Salt Lake City braces for traffic problems as five skyscrapers rise amid a wave of downtown construction

If you drive in the heart of Salt Lake City, the downtown building boom is about to get very real.

Denizens of Utah’s capital face the combined traffic impacts of at least six huge construction projects expected to get underway simultaneously in 2020 — five skyscrapers along a six-block stretch of State Street and 200 South and the once-in-a-lifetime renovation of the Salt Lake Temple on Temple Square.

Work on those new and refreshed landmarks on the city’s skyline will rise at the same time that dozens of smaller apartment complexes and commercial buildings are going up across the wider downtown area.

City crews, meanwhile, will also embark on several major street repairs as part of a $87 million road reconstruction bond approved in November — including upgrades to 200 South from downtown eastward to the University of Utah.

“Fourteen cranes over the city on six different projects,” said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, an arm of the Salt Lake Chamber. “There are lots of moving parts here."

Salt Lake City traffic planners and chamber business leaders are focused on detailed and constantly evolving plans to manage the intermittent lane closures and spates of heavy truck traffic along many of the city’s go-to thoroughfares.

Pedestrians, bicyclists, e-scooter riders and other street travelers will also be dealing with covered sidewalks, fencing and temporary diversions for safety reasons.

Some congestion and inconvenience will be inevitable in light of the unprecedented surge in commercial development in Salt Lake City as the state’s population continues to grow and downtown gains new residents.

“The important thing for people to know is that we’re aware of it and we’re coordinating it,” said the city’s transportation director, Jon Larsen.

Dozens of city experts, developers, construction managers and officials with the Utah Transit Authority are meeting regularly on ways to minimize bottlenecks and set up alternate UTA bus routes around construction sites.

There are plans for traffic signs to help drivers cope and for regular updates online. Officials are also offering early advice to the nearly 200,000 drivers who flow in and out of the city each day. They’ll need to be patient and, at times, creative.

Key messages are: Use TRAX and FrontRunner more often, plan alternative routes and parking spots well ahead of time, and stay up-to-date via various media outlets.

There are worries, nonetheless, that hassles of navigating cramped downtown streets could lead some to steer elsewhere.

“We want the millions of people that visit, shop, dine, play and work downtown to continue to enjoy the vibrancy, art and experiences that can only be found downtown,” said Brewer.

The alliance is in something of a lead role, officials said, with a full-time construction ombudsman on staff to coordinate among building site managers, the city’s experts and businesses and residents near construction sites.

The business group is also adding a construction and development page at its website, downtownslc.org

Officials at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are already warning motorists and pedestrians to expect occasional lane closures westbound on North Temple between State Street and West Temple, as drilling between now and February presages what will be four years of work overhauling the 126-year-old temple.

Church officials announced the iconic temple’s closure last April for a historic seismic retrofit, replacement of several adjoining buildings and a face-lift for a nearby plaza and other portions of Temple Square.

“Throughout this entire project, we will do all [what] we can to limit traffic or other disruptions,” a spokesman with the church’s Public Affairs Department said.

“We want to be good neighbors,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff wrote via email. “Our community wants to be part of this project and while this may be uncomfortable for some of us at times, we will do all we can to limit and communicate about disruptions.”

Parts of West Temple and South Temple near that project will be closed temporarily for utility work, as will some of the sidewalks around Temple Square, Woodruff said.

Regular updates on the temple project will be posted online at TempleSquare.org

Church officials also plan to set up several viewing areas around Temple Square where the public can observe construction.

Just two blocks away, officials broke ground Jan. 3 on what will be a new $377 million, 25-story Hyatt Regency convention hotel, built atop the Salt Palace at the key crossroads of 200 South and West Temple. It’s thought much of that work will happen on the Salt Palace footprint and not spill into the street, requiring fewer lane closures.

But between that project and another high-rise development going up one block west in what is known as The West Quarter at 300 West and 200 South, congestion could get hairy on those blocks at times, forcing drivers onto adjacent east-west streets sporadically over the next three years, officials said.

For a sense of magnitude when thinking of the skyscraper construction, Larsen pointed to the week after Thanksgiving, when what seemed like an unending parade of mixers poured tons and tons of concrete for a new office tower known as 95 State at City Creek, just west of Harmons Grocery — City Creek.

“It was insane,” he said of the impressive scale. “There were just hundreds of concrete trucks flowing through there in like a 36-hour period.”

Multiply that several-fold and you get a picture of potential traffic peaks from now until mid-2023 or beyond.

95 State at City Creek, being built by City Creek Reserve, a real estate development firm owned by the LDS Church, is one of three skyscrapers now being pursued within a three-block stretch of State Street between South Temple and 300 South — with potential to aggravate future headaches on that north-south route through downtown.

Utah-based developers Cowboy Partners and The Boyer Co., are building a luxury 24-story residential skyscraper known as Liberty Sky, at 151 S. State St.

To the south of Liberty Sky, Chicago-based developer Brinshore is putting up two adjoining residential towers at 255 S. State St. in a project backed by the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

As if that’s not enough, at least two more residential skyscrapers — both potentially exceeding 25 stories — are in the early planning stages in the same general neighborhood.

One is proposed at 200 South and State, tentatively to be called Kensington Tower, and another is being pursued by the global development firm Hines on the site of the dilapidated Utah Theater, at 144 S. Main.

Though neither of those towers has a firm construction schedule yet, either or both could conceivably start within the next three year, judging from city documents.

Though the new decade’s downtown building rush is unprecedented, officials say they’ve seen the transportation piece coming.

Using information that developers are required to submit to obtain their demolition and building permits, Larsen said, traffic managers are coordinating street signals and staggering any closures, limiting them to one lane at a time.

They’re also spreading truck hauling over the city’s chief routes for getting excavated materials, equipment and building supplies in and out of the downtown area.

The city will bar any lane closures during peak holiday shopping and downtown sightseeing between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Thanks to early LDS Church leader Brigham Young and other urban planners, Salt Lake City’s latticed street network provides a variety of alternative routes to most city locales. There’s mass transit to boot.

“We have a really good street grid,” Larsen said. “We have the best multimodal network and the best well-connected street grid in the state. So there’s a lot of options for people to still get around.”

In downtown’s looming tsunami of orange barriers, patience and advance planning will come in handy, too.