Salt Lake City’s Depot District: an update

For the last month, UTA’s demolition contractors have been bringing down a major structure behind the transit authority’s headquarters on 200 South and 669 West in west Downtown, Salt Lake City.

The former EIMCO mining equipment (previously Ford motor) plant was in UTA’s plans for a new bus maintenance and storage facility, which broke ground ceremonially in October 2018.

UTA’s administrative headquarters, right in white, EIMCO factory, half demolished, center. The site will be prepared for a new bus maintenance, storage, and administration facility. Photo by Luke Garrott.

UTA, which acquired EIMCO’s factory and office building on 200 South and ~700 West in 2007, planned to incorporate the old industrial structure in a modern, energy-efficient building.

Yet because it became “price prohibitive and less efficient” than a new design, “it became less expensive to bring it down,” Carl Arky from UTA told Building Salt Lake.

The Depot District

The area used to be called the Gateway, before the mall was built and successfully branded the name.

Always a railroad and market hub, Downtown’s western edge still evidences those qualities. Warehouses and railroad sidings speak to the people, merchandise, and vehicles that historically have moved through this neighborhood.

There are good reasons to locate fresh produce warehouses, services for the indigent poor, and the public transit authority here.

Apartment construction has seriously taken off, with hundreds of new units planned. The emergency shelter is scheduled for closure. By most accounts, the gentrification of the neighborhood seems a pretty sure bet.

Yet the tensions between the Depot District’s past and future remain, and they’re not limited to rich versus poor.

Big dogs team up

Two of the biggest players in Salt Lake City’s Depot District are the Redevelopment Agency and Utah Transit Authority. They teamed up in 2017 and received a Wasatch Front Regional Council grant to produce a joint transit station area plan, which was released in May 2019.

It focused on the future of UTA’s and the RDA’s significant property holdings and their neighborhood contexts.

UTA and Redevelopment Agency properties in dotted outline. At top is UTA’s North Temple TOD project. RDA’s Station Center project borders in yellow. Both outlines are more impressionistic than precise. Image by Luke Garrott via SLC RDA.

The station area plan, if implemented, will put an enormous stamp on the area. 

From the Salt Lake Central Station Area Plan. FrontRunner and Amtrak at bottom, new platform and adjacent structures (an actual central train station?). At center, a 5-story residential building and a 10-story office building, left. Image courtesy SLC RDA.
From the Salt Lake Central Station Area Plan. The 1st + 6th area, looking west. 600 W. is the street in foreground. 200 S. at left, 100 S. right-center. The only park in the station center plan is center. Image courtesy SLC RDA.
The center of the proposed 1st + 6th neighborhood. At center, three existing arts + entertainment venues are maintained, including the SunTrapp and Metro Music Hall. The orchard and community garden to the north of 100 S. is made into a parking lot. Image courtesy SLC RDA.

A neighborhood or just more buildings and cars?

Salt Lake City leaders got serious about planning this area as early as the late 1980s, when the city’s first planning event focused on urban design resulted in the R/UDAT document of 1988.

In the same urban design mindset, the city produced its Gateway Specific Plan and Creating an Urban Neighborhood documents in 1998. These gave bold direction and administrative cover for Mayor Deedee Corradini’s initiative to remove underused Union Pacific railyards in the area during the 1990s.

The Gateway mall was the first major beneficiary, receiving significant RDA incentives and TIF reimbursements for building in the area.

Since then, the RDA has made the Depot District a major focus of it efforts. The Station Center project has built up significant momentum in the last decade, which includes a public market and a festival street.

RDA staff expect to update their Board at the RDA’s September 24th meeting on the current state of negotiations with interested developers. Those discussions reportedly center on the share of infrastructure and utility upgrades to be paid by each party.

What could have been?

Yes, those are little lakes at top. 1998 vision for the Depot District, before the Gateway mall. Looking from Downtown to the west. Image courtesy SLC Planning.

Both of the city’s early Gateway plans of 1998 were left out of the RDA’s and UTA’s station area plan funded by WFRC.

When asked by Building Salt Lake, UTA representatives said they knew nothing of city plans for a major public park along 1-15.

Adaptive reuse of the significant EIMCO structure was originally UTA’s Plan A. Yet it easily fell aside with intensified economic pressure.

Neighborhood character took a big hit. David Arnott of Preservation Utah told us “these buildings have come to represent the very sort of values and ideals that people crave to associate with themselves and with their businesses.”

EIMCO plant interior. Courtesy Utah Department of Heritage and Arts.

The notion that former industrial buildings offer a competitive advantage for economic development (especially office conversions) is not part of UTA’s mindset as they move development plans forward.

Some of the most notable elements of the Gateway master plans of 1998 are finer-grained blocks, mixed-use, and significant public space. They envisaged walkable urban neighborhoods that we’re still trying to build today.

UTA, however, seems insistent on a parking garage fronting 200 South and a new bus maintenance and storage facility that has no interface with the public.

Upper left grey parking structure on 200 S. is at odds with city planning goals yet remains a perennial element of UTA’s plans in the Depot District. Image courtesy SLC RDA.

“A Major Public Open Space”

A key part of this future, the 1998 master plans contended, was “Gateway Commons,” a major,  linear park running N-S along I-15. It envisions copses of forest, sports fields, specialty recreation functions like climbing and river simulations – a combination of private attractions and public park space over significant acreage.

As envisioned in the 1998 Gateway master plan. Courtesy SLC Planning.

It remains to be seen if a neighborhood will rise here. It may simply “get developed.” Bitter irony that would be, for the most transit-rich area in the state of Utah to forsake its promise.

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.