South Salt Lake unveils its next car-centric development in its ‘new downtown’

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South Salt Lake saw an opportunity to start over with previously industrial and underutilized land by making a “new downtown.”

Instead, it’s stuffing one of its premier areas with ever more car-centric businesses.

Seven years after commissioning a new plan to realize the urban potential of land near the city’s shared boundary with Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake’s leaders continue to roll out the red carpet for new car-centric businesses.

The latest example includes the city’s redevelopment agency selling 5.52 acres of land at 2280 S. State, near the core of what is supposed to be its downtown district to a car dealership.

On June 15, the RDA, which is made up of members of the City Council, voted to approve a memorandum of understanding with a car dealership company owned by NFL Hall of Famer John Elway to come up with terms where the dealer would develop part of the land into a car dealership.

That type of use isn’t allowed in any of South Salt Lake’s downtown-area zones. But the city is taking steps to change that, as it has in the past for uses that don’t comply with its downtown zoning.

The city’s RDA apparently recently sold Elway’s group the land, which in the past has functioned as a car dealership and RV dealership, and on June 15 voted to enter the agreement with Elway to come up with a plan to develop the land. The plan specifically calls for a car dealership as well as mixed uses.

The city apparently isn’t eager to talk about its decision, either. RDA members didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Mayor Cherie Wood didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The city’s recorder confirmed the MOU passed and provided a copy but declined to offer any more information.

This 5.5-acre piece of land next to the South Salt Lake City Station of the S-Line of TRAX was sold to a car dealership group owned by NFL Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway. At least part of it will be another car dealership in South Salt Lake’s ‘new downtown.’ Google Earth

What’s in it for South Salt Lake?

County records show the RDA has already sold each of the 5.52 acres to a company owned by Elway’s automotive group as a single, massive parcel.

The MOU appears to include the possibility for retail or mixed use alongside the car dealership, saying it “will be developed into a retail/mix used (sic) development , which includes an automotive dealership.”

In effect, the city is moving to approve a development that may bring a short-term tax benefit at the expense of indefinitely locking up acres of land in a use that offers less efficient property tax returns and fewer things for residents and visitors to do downtown.

With the city remaining silent, there are more questions than answers. For instance, has there been an agreement in place for some time? Did the city issue a request for proposals from parties interested in buying the land? Did it pass up other projects in favor of this one? As well as any specifics about any mixed-use nature of the eventual development.

Is it possible no one has stepped up to develop a blank canvas not far from Downtown Salt Lake City? Or is South Salt Lake actively seeking developments to beef up its middling tax base by any means necessary?

It’s possible the development, which will be immediately adjacent to a light-rail transit stop, places housing or retail fronting Central Pointe Place – the four-lane, lightly trafficked street between Main and State streets.

Whatever the case, it is not developing into the urban area envisioned by the downtown plan. That has property tax implications, as well, because car-centric and suburban developments often generate less in property taxes than finer grained urban development.

For comparison, a 3.38-acre parcel in Salt Lake City that’s owned and operated as a car dealership is valued at $2.88 million per acre between the building and land, according to the county assessor.

Immediately to the east, smaller parcels with single-family homes are valued at $2.95 million per acre.

The same already holds true in South Salt Lake. The insurance company taking up 0.66 acres of land in the area — more than half of it parking — is valued at $1.96 million per acre. A different car dealership to the south is valued at $1.74 million per acre.

Homes immediately to the east? $2.58 million per acre.

In effect, South Salt Lake would make more property tax revenue from finer grained development than the type of auto-centric development it is attracting. However, it may be moving to generate more from sales tax, a pool of money that grows more quickly than property taxes. 

Still, the sort of development that’s happening is consolidating large parcels of land into the hands of a small handful of owners, limiting the number of things to do in the downtown area.

So far in the eastern flank of the city’s downtown can be summed up as a big box store with oversized parking lot that displaced a multi-use trail; a drive-thru chicken tender restaurant; a bank with a parking lot that makes up 87 percent of the parcel; townhome apartments; and car dealerships and storage yards.

Moving west, developers have shown renewed interest in capitalizing on the popularity of the breweries, distilleries and restaurants that have settled closer to West Temple, and a pipeline is building for a rush of new multi-family housing.

The MOU is in place for no more than a year, but it also has a 30-day backout clause allowing either party to walk away from the deal by July 15.

So we’ll know by next June whether yet another car dealership near the center of downtown is what’s missing from South Salt Lake.

Or the city could change its mind in the next three weeks.

Email Taylor Anderson

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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.