision was somewhat surprising, as the city allowed C.W. Urban to construct an apartment building immediately north of Fisher’s proposed building that was less than the minimum height required.

C.W. Urban, which is a Building Salt Lake advertiser, constructed an apartment building known as the Randi, which is roughly the same height proposed by Fisher. The Morton, another building across 200 East, is also 86 feet tall.

Those buildings were constructed before the City Council voted to increase the height of buildings in a broad area that included Downtown.

The Edison Street Apartments also included other design choices that gave commissioners more reason to be skeptical.

The building would have been more than double the maximum allowed length along 200 East, stretching 307 feet. Buildings in the D-1 zone are supposed to be no more than 150 feet long, a limit that intends to promote shorter facades and make the pedestrian level of streets more engaging.

Fisher also wanted to use less glass than is required by the design standards for the zone.

The developer and architects tried to make up for those design choices by including ample retail space, including two that Fisher identified as restaurants facing 200 East.

Architects clad the building in brick in an attempt, they said, to make it classier than other developments that have been built in Salt Lake City in recent years.

As required in the zone, the project would include a mid-block walkway that Fisher said would be activated by grab-and-go restaurants, seating and art.

That walkway would connect 200 East with Edison Street, where a one-block stretch between 200 South and 300 South is blooming with retail, bars and restaurants.

Commissioner Amy Barry agreed, saying the benefits and design of the project, plus the promise of hundreds of additional residents on what is currently a lagging Downtown street, outweighed the lack of height.

“Would I like to see it be 100 feet? Sure,” Barry said. “Am I terribly bothered by it being two stories lower than that? Based on what we’re getting on the other hand and how you’ve designed it and how you’ve activated uses and thoughtfully put in a lot of those uses…I’m really comfortable with this.”

This section of 200 East hasn’t quite thrived the way other parts of Downtown have in recent years. Part of that is due to the vacant hole Fisher created after purchasing properties on the street nearly seven years ago.

After the denial, the sidewalks will sit empty a bit longer.

Fisher isn’t walking away from the project yet, and on Friday appealed the commission’s decision to a city officer who will review the matter and decide whether to uphold or overturn the vote. An attorney for the firm called the vote “illegal and illogical.”

Development Details

  • Developer: J. Fisher Companies
  • Architect: Dwell Design Studio

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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.