Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Land has become a premium in Salt Lake City as Utah's capital continues to grow vertically to meet the state's growing population.
That's why city officials are eager to transform the mostly-abandoned "Fleet Block" property within the city's Granary District into something more useful, because it's one of the few city-owned areas with room to change. Owning the land matters because it also allows the city the ability to control how the space is redeveloped, says Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.
"There is not another piece of land like it," she said, explaining the block's development potential.
Having a say is particularly important in this case because the block, while vacant for over a decade, went from an afterthought to the center of complex social injustice conversions over the past few years. It altered how the city viewed the space.
The block, an 8.75-acre section of land between 800 South and 900 South, and 300 West and 400 West, used to house the city's vehicle fleet but the city moved its fleet operations to another part of the city in 2010. City officials started the process to rezone the land in 2019, but the original plans were derailed the following year.
It then became a center of attention after the police killing of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal in May 2020, which happened near the property. Salt Lake County prosecutors later ruled that the shooting was justified; however, the property's structures became a place for community expression, featuring large murals that depict people who died from police shootings in Utah and across the country over the past few years.
When city officials returned to the rezoning discussions in late 2020, they agreed that its new use complicated how they would proceed with the space. It also transformed what they had in mind for the space, Mendenhall said.
Prior to 2020, she believed it would essentially become an extension of downtown, which is the case for many properties in and around the Granary District. Now, she says it's a "sacred space" for many residents, which means the city is trying to be careful with how it's developed.
That's why the city currently suggests there should be a public gathering space, as well as development that addresses various forms of inequality. These include affordable housing and park space, which also fit a growing need in the city.
The block may also include electric vehicle charging stations along the city's east-west corridor, which fits in more of the city's growing needs.
While members of the Salt Lake City Council are supportive of how to rezone the land, they still aren't sure about what should be built on it or other key details just yet.
A 'hypothetical' plan for the block
The project calls for a Form-Based Urban Neighborhood 3, which would pave the way for a wide variety of uses, including residential, retail or office space, and some "light industrial activities," according to the city. It's the same rezone first proposed in 2019.
The land was valued at $37.5 million earlier this year before remediation costs, which are yet to be determined.
Members of the Salt Lake City Department of Community and Neighborhoods presented a "hypothetical development plan" to the City Council last week, which offers ideas for how the block might be specifically used. Tammy Hunsaker, the department's deputy director, explained during a briefing with the council that the department wants input from city leaders before going to work on more definite plans.
The possible design shows the block divided into four parcels, including three development parcels totaling 4.1 acres of development space and 3.6 acres of park or another form of open space. The developments suggested could be affordable housing or commercial space, or development that is "more accessible to an inclusive group of partners," a department document presented to the council notes.
The open space would meet the city's 20-year parks and public lands master plan, which was passed earlier this year, Hunsaker added. The space is set to receive $6 million in funds within the next 20 years from an $85 million bond that residents approved in this month's election.
The parcels of land could be divided by walkable streets. Hunsaker advised the council members that they should approve any plans for walkable streets before seeking requests from contractors if they go that route. Setting aside mid-block walkways would help developers know how much land they are working with in the future.
Tying in the block's current use
The way the block is currently being used will likely tie into the plans, too.
While the murals have sparked differing opinions over the past two years, city officials say they symbolize how the block is already being reused. And during last week's meeting, Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler contended that if the project abides by the city's parks master plan, it should also take into account the "robust and sincere public engagement" regarding racial injustice over the past two years.
"We recognize that this was the area that started sort of started all of this," she said, adding that she believes city leaders will "lose our credibility of who we are as trying to engage" if they alter the murals or their placement too much.
One component of the "hypothetical" plan includes the possibility of keeping the first mural, one of George Floyd, on the block. That idea ran into some concern from Kara Cope. While supportive of the murals, she told the council that the city should ask for permission from families before using any names.
"You best not use your judgment and go ahead and use something without actually talking to the people that this is going to represent," she said, during a public comment portion of the City Council's formal meeting last week.
Blake Thomas, director of the Salt Lake City Department of Community and Neighborhoods, explained that Salt Lake City administrators conducted public outreach for about a year, and also spoke with the families of the people who are depicted in the murals, an effort led by Ashley Cleveland, deputy director of community outreach within the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office.
The input went to the Department of Community and Neighborhoods as it crafts its plan for the block.
"It ultimately led to a letter of recommendation about the future use of the block, recognizing the need for the block to evolve and to demolish unsafe buildings while acknowledging the historical role that systemic racism has played in the development of our city, in the ways that racial injustices have limited opportunities for marginalized communities," he said. "(It includes) a commitment that the future of the block delivers on equity and inclusion, as a primary consideration."
Rae Duckworth, who leads Black Lives Matter Utah and whose cousin is included in the series of murals, commended Cleveland's communication with families regarding the future of the block.
The steps moving forward
These issues aren't the only considerations that the department will contemplate before coming up with a more concrete plan.
Thomas is excited about the project, which figures to be yet another boost to the Granary District as it transforms from a mostly industrial past to a "mix of uses." But the district's growth could cause other planning constraints in the future.
The placement of the park or public open space on the block, for example, may be vital because state code states there must be a 200-to-600-foot buffer from bars and restaurants in an area. Hunsaker said current bars and restaurants in the area would be grandfathered in and not impacted by a new park, but it could hinder future projects near the block.
All of the discussions seemed to offer ideas for planners to consider in the future.
While there's still no consensus over the exact future of the block, city leaders indicated that they believe the plans are on the right track. Following both meetings, Mendenhall said that there will be plenty of community feedback given to developers before shovels are driven in the ground.
"It's important to us ... that we be able to maintain the character (of the space)," she said, "and hopefully mitigate gentrification forces that the opportunities overlay, which encompasses the entire Granary District."