University of Utah plans major revamp of research park on Foothill Drive, adding lots of housing

The University of Utah is planning a major transformation of its research park along Foothill Drive, aimed at making it a more walkable and residentially focused area with better access to the school’s main campus.

The Salt Lake City school’s latest vision, in the works since early 2019, includes new offices and laboratories spread across the Wasatch foothills site, with lots of new housing, a hotel, retail spaces and community gathering spots — all served by expanded transit and parking options designed to reduce automobile traffic.

The new master plan also imagines as many as 8,550 new apartments and town homes built in the park over the next two decades, much of it clustered on its southern end.

“We’ve had it confirmed that Research Park can be seen as an ideal residential location,” said Jonathon Bates, executive director of the U.’s Department of Real Estate Administration. “People and businesses want to be next to the university.”

The master plan, set for formal adoption by the U. this fall, also has a distinctly ecological theme.

The document calls for major restorations of natural habitats along Red Butte Creek, daylighting a spring-fed creek that flows beneath the park, threading the entire site with new tree-lined streets and putting a substantial green space at the park’s core.

“We really see ecology and sustainability as our calling card,” Bates said.

He and other U. officials presented details on the park’s new master plan Tuesday to the Salt Lake City Council, which is exploring creation of a special taxing district for the site to help foster its development.

The council, in its role overseeing the city’s Redevelopment Agency, voted in January to study creating what is now known as a community reinvestment area spanning the park. That would allow a share of new taxes generated by the project to be plowed into an expansion.

One of two sites like it in Utah — the other is at Utah State University in Logan — U. Research Park is currently home to about 50 companies and offices for nearly 80 university departments, with a total of about 13,500 employees.

Documents offered Tuesday indicate the park’s expansion would unfold in three main phases over 20 years, in tandem with improvements to its street grid and significant extensions of mass transit lines serving at the park and the U. campus.

The plan, in fact, sees both the campus and the research park as “a major high-capacity transit hub for the region.”

But a big challenge, U. and city officials seem to agree, is how to handle Foothill Drive, the heavily trafficked six-lane highway splitting the research park from city neighborhoods to its southwest.

Councilman Dan Dugan, whose District Six spans the U. campus and the park, warned of the need to address traffic bottlenecks for those commuting through the area. And in light of the barrier Foothill Drive creates, Councilman Andrew Johnston openly worried about “having a beautiful place that’s really cut off from the rest of the city.”

Andrew King, associate director for campus planning, said U. officials are debating the option of a mid-block bridge or tunnel spanning Foothill Drive for pedestrian and bike access and connecting the park with an area known as West Village, south of the main campus.

“It’s been challenging to think about how we can make Foothill a more inviting, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare,” Bates acknowledged.

Coming 50 years since the U. Research Park was first created through a federal land grant, its new master plan also has a strong commercial component.

U. officials hope that by expanding high-density housing in the park and making it a more attractive place to live and work close to campus, downtown and outdoor recreation, they can create a more productive place for the site’s businesses and innovators.

In turn, the U.’s research strengths and the businesses it spins off to the private sector in information technology, life sciences, education and finance will feed into growth for Utah’s capital city, according to documents filed at City Hall.

“The university and the community, I think, both agree that we've had an amazing economic development opportunity handed to us and we seek to expand this opportunity over the next 50 years,” Bates told the council.

The master plan devotes considerable attention to creating what it calls social corridors and hubs in the park to foster productive contacts between folks in private industry and academia — including a substantial Convergence Hall at the “front door” of the site where they might gather in cafes, restaurants and shared working spaces.

The plan’s market studies have identified “high, immediate interest” among area developers in building housing at the site, U. documents indicate, with demand for construction of as many as 7,600 new apartments and 950 town home rentals over the next 20 years.

Along with workers for the park’s business tenants, the new housing — with a critical mass near the intersection of Foothill Drive and East Sunnyside Avenue — would also serve students, faculty and employees from the U.’s health system, according to school officials.

The proposed development would happen primarily on what are now surface parking lots within the park, Bates said.

The plan calls for replacing those with four parking garages carefully managed by their users, said Bates, in an effort to “revolutionize” the U.’s overall approach to parking and reduce the need for car trips.

Work in the park over the next five years, he said, would focus on overhauling the intersection at Wakara Way and Chipeta Way, bringing portions of a stream under Colorow Road to the surface and redeveloping two commercial properties nearby.

The project’s second phase, between five and 10 years from now, will involve the U. taking “a very aggressive approach” to improving bus and TRAX access to the park and connecting it better to the main campus and the U.’s health services buildings.

This phase would also see improving natural connections between Red Butte Creek on the park’s western boundary with Matheson Nature Preserve and This is The Place Heritage park to its east.

Final phases between 2030 and 2040 would bring the creation of at least three so-called “campus mobility hubs” that tie together different ways of getting around, to be built along high-capacity bus line extensions reaching inside the park.

The U. has no firm longterm commitments as of yet from the Utah Transit Authority on those expanded service routes. But officials are still setting aside land and rights-of-way for new transit lines, Bates said, “to ensure that we have the flexibility to embrace this potential in the longterm.”