Salt Lake City’s Depot District sees building boom after homeless shelter is demolished

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City is pitching in to shore up the old Serta Mattress building, at right, after it sustained seismic damage in the March 2020 earthquake -- yet another sign of renewed interest in developing the area since the razing of The Road Home shelter in the adjacent neighborhood.

Salt Lake City’s bold plans five years ago to push its downtown westward into the Depot District all but fizzled. Now, those visions are gaining traction.

The run-down neighborhood is drawing new housing like never before, with several projects involving hundreds of town homes and apartments coming before City Hall for approval since January’s demolition of the massive homeless shelter run by The Road Home at 210 Rio Grande St.

City officials recently approved spending $865,000 for earthquake repairs to the historic Salt Lake Mattress Co. in the neighborhood, deeming the brick warehouse integral to its plans.

And the city narrowly missed “a unicorn opportunity” in recent months from one company interested in building a skyscraper at 600 West and 100 South to anchor a sizable commercial and residential project near the Salt Lake Central FrontRunner station.

While that high-rise proposal in The Gateway “came and went” with the whims of commercial real estate markets, one developer said, City Hall needs to be ready with the right zoning when a similar opportunity surfaces.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest from developers” in that portion of Utah’s capital, Redevelopment Agency Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz said. “And the market is definitely there to build in that area of the city.”

The disused blocks of former warehouse, rail yards and industrial properties are also being seen as a policy testing ground, sparking new debates on how much parking is needed, how tall skyscrapers should be and how the city should treat historic buildings.

City officials are referring to the area as the latest blank slate for development, especially if the urban core continues to add more residents buying homes and moving into apartments.

“The RDA has spent years laying the groundwork for a thriving, diverse, transit-rich neighborhood at Station Center,” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall, “and I am happy to see the project moving forward.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This city-owned land and blocks around it in the Depot District are drawing intense interest from developers: apartments, offices, retail and green spaces envisions in 2015 may now start coming true, as seen on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

New realities

In April 2015, the RDA pitched glitzy plans for land it owns in the Depot District called Station Center, spanned by 200 South and 400 South from 500 West to 600 West. The vision had its own project logo, media campaign and renderings of potential new high-rises.

Station Center was to bring a long-sought wave of apartments to the western edge of downtown along with retail and office buildings and a host of green spaces laced with pedestrian-friendly streets — all of it built to take advantage of easy access to mass transit.

But vagrancy and street crime around the overflowing homeless shelter reportedly dampened enthusiasm and raised safety concerns among potential developers. Over time, an open-air drug market flourished in the vicinity and policymakers launched Operation Rio Grande to clean it up, which mixed a massive police presence with treatment and job assistance.

In place of that one homeless shelter, three smaller resources centers have been built.

The Road Home’s razing has undoubtedly been a factor in drawing new interest from investors, Walz said, but he noted that millions in construction dollars were already committed for that part of the city long before the shelter was torn down.

He pointed to a spate of residential projects in recent years along North Temple and the luxury Alta Gateway Apartments, 505 W. 100 South, that opened nearby well before the shelter closed.

“Those are developers who took a risk, came into the neighborhood with all that grittiness, and they’ve been extremely successful,” Walz said. “Now a lot of others are following, too.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Budding building boom

Station Center has been on the city’s urban renewal agenda for more than a decade. Now, in concert with Mendenhall, Walz said the RDA has hit refresh.

The city is exploring a new approach to how it recruits developers, opting to woo a master contractor who would then oversee individual projects instead of contracting on each of the city’s parcels.

“It’s still a great plan,” Walz said of Station Center, though he added that the latest direction “was more thoughtful and cohesive.”

The market for housing in the area, meanwhile, has gained momentum.

Centro Civico Mexicano is nearing completion on its Casa Milagros project of 61 apartments for active seniors, north of its existing cultural center at 155 S. 600 West. Another developer, CW Urban, is well into building up to 120 condominiums in a project called theOlive, near the northwest corner of Pioneer Park. It’s also constructing The Beverly, a 45-unit luxury project at 45 South 600 West.

Utah-based ClearWater Homes and PEG Development broke ground in early 2019 on a 1.99-acre property for Paper Box Lofts at about 340 West 200 South, south of the Utah Jazz’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, in a project to include 195 apartments.

A second wave of development has surfaced since January, with demand apparently unchecked by the pandemic.

Developers Gardner-Batt and Architecture Belgique plan a 65-unit project in what will be a six-story, mixed-income building at 579 W. 200 South, the site of a performance venue that has been called Bricks, Club Sound and In the Venue over the years.

All but 13 of those dwellings will be affordable to those earning between a quarter and half of the area’s median incomes, according to city documents.

A consortium of firms has submitted plans for 203 new housing units in two buildings centered at 530 W. 200 South, in what’s tentatively being referred to as the CINQ project. Plans indicate it will also include retail outlets and smaller units incorporating both living and working spaces.

And the folks behind Alta Gateway, Denver-based Wood Partners and Studio PBA architects, have unveiled proposals for a second phase to that high-end, 277-unit apartment project, which opened in summer 2018.

The new Alta Depot would see another 288 market-rate rentals built at 565 W. 100 South, just to the north of Casa Milagros.

Landowners have sought rezoning on two other properties in the neighborhood, at 771 N. and 795 N. 400 West, to allow for multifamily development, city filings reveal.

Future plans

The City Council has been reviewing a request for months on lifting the maximum building height, which is now 120 feet in The Gateway area. The ask is to boost that to 190 feet on several lots along 300 South between 500 West and 625 West.

Doug Thimm, representing a development company called STACK Real Estate, said the backers of a skyscraper project eventually moved on.

“The opportunity was lost," Thimm told the council. “But you never know when that is going to come up again.”

Elected officials have pushed further debate on raising that height limit in The Gateway until next January, as part of a study of height restrictions across the city.

They are also keeping options open on preserving a key building within Station Center. For years, city officials have viewed the boxy Salt Lake Mattress Co. Building as a focal point, but the structure’s unreinforced masonry saw heavy damage in the March 18 earthquake.

Parts of the building are now near collapse, according to city staffers, and the city wants to keep it standing, at least until it can hire a project developer.

Acting as the RDA board, members of the City Council have tentatively approved $865,000 to install and operate shoring equipment and realign its facade, until a more permanent renovation estimated to cost upward of $3.4 million is completed. Mendenhall has praised the move as a gesture in support of the neighborhood’s rich history.

“This part of the city is seeing rapid growth and new development and while that is all very exciting, it’s important that we not forget our past,” she said. “Through the continuation of historic structures like that, the stories of the area’s macaroni and mattress factories, icehouses, and more, live on.”