SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Council is still weighing the fate of five historic homes in the city that would be demolished under a proposal for a new townhome complex following a public comment meeting Tuesday.
The council approved the motion to make a rezoning decision within the area of Lincoln Street (950 East) and 200 South to a future date, following about an hour of public feedback during the meeting. A spokesperson for the city said the final decision on the entire proposal could be made as early as the council's next meeting, which is scheduled for later this month.
Meanwhile, a representative of the group proposing the project told the council they would likely tear down the homes and rebuild new homes in the area if the council decides to not amend the zoning of the land.
The project caught the eye of residents and preservation groups because it called for the demolition of five homes within the Salt Lake City East Side Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Four of the five homes were constructed in the 1890s.
The register designation acknowledges the homes' historic value but doesn't offer protection, which means that the homes could be torn down if approved.
Chiao-ih Hui, a representative for the group seeking the zoning amendments, provided an update to the council about the proposed townhome project that would replace the homes. She said the project would add 10 new units to the area from nine current units. Nearly one-third of those units would be set aside for affordable housing, which she said would diversify the affordable options in the area.
Residents and preservation experts, on the other hand, argued that it was wasteful of the historic buildings or that the proposed project went against the city's master plan for the area. A majority of those who provided feedback Tuesday opposed the project.
"While I understand the anxiety over housing, and of course affordable housing, I'm curious about the willingness to so radically change the character of historic neighborhoods. This is our community," said resident Katharine Biele. "I see highrise, multi-use construction throughout the city. This is inevitable but it's spreading malignantly into neighborhoods that offer affordable housing and a sense of shared community. These are five structures that would be lost along with the heritage they represent."
Kelsey Maas, the associate director of Preservation Utah and a resident of the central city neighborhood, told the council that homeowners would be eligible for state and federal tax credits that could absorb upwards of 40% of the costs to rehab the homes.
"Since moving to Salt Lake, all I hear about is the housing crisis — yet, I'm alarmed about the amount of decisions that incentivize the demolition of naturally occurring affordable housing, which is typically also historic, for fast developments that will only offer more expensive options and typically only for rent," she added. "Creating more housing units that are more expensive while destroying the charm of Salt Lake simply is not sustainable for the long term."
But it appears the current property owners are set on demolishing the homes. Hui told the council the group would likely rebuild five homes if the city council decides to decline the rezoning proposal needed for the townhome project.
"Ultimately, the houses on our parcels are old and inefficient. And if we don't receive the rezone approval because of the inefficiencies and higher maintenance costs, we do have plans to demolish and rebuild five units for the luxury rental market," she said.
That struck a nerve with resident and sustainability expert Jen Colby, who called the group's plan to demolish the buildings regardless "rather blackmailish." She said every home lost threatens the area's ability to retain historic status and could even lead to the loss of tax credits for maintaining historic homes.
The plan to rebuild with five new homes, however, seemed to be the most acceptable option for those who opposed the plan to tear down the buildings.
"We're not OK with it, but we'll deal with it," Colby told the council. "But I just wanted to speak up and say we all value preservation and the structure of our neighborhoods. … It may be a bluff, it may not be a bluff. We'll deal with it either way."
The city council also accepted public comments on three other rezoning proposals in other parts of the city for larger developments. The entire meeting led to continued discussions regarding "new versus old" decisions.
There was a study published by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last month that found that single-family homes closer to new apartment complexes in Salt Lake County increased in value slightly faster over the past decade than homes in the county farther away from the complexes. That study was referenced a few times throughout the 2 ½ hour meeting as an example of the benefits of new development.
Meanwhile, those in favor of preservation pointed to the environmental benefits of preserving older buildings. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency states new green and energy-efficient office buildings made up of 40% recycled materials "would nevertheless take approximately 65 years to recover the energy lost in demolishing a comparable existing building."
The next city council meeting is slated for March 16, where decisions could be made on the proposals discussed Tuesday.