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New University of Utah-run ‘innovation district’ planned west of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park

Proposal calls for new streets, green spaces and multistory commercial and residential buildings — all connected to the campus via transit.

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) Salt Lake City and the University of Utah have ambitious plans, as this rendering shows, to create a new university-run innovation district west of Rio Grande Depot, giving Utah's flagship university a major presence downtown.

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Salt Lake City is moving ahead with ambitious plans for transforming the ragged neighborhood dubbed Station Center west of Pioneer Park and the Rio Grande Depot into a sizable University of Utah-led district devoted to new technology and business innovation.

This latest vision for parcels of private and city-owned land — from 500 West to 600 West between 200 South and 400 South — calls for a major overhaul with new streets, open spaces and multistory commercial and residential buildings to create a downtown presence for the state’s flagship university.

Initial plans would maximize building density allowed on the currently blighted acreage while also playing to the former warehouse district’s historic character in what city officials hope will showcase transit-oriented development taking advantage of the Utah Transit Authority hub nearby.

The area’s new offices, housing and green spaces eventually would be linked to the U.’s main campus by extending the 400 South TRAX line farther west, officials with the city’s Redevelopment Agency say, and the school already is under contract to buy two acres of Station Center land from the city to make that happen.

“We do recognize the unique opportunity that we have here to do something especially impactful,” Ashley Ogden, an RDA project manager, recently told members of the Salt Lake City Council.

The innovation district idea is gaining traction as that wider Depot District neighborhood is seeing a construction boom in the aftermath of the January 2020 demolition of the homeless shelter, at 210 S. Rio Grande St., run by The Road Home.

Jump-starting urban renewal

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The University of Utah and Salt Lake City are crafting plans for a university-run satellite campus on city-owned acres west of Rio Grande Depot, devoted to business and technology innovation.

Unsuccessful attempts at enlisting private developers to partner with the city in a broader renovation of those blighted blocks date back to at least 2015, when the Station Center moniker was first marketed.

Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers said last week this latest proposal for a pedestrian-friendly district had potential to “jump-start” the city’s plans for urban renewal. With the right partner, Rogers said, “we do have the opportunity to make this a good project.”

The proposed development in partnership with the U. is also a chance to forge new connections between the city’s downtown and its west side, noted Cara Lindsley, senior project manager at the RDA.

The notion behind innovation districts — a term coined in 2014 by researchers at the Brookings Institution — is to blend the jobs-generating potential of new ideas coming out research centers such the U. in the same place with offices, living spaces and other amenities catering to high-growth private businesses, startups and entrepreneurs.

“We’re starting to see that tastes are changing,” Ogden told the council, which governs the RDA. “People who work in these innovation sectors want to be in a more urban environment, where they can take public transit or walk to work or even run downstairs and get a sandwich or take an exercise class.”

“These trends,” she said, “have pushed the existing research parks to urbanize and have more density.”

The Salt Lake Chamber recently announced a concerted campaign to promote innovation in Utah as the economy emerges from a pandemic slowdown. A similar district is also planned at The Point, the state-backed development at the site of Utah State Prison in Draper, once that facility is razed and a new prison opens on the western edge of Salt Lake City.

‘A thriving innovation ecosystem’

Based on talks over the past year with the U. and a host of other agencies and government officials, city officials have identified biotechnology and health sciences as likely anchor industries for the densely built enclave.

But those talks have also highlighted safety concerns in the neighborhood as well as a dire lack of housing downtown that would be affordable to people considered vital to the innovation district’s success.

And although The Gateway complex two blocks to the north has been recruiting tenants from the life-sciences sector to some of its office space, there is also a citywide shortage of lab, office and community spaces needed to serve “a thriving innovation ecosystem,” according to city documents.

The City Council has approved $11 million for improvements to the Station Center neighborhood over the years and would need $3 million to $5 million more to fulfill its latest vision, according to one of its top budget advisers.

That includes building three new midblock streets, reconstructing a stretch of 300 South into a “festival street” that can be closed to traffic for special events and upgrades to utility lines to allow for denser development.

The RDA is readying a strategy that could raise much of that money by selling the U. more land in the area, subject to council review later this year. The agency now owns nine acres in that part of the Depot District and has options to buy an additional 1.5 acres.

The RDA expects to hold another public review of how it would dispose of that land later this year. It is also exploring just how the innovation district would be managed and governed, with the possibility of signing a definitive deal with the U. by year’s end.

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