Station Center latest: rebranding, upzoning, and a heavy curation of land uses

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The city’s Redevelopment Agency Board received a sneak peek earlier this week at the city’s consultant’s plan for the city’s ~11 acres in west Downtown’s Depot-Gateway district.

300 South and 600 West is currently the site of the city’s Temporary (Micro) Shelter Community, heated sheds for 50 people previously experiencing homelessness. The camp is scheduled to open this month—”hopefully this week” according to the latest city council briefings.

Sitting between UTA’s out of the way Central Station on 600 West and the historic Rio Grande Depot at 450 West, the Station Center two-block project has been on and off the boil for over a decade, and dates to Ralph Becker’s first term in office (2008-2012).

A partnership with the University of Utah (which owns 1.89 acres in Station Center’s boundaries) for a health sciences and innovation hub has come and gone.

This time around, the latest consultants are putting the finishing touches on a new “vision and implementation” plan that is promised by the end of the year.

Here’s our preview of some of the latest revisions.

The name

At Tuesday’s meeting several board members informed RDA staff that the name “Station Center” might not be the best brand moving forward.

District 3’s Chris Wharton suggested adding “Rio Grande” to Station Center. Several other council members also voiced discontent with the current name, at which point Mayor Mendenhall, a former city council- and RDA board member, jumped in.

“I’d just like to state on the record that I don’t like the name Station Center, I’ve never liked it. Let’s change the name.”

Staff mentioned that they had given the task of renaming Station Center to AI, with unappreciable results.

300 South – designed to fail?

Not much change here. What was called a “festival street” in past iterations is now being described as “a shared street, where cars are allowed, but pedestrians and gathering spaces are prioritized.”

RDA staff described narrowing the right-of-way, “aiming to create complete streets with wide sidewalks, tree canopy, lighting, and furnishings.”

Yet as they noted the “option to close it for events,” staff unintentionally conveyed the true design priorities of the street, where pedestrians are not prioritized, despite the city’s rhetoric. “Close the street” means close it to cars – revealing which users are being prioritized on a daily basis by designers and planners.

Face it: pedestrians aren’t actually prioritized if cars, which kill pedestrians in the street (and sometimes on the sidewalk), are routinely allowed in the right-of-way. Cars, especially fast ones, chase other users away.

Aerial rendering of 300 S from 2020. Notice how courteous the cars are. You know, it will be like driving on a plaza, sure to attract pedestrians.

The city’s pedestrian-priority language is aspirational, to be fair. But it’s also guilty of magical thinking to believe that pedestrians will flock to streets where cars are allowed. It’s also bad public policy, because such “complete streets” are designed to fail for all users except drivers of cars.

Parking

The site plan proposals last presented to city decision makers in September included three parking structures. Current concepts call for only one, on 400 South.

Image courtesy SLC RDA.

RDA staff drew attention to the proposed “very progressive parking ratios” in the area that would free developers from over-parking their developments in what is the most transit-rich neighborhood in the state.

Depending on the size of the city’s parking structure on 400 South, developers preferably will be able to forgo building their own parking and instead lease stalls from the city.

Arts campus

A design concept that has grown in the latest vision is an “arts campus,” adjacent and parallel to 500 West along Woodbine Court, which winds around ArtSpace’s Macaroni Flats.

Part of the city’s Green Loop plan, 500 West is proposed to be turned into a linear park that allows cars in conjunction with the development of the erstwhile Station Center.

Image courtesy SLC RDA.

From the Macaroni Flats building on the north to the yet-to-be restored Serta warehouse building on the south, designers have created a plaza that will be lined with “art installations, flex space for events, ground floor programming, and incubator and makers’ space for micro enterprises, artists, and artisans,” stated RDA staff.

RDA as master developer, curator, administrator

“We have a rate opportunity,” RDA staff told the board, “to be in the driver’s seat to plan and curate a significant amount of downtown land into a living, breathing neighborhood that is intentionally programmed and activated for 18 hours a day.”

While that aspiration has been hanging in the air for Station Center for years, it’s only in this iteration that the RDA is proposing to act as master developer itself.

Under the new plan, the RDA will retain ownership of its land (offering long-term ground leases to developers), build public infrastructure, manage the programming of spaces, and curate the end-users.

Such comprehensive functions have never been undertaken by the city’s Redevelopment Agency at such a scale. While likely to sub-contract the programming of spaces and tenant selection, decision makers at city hall will be setting specific guidelines and expectations for those key management functions.

Much of the briefing was focused on funding options for phase one of the project, construction new infrastructure, including new streets, street reconstruction, utilities (sewer, water, electrical), public spaces, and yes, a giant parking garage.

Staff noted that unlike in past RDA projects, land sales would not be helping cover infrastructure improvement costs.

Will development partners be enticed by the plan?

With such a highly-detailed plan (which even locates specific land uses), how does the city expect to attract developers? The programming of buildings—what goes in them and at what size—is highly dependent on market conditions. Those frequently clash with public priorities like ground floor activation, affordable housing, design quality, and larger-family size units.

What makes the RDA think that developers will be attracted to the priorities of this plan when investors have stayed away from Station Center for 13 years, even during recent boom times?

RDA leadership did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

But their consultants most certainly have included potential developers as stakeholders in this latest visioning process. Without knowing what was said, what might we guess?

It seems there’s money to be saved and value to be added.

First, infrastructure upgrades, usually shouldered by developers, will be paid for by the city.

How much will developers save by the city paying for new sewer, water, and electric lines? Enough to neutralize the significant disincentives created by the RDA’s heavy curation of land uses and programming?

Second, the gorilla in front of us is the value-add through upzoning. Plans call for a radical upzone, allowing Downtown heights of 400 feet or more. Under current zoning (G-MU), heights must be between 75 and 180 feet.

Image courtesy SLC RDA.

The city is currently stating that it will retain ownership of land and offer long-term leases to developers.

Although not confirmed by RDA leadership, the value-add to developers of D-1 heights in the Depot/Gateway District must be in the incentive formula.

It will likely require a masterplan rewrite for the area, a two-year process at the quickest. Which means we shouldn’t expect much to happen in the near term.

The City finding funding for its phase one infrastructure projects, currently projected at $60 million, is also an impediment to change anytime soon–in the erstwhile-named Station Center.

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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.