‘Next great expansion’ of Salt Lake City’s downtown could help beautify its blighted entrance and exit from I-15

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) A colorful sign alludes to things to come as developers plan to remake a 12.4-acre area just west of downtown Salt Lake City. The development, called Post District, is mostly comprised of the block between 300 and 400 West and 500 and 600 South. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

In what backers call the “next great expansion” of Salt Lake City’s downtown, an entire urban neighborhood is set to rise a block south of Pioneer Park on what is now an ugly spread of run-down properties that many Utah motorists glance over daily.

Developers plan to build a nearly 13-acre residential and commercial project along sections of the city’s main entry and exit from Interstate 15, on land located around 500 South and 600 South between 300 West and 400 West.

To be known as the Post District, the development would replace or refurbish a half-dozen or so unsightly, graffiti-covered cinder-block buildings and a sea of cracked pavement covering nearly all the full city block known as the NAC lot, as well as the A&Z Produce building to its north with an adjoining parking lot and other parcels.

The district is anticipated to add as many as 500 apartments and town homes, large office spaces, shops, new trees, a parking garage and a pedestrian-centered plaza to the city’s central business district, in phases constructed over the next three years or more.

“The overall size and scale we have here will allow us to really create a neighborhood,” said Alex Lowe, a principal in Salt Lake City-based Lowe Property Group, one of four companies partnering in the project.

Developers are readying plans to overhaul a 12.4-acre site on the western edge of Salt Lake City's downtown.

The development’s name is said to be a nod to the site’s history as a logistics center for the Newspaper Agency Corp., or NAC, the company now known as Utah Media Group, which has printed and distributed copies of The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News since the mid-1950s.

Though still preliminary, plans for the Post District call for a variety of building heights, housing types and architectural styles to produce what Lowe called “a mix of designs and ideas. We’re definitely going for a pretty stark difference from a lot of the stuff we’ve seen.”

The project also could advance long-held goals for beautifying the two heavily trafficked corridors into and out of the capital from I-15, which city planning documents envision as grand boulevards someday reaching from the highway well into the downtown area.

Initial designs for the new district call for blocklong folds of trees and pleasing streetscapes along those high-visibility stretches of both 500 South and 600 South, including an open plaza and architecturally unique residential tower visible to vehicles coming off the highway. City and business leaders welcome that aspect of the development in particular.

“What I’m most excited about is to see the potential for a view of the vibrant urban center that Salt Lake City is, without having to get through that barrier until they can see that,” said Derek Miller, CEO and president of the Salt Lake Chamber, which oversees the city’s Downtown Alliance.

Small and colorful billboards saying “Something’s Coming” and “Unwind Love SLC” recently cropped up on the properties along the 500 South I-15 on-ramp, teasing the project to vehicles driving by.

The area falls within what the city’s Downtown Master Plan labels as its Grand Boulevard District, running along 500 South and 600 South from approximately 600 West to just east of 200 East. Planning standards for the district — which, according to city documents, is meant to welcome visitors on a grand scale — call for the use of midrise buildings, entrance monuments, iconic lighting and large street trees.

Descriptions of the district also call for, as one put it, “reducing the number of large signs that visually conflict with the concept of a grand gateway.”

The NAC side of the 12.4-acre Post District site, meanwhile, is punctuated by six multistory billboards that are grandfathered under state code. Preliminary sketches of the district place some of those billboards on the sides and tops of newly constructed and revamped buildings, instead of standing alone on immense steel pillars as they are now.

As it pushes Salt Lake City’s downtown core farther to the south and west, the Post District will focus heavily on adaptive reuse. The idea, developers said, is to give a new life to aging yet unique industrial buildings used for generations as transfer hubs for locally grown produce and huge rolls of newsprint.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The old NAC building on 500 South will be part of a 12.4-acre area just west of downtown Salt Lake City. The development, called Post District, is mostly comprised of the block between 300 and 400 West and 500 and 600 South. Photographed on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019.

Freshly constructed apartment, retail and office spaces would go up on the eastern side of the district, facing 300 West. Nearly all the structures located west of the midblock Gale Street — including the A&Z Produce building, a vacant NAC docking and storage structure and adjoining outbuildings — will be renovated and converted into new homes, workspaces and retail outlets.

“Any building that has good bones," Alex Lowe said, “we’re trying to keep if they have character.”

Early details on the Post District emerge as Salt Lake City is seeing an upswing in commercial and residential construction in its downtown core, including as many as seven new skyscrapers and up to a dozen apartment complexes. Miller and others said the project is likely to accelerate additional development farther west, into the blocks of disused industrial and warehousing lots known as the city’s Granary District.

Developers and investors behind the Post District have been drawn to the NAC and A&Z locations precisely because they are dilapidated urban patches next to freeway ramps.

“This area is so ripe to finally turn and be changed and really add character to downtown, so it’s fun to be able to do it on such a big scale,” said Ben Lowe, brother to Alex Lowe and a fellow principal in Lowe Property Group.

Also part of the project are Jason and Ellen Winkler, Denver-based developers and founders of a company called Industry, which has led several highly successful redevelopments creating new shared office spaces in the once-struggling River North Art District in Denver.

A partner of the Winklers in Industry, Brandon Blaser, who helped assemble the land parcels that will go into the Post District, is also behind the development of a similar Industry coworking space in the Granary District. That 8.3-acre project, located at 600 South and 500 West, is turning an old silver foundry into modern office spaces.

“On almost every metric, Salt Lake City was the right choice,” Jason Winkler told a Denver business publication in 2018. “There are so many things happening in Denver that are happening here.”

As they were with “RiNo” and Denver’s regional airport, developers have been attracted to the Post District site by its relatively quick highway access to Salt Lake City International Airport, which is undergoing a $3.6 billion expansion.

The project’s chief capital partner, a firm called Bridge Investment Group, has invested heavily of late in real estate transactions involving what are called opportunity zones. These are special, low-income tracts of land across the U.S. created through President Donald Trump’s recent tax overhaul, meant to give wealthy and institutional investors in such neighborhoods substantial breaks on capital gains taxes.

The Post District site falls inside one of seven opportunity zones within Salt Lake City boundaries.

It’s unclear what investors have paid to secure the property for the Post District, which ranks among of the larger contiguous footprints amassed for a single urban core project in recent years. Salt Lake County property records assess the combined taxable value of the acreage and existing buildings at about $14.8 million in total, no doubt far less than their actual commercial value when taken together.

Though not fully visible to the public, initial phases of work on the Post District are well underway, with extensive exterior and interior renovations toward reusing the A&Z Produce building as a vintage coworking space, judging from city permitting documents.

The property adjoins the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, at 463 S. 400 West. A spokesman for the homeless-services provider said Friday the facility had no plans to move from that locale.

The A&Z Produce building’s core structure dates to 1909, according to county property records. It was renovated in the early 1970s and occupied by a family-run produce supplier, A&Z Produce Co., which at that time had just been taken over from one of its original owners, Cliff Clark, by his sons, Steve, Jay and Scott.

The company grew to be one of the largest independent wholesale produce suppliers in the Intermountain West, selling fruits and vegetables grown across the region. A&Z Produce left the site in 2016 after 45 years and relocated to North Salt Lake, according to Steve Clark.

“We had a lot of fond memories there,” Clark said of the old building, adding that it was primarily made of wood inside with a red brick exterior. That, he said, proved less suited to advancing food-safety practices and prompted their move to a state-of-the-art facility.

Buildings on the NAC lot went up in the 1940s and 1950s, property records say, with the most noticeable among them, the Newspaper Agency Corp. docking facility distinguished by its curved north-facing wall, built in 1965. That’ll be given a more appealing facade and its own interior overhaul, according to the Lowe brothers.

Veteran newspaper employees recall the facility, referred by some simply as “Gale Street,” being used for decades as a distribution point for newspaper delivery trucks that carried copies of The Tribune and News across the region. Mechanics repaired and repainted metal newspaper racks there and the site stored newsprint rolls for use at the Tribune-News printing presses, then located on Regent Street, behind The Tribune’s former home at 143 S. Main.

“It was an interesting place to work,” said Sylvia Hansen, a circulation manager stationed there as a driver in the mid- to late 1980s, when, she said, it was a neighborhood with frequent crime stories. “It’s gotten so different now.”

Those newspaper production functions were later consolidated at a new printing and distribution facility in West Valley City, built in 2005. The Tribune moved its offices to The Gateway, two blocks north of Pioneer Park, around the same time.