Assuming it goes ahead, the development in Salt Lake City known as Block 67 will be big by any definition.
But heading into 2019, two vital questions remain unanswered: Will Salt Lake City seal a complicated deal to give the developer $15 million to help build a huge underground parking garage? And what will happen to Japantown?
Developers at The Ritchie Group, based in Salt Lake City, are pushing plans for a cluster of four towers as part of a major mixed-use and hotel development on the block bounded by 100 South and 200 South from 200 West to 300 West, part of which is known now as Royal Wood Plaza.
The Block 67 development, which The Ritchie Group is calling The West Quarter, would include more than 650 residential units, two hotels, an office tower, retail outlets, a tree-lined street cutting through the block and an underground parking garage with more than 1,000 stalls. The city has already approved zoning changes on the 6.45-acre site that could allow some of those buildings to rise as high as any in Utah’s capital for what would be a massive presence on the skyline.
On top of benefiting the economy, planners say the project centered at 230 W. 200 South has the attractive potential to more closely tie the city’s business core with an emerging entertainment district centered on The Gateway and Vivint Smart Home Arena, effectively pushing downtown westward.
The developer agrees.
“We truly see this as developing a new section of town — and we’re thrilled about it,” said Ryan Ritchie, a leading partner in The Ritchie Group.
Losing a legacy?
But the blocklong stretch of 100 South just west of the Salt Palace Convention Center is home to the Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, last remnants of what was once a thriving hub of stores, markets, eateries and social halls catering to Japanese immigrants.
In public meetings since midsummer, representatives from Utah’s wider Asian community have implored the city to intervene and protect the ethnic neighborhood’s historic legacy, which they say is in jeopardy of being smothered “on the backside” of The West Quarter project.
In response, elected leaders in Salt Lake City are sending strong signals they want a place carved out for Japantown.
A city-hired mediator convened what were reportedly breakthrough meetings in October, and there are now signs of an amicable tone in ongoing talks among the city, the developer, the Japanese community and others.
State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, one of several prominent Utahns of Japanese descent campaigning to preserve Japantown’s legacy, said the mediator had put negotiations on a better footing.
“The city’s efforts have been positive and our community is appreciative,” Iwamoto said.
“There has been a real attempt to make a new starting point, a new beginning,” she said, though she added there remained several “troublesome” aspects to the project’s proposed design of Block 67.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler at one point said the mediation process had been “incredibly important to moving forward in a positive way.”
‘A seat at the table’
Ryan Ritchie said in an interview he had “been flying blind on the issue” of Japantown when the firm first began pursuing the project in mid-2017. “This has been a learning curve for us."
The developer praised the mediator’s work and resulting creation of a city working group assigned to figure out what a presence for Japantown might look like. That group is scheduled to start talks in early 2019.
“It’s a perspective I never had,” Ritchie said of learning of the Utah Japanese community’s desires. “They have a seat at the table.”
The developer, for now, has put up $1 million toward Japantown’s future and some of the initial ideas floated include creation of a grand entrance or a park honoring that rich heritage.
The Ritchie Group is also offering to alter its design of The West Quarter to tie in a smaller parking lot owned by the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, open pedestrian flow on 100 South, and help revitalize a series of community festivals held yearly on that one-block stretch.
“We want this to be integrated,” Ritchie said.
For its part, the City Council altered its budget in late November to spend $100,000 on “place-making” for the immigrant enclave, in hopes the working group “will collaboratively articulate a vision for Salt Lake City’s Japantown.”
Council members have formally asked Mayor Jackie Biskupski to begin the process of altering the city’s master plan to lock in a desire that the site’s cultural heritage be preserved. And at its last meeting of 2018, the City Council unanimously adopted a resolution heralding the importance of honoring Japantown’s distinct history.
A $15 million question
Yet more crucially, through its Redevelopment Agency (RDA), the city has agreed to The Ritchie Group’s request to explore creating what’s called a new community reinvestment area covering Block 67. Through a mechanism established by the Utah Legislature, the reinvestment area could essentially free up $15 million for the parking garage in exchange for a share of the paid parking spaces being available to the public.
The RDA would then pay back those funds over time, according to city documents, with money drawn from new property tax revenues generated by The West Quarter project.
City officials made The Ritchie Group’s participation in talks with the Japanese community and other property owners on the block a major condition to approving the community reinvestment area. The RDA also commissioned a financial-benefits study and is said to be using it as a basis for talks with the developer on whether the district should be created.
In turn, the developer says a deal approving the community reinvestment area and the parking garage is crucial to what it can do on Japantown.
“If the public assistance goes away,” Ritchie said, “our ability to throw $1 million at a charitable cause is hampered.”
Though she acknowledged talks are continuing, outgoing City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said she believed the city had a greater likelihood of getting what it wanted — respect and recognition for Japantown — by creating the investment area.
“That gives us leverage on this cause,” Mendenhall said.