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Editorial: Salt Lake City should make deals on downtown development rules

Published January 7, 2014 1:34 pm

Compromise on fees and rules
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ever since the first municipal authority decided that having indoor plumbing was a requirement for getting a building permit — or ever since the first municipal authority decided to require a building permit — there have been builders who cried out that evil government interference in the marketplace was going to kill the construction business.

At the same time, the ability to pay for public infrastructure and amenities without raising taxes, by placing fees and other requirements on developers, is a temptation that few city governments can resist.

Casualties of that eternal battle are apparently evident in downtown Salt Lake City. That is where a few high-profile buildings stand vacant and in varying states of decay, even as City Creek Center and other gleaming new projects go up around them.

And that is where Mayor Ralph Becker, upon the arrival of three new council members, is correctly seeking a compromise.

Owners and would-be developers blame the city's demolition rules and impact fees for their unpleasant inertia. Members of the City Council and planning staff counter that, without those very rules and fees, short-term thinking from developers will hobble the neighborhood's resurgence.

As outlined in a report in Sunday's Tribune, developers are upset not only with impact fees that soared at the beginning of 2013 but also with the requirement that no buildings can be razed unless the owner has an approved building permit in hand for that structure's replacement.

City officials not only want the money for roads, green space and other things that are of particular benefit to the very properties that are assessed for them, but they also want to discourage the proliferation of vacant lots or parking lots, which make the whole area less attractive.

The one-time development fees — for example, $4,408 per unit for a new downtown apartment building — are on the low end of such things nationally. But they are a big hike over the average of some $1,600 that was the going rate before, and well above such fees charged in other large Utah cities.

And the insistence that no building be torn down without a firm plan to replace it is a hangover from the unpleasant "Sugar Hole" experience. That's where a funky and thriving block of businesses was demolished to make room for a multi-use project that stalled for four years.

City Council actions setting those fees and rules were unquestionably well-intentioned, but offering some compromises, as Becker is proposing, would lead to better results.