Sears block upzone hits Planning Commission – will the City ask enough of IHC?

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Demolition is complete at the old Sears block. A large excavated hole on the site collects abundant winter runoff. And this week, Intermountain Healthcare’s upzone proposal at 754 S. State is being heard by the Planning Commission.

Approval has been recommended by planning and economic development staff to move the 10 parcels on nine acres from D-2 to D-1 zoning and to add hospital and ambulance functions to the permitted uses in D-1.

Meanwhile, a citizens’ coalition has reached out to Intermountain leadership with guiding principles that they hope will result in a true “urban hospital,” which Intermountain has stated they intend to build.

It won’t be easy. Hospitals and other institutional uses are notorious for gobbling up street frontage and killing sidewalk activation, usually with blank walls, fences, and parking lots.

The value to properties moving from D-2 to D-1 is significant, offering increases in height, density, and flexibility. It also comes with increased requirements for urban design.

We’ll see whether the Planning Commission is in the mood to support the upzone petition, and what public-interest concessions they may recommend to the City Council. Is a stringent development agreement in the works in exchange for an upzone to the city’s most valuable land-use category?

Intermountain’s proposal

We’ve been closely covering the evolution of the Sears block, and reported on Intermountain’s application back in November.

The non-profit healthcare provider purchased 10 parcels covering nine acres between State and Main, 700 South and 800 South, with the intention of replacing its facility in the Avenues, known as LDS Hospital.

Currently zoned D-2, the parcels are less than one block away from the border of D-1.

In D-2, height is limited by-right to 65 feet, up to 120 feet with design review. D-1 zoning would enable taller buildings, freeing up space for a variety of land uses that could add assets to the urban fabric.

Currently, in D-1 by-right height is 375 feet on corners, and 100 feet mid-block. There is no height limit in either location if a project can pass city design review.

Changes to those Downtown heights is likely coming, which we’ll touch on below.

With those changes or not, the Intermountain site, especially with D-1 zoning, offers significantly more potential than simply a medical facility.

At Intermountain’s Murray campus, known as IMC, the non-profit was able to spin off a significant parcel to the commercial real estate market. Costco signed a long-term ground lease for 16 acres at the southeast corner of the IMC property at 5201 Intermountain Drive. It’s “a good example of the kinds of partnerships Intermountain is involved in to benefit the community,” Intermountain representative Jess Gomez told us.

The IMC campus in Murray, from the southwest. Costco, upper right. SLC will likely want to avoid this land use pattern at 754 S. State St. Image courtesy Google.

Although it hasn’t released any plans for the Salt Lake City site, Intermountain likely has similar ambitions for the Sears block.

Community advocates emerge

In late January, a community group led by Downtown Community Council officers Christian Harrison and Tom Merrill met with Intermountain leaders, including  CEO Heather Wall.

The community group brought with them a letter signed by the chairs of nearby community councils, business groups, and advocacy organizations. Other signatories were the area’s state senator, Jennifer Plumb, and former Salt Lake City Mayor and current Downtown resident, Ralph Becker.

Merrill told us that “we’ve had informal conversations with folks at every level and the response so far has been very positive.”

Jess Gomez from Intermountain verified that the letter reached CEO Wall, “along with many other Intermountain leaders involved in the project. Much of what is in the letter is aligned with our objectives, as well.” Gomez added, “We do appreciate the opportunity to engage with the community councils and are looking forward to having regular dialogue during this process.”

The group’s letter touches on a wide variety of goals, clustering around the advantages of finer grain and vertical development for creating tax value and quality urban fabric. Here are slides from the group’s presentation, which they emphasize is not set in stone but rather “a living document.”

Images courtesy DC Harrison.

Planning report highlights

The urban design values expressed by the community group are also found in the Downtown Master Plan of 2016, and echoed in the staff report supplied to the planning commission

Planning staff highlighted four main themes that came out of public comment on Intermountain’s proposal:

•Design quality, especially of public realm

•Mixed-use, with street activation

•Connectedness to surrounding neighborhood

•Break up the block – smaller parcels and new streets

Noting the likelihood that design review will be requested by Intermountain, the staff report trumpets the potential of the Downtown Building Heights and Street Activation ordinance, which will apply to all zones covered by the Downtown Plan (North Temple to 900 South, 200 East to I-15).

Under the new regulations, “D-1 would also have new design standards that are not currently required such as, maximum blank wall and reflective glass limitations, dimensions between building entrances, streetscape requirements, and increased building articulation” the staff report claims.

What would the new ordinance mean for height regulations in D-1? By-right height allowance, regardless if on a corner or mid-block, would be 200 feet. Any height over that (with no maximum) would be subject to design review and public exactions. Developers would have to provide one of five options, e.g. providing a mid-block walkway, publicly-accessible green space, or affordable units.

The new ordinance will be discussed with a public hearing in April by the City Council followed by a likely vote in May, Council Chair Darin Mano told us.

Will those be enough to ensure that the new Intermountain “urban hospital” is an asset and not a blight to the neighborhood?

The City’s policy choices

Intermountain’s request, and the conditions the City may demand for approval, may indeed be colored by the imminent code changes that would apply to the development. The Downtown Heights and Street Activation ordinance, to be considered by the city council in the coming months, adds increased design standards and public exactions that planners intend to guide Intermountain’s designs.

Given the tone of the Planning staff report, it is possible that the imposition of those new requirements will be deemed sufficient – burdensome enough – by planning commissioners and city council members. City officials could, but might not, demand public-interest exactions like public spaces or affordable units because they think the new zoning will take care of it.

Let’s hope they don’t assume, and give away the value gained through an upzone without a robust development agreement advancing the public’s interest.

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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.