Intermountain Healthcare has made its intentions clear: It wants to build a new hospital at the site of the former Sears store in Salt Lake City.
Though the nonprofit health system continues to say it has yet to finalize its plans, a law firm applied at City Hall on Intermountain’s behalf this week to rezone a cluster of 10 properties it owns near 754 S. State St. “to accommodate a new downtown urban hospital.”
The “upzoning” application, filed for the hospital chain Tuesday by Salt Lake City-based Kirton McConkie, seeks to convert the land to central business district uses, or D-1, which provides for commercial and economic development in what the city calls its “most urban and intense areas.”
The assembled properties currently are zoned D-2, which instead calls for uses that “relate to and support” the central business district. Having bought the 8.95 acres there in December, Intermountain began demolishing the 75-year-old building in late October and crews are almost finished.
Intermountain is also asking city planners and elected officials to alter what’s allowed on all D-1 properties through what’s called “a text amendment” to the zoning ordinance to permit hospitals and indoor and outdoor ambulance services, with potential to also change what’s possible elsewhere in the urban core.
What else besides a hospital?
The new hospital may also incorporate biomedical facilities, laboratories, a heliport, offices, retail outlets for staff and other uses, Intermountain said in its letter, which would already be permitted in D-1.
Under the city’s existing zoning map, D-1 currently covers a jagged area of nearly 30 full or partial downtown blocks bounded roughly by North Temple, West Temple and 200 East while reaching partly south of 600 South between State and 200 West. Intermountain’s request would stretch that urban zone to 800 South on that block west of State, including several properties straddling midblock Major Street.
The request emerges after years of behind-the-scenes discussions within the Utah-based health system about the possibility of leaving and selling off its LDS Hospital site in the Avenues, which is cramped and aging, in favor of a replacement medical center downtown.
Spokesperson Jess Gomez said Friday Intermountain “was still working to finalize plans for the site” and had no immediate announcements planned. “The filing of the zoning paperwork,” Gomez wrote in an email, “was the next step in this process.”
City dockets indicate the new application already has been assigned for initial planning staff review. The changes sought would require a hearing before the planning commission and approval by the City Council — a process likely to push well into at least 2023.
Sears closed the department store in 2018. The building has been vacant, deteriorating and, increasingly of late, a target for trespassing and vandalism, police records indicate.
Other downtown uses ‘not as financially viable’
Intermountain’s lawyers say city officials have known “for some time” the Sears property is “in dire need of improvement and redevelopment,” according to the new application, sent to City Planning Director Nick Norris.
The existing D-2 zoning, it says, is to blame.
“The property has sat largely vacant and underutilized for so long,” lawyer Tyler Buswell wrote, “because the D-2 zone does not foster and has not attracted the type of users and uses that this site will support.”
Its location on a transition block from D-1 to D-2 “has created a circumstance where more traditional downtown uses, such as high-rise office or residential projects are not well suited, and the economics of lower-rise commercial, office, or residential uses are not as financially viable.”
That’s an apparent nod to unsuccessful plans by previous owners Salt Lake City-based Colmena Group and Kimball Investment Co. for a multiphased development at the same location. That proposal included an initial 11-story building with up to 360 living units, facing State Street and 800 South, before it was withdrawn.
Intermountain hasn’t created any formal or conceptual plans of its own for the land, its Nov. 15 letter contends, but what it has in mind “would be akin to urban hospitals across the country,” serving, it said, “as an anchor and bookend on the south end of downtown.”
More building height, density and walkability
Switching it to D-1 would give Intermountain flexibility to build at greater heights while also matching the wider area, it contends, including Grand America Hotel, two blocks north, and new residential towers built at 600 South Main, 700 South Main and 600 South State.
The zoning, the attorneys wrote, would also allow for designs encouraging “permeability and walkability” that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, given the relatively small property and the intensity of services Intermountain envisions.
The upzoning is in keeping with the city’s vision for revitalizing south State Street, the health system argues, while “not disrupting the integrity of the neighborhoods to the east,” and, in fact, serving those residents “by providing needed health care services within walking distance.”
That refers to portions of Central City some three and four blocks east, which are zoned for residential and multifamily uses.
“The current state and zoning of the [Sears] property has failed to live up to or satisfy the city’s vision for the area,” the Intermountain letter said, promising cooperation in blending the hospital into the area to “accomplish the city’s desired outcomes.”
The largest health care provider in the Intermountain West, Intermountain is a privately held nonprofit company.
It merged in April with another hospital system called SCL Health, based in Colorado, and is now the parent company over a combined network of 33 hospitals and about 385 clinics primarily across Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Colorado and Kansas.
In addition to LDS Hospital, Intermountain owns and operates Primary Children’s Hospital on the University of Utah campus. Come next year, the nonprofit company will shorten its name to Intermountain Health.