Planning Commission sends unanimous ‘No’ to city council on SEG sports and entertainment rezone

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After receiving a presentation from the city’s Planning Director last night, the Planning Commission issued a strong rebuke to both the vision and timing of Smith Entertainment Group’s proposal for zoning changes around the Delta Center. 

It voted 6-0 to reject the requested changes.

The Commission’s recommendation is only advisory to the City Council, which will make the final decision on SEG’s zoning requests and the .5% sale-tax increase that would fund the sports, entertainment, and convention zone development.

The zoning amendments, submitted by Mayor Mendenhall, include removing building height limits in the D-4 zone, which would still require design review for buildings over 75 feet. After public input, the proposal has been modified to allow buildings only up to 600 feet. 

SEG’s designs for a plaza on 100 South to the east of the Delta Center include setting buildings back from the right-of-way by more than the allowed distance. Standards would be changed so that “buildings with plazas and other similar public spaces are allowed to exceed the maximum setback” according to city briefing materials. 

It was revealed during the hearing that SEG desires to manage if not own 100 South and adjacent plazas as private.

In addition, the Mayor’s request includes exempting the area from sign restrictions that normally apply. SEG is asking that the existing sign overlay enjoyed by the Delta Center be extended, which “mostly increases the size of the allowed signs,” according to the city’s staff report. 

Digital signs are already allowed in the existing arena overlay. Importantly, SEG is also requesting to have the prohibition against off-site advertising lifted for their project, Planning Director Nick Norris mentioned during the meeting. 

Multiple Planning Commissioners expressed reservations over the speed of the process – the enabling state legislation (SB 272) requires zoning changes and a master plan to be completed before September 1st. 

Foreseeing a “a jumbotron-fueled, oversized and glitzy sports center” that will not “be anything but a relic needing overhaul in less than 20 years,” Commission Bree Scheer read from a prepared statement that questioned the fundamental planning premises of the proposed development. 

Scheer contextualized SEG’s proposal with other megaprojects that have promised downtown revitalization but only captured the next big thing, leaving harm rather than city-building in its wake.

Scheer stated, “In the last 25 years we have demolished a lot of urban fabric, and built a gigantic solution that promises to revitalize downtown. In fact we have made this move more than once. Each time with terrible consequences and each time successful for only a short period. From Main Street businesses that had thrived for over 100 years, we were wounded deeply by Crossroads Mall, which in turn was killed by The Gateway, which suffered near-mortal damage from City Creek Mall, which itself stumbles to find its sustainable way.

“The convention center itself and even the Delta Center are two more examples of large-scale ‘downtown saviors’ that need very expensive publicly-funded renovation less than 25 years after they opened. 

“This is no way to plan a city. The key to urban development is to create a framework for orderly and incremental change by multiple actors, not to demolish entire two- or more 10-acre blocks, close streets and build a single unified vision.

“These always fail. Because when land uses go out of technical or economic favor, which they do a lot, witness office buildings recently, super large projects fail all at once, while smaller buildings can flexibly adapt. Gateway cannot adapt. City Creek cannot adapt. 

“Anyone who believes that a jumbotron-fueled, oversized and glitzy sports center will be anything but a relic needing overhaul in less than 20 years needs to turn off their VCR and join the real world.”

Commissioner Landon Kraczek acknowledged several times the non-binding nature of the Commission’s recommendation to the City Council, and seemed hesitant to support a blanket condemnation of the zoning changes.

Yet he told fellow commissioners that the “progressing towards obsolescence argument is very compelling to me.” 

Other commissioners, while not as strident in their comments as Scheer, seemed to agree. They voted 6-0 in favor of Scheer’s motion: 

“We make a recommendation of denial to the city council of this zoning text amendment for the following reasons: it does not comport with the Downtown Plan or with the existing purpose of the zone. We recommend that Abravanel Hall be maintained in its present form on its present site and with the possibility of funding through the district for a modest renovation, and a buffer around Japantown, specifically the Buddhist Temple, the Japanese Church of Christ, and the garden; and as planners, we believe this plan is moving too quickly.”

Before its September 1 deadline to approve or reject SEG’s proposals, the city council has scheduled only six meetings for the remainder of the summer, two each in June, July, and August.

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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.