Big new hospital moves step closer to reality in downtown Salt Lake City

Rezone of former Sears site clears hurdle as Intermountain Health sets sights on a multistory facility. Change could allow buildings of 26 stories or higher.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A green pond forms at the site of the former Sears in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2023, as Intermountain Health receives an initial green light on its plans to build a multistory urban hospital.

Intermountain Health has received a crucial green light for its plans to build a large urban hospital in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Utah-based health care system drew an endorsement Wednesday from city planners to rezone a nine-acre cluster of 10 properties centered at 754 S. State St., former site of a Sears department store, to allow for taller and denser construction in proportion with the downtown core.

Intermountain officials said they have not started the design process for the new facility, but was committed to quality construction and to shaping their addition to the city’s landscape to be compatible with surrounding neighborhoods and also take advantage of proximity to mass transit.

(Intermountain Health, via Salt Lake City) Intermountain said it hasn't started to design a new urban hospital it intends to build in Salt Lake City but offered these examples of other new facilities it has built in recent years.

The added design flexibility and building height permitted under the requested D-1 zoning, Intermountain said, would let it make better use of a smaller land footprint to meet patient needs and create a place where hospital employees might work and live by including a residential piece.

“We view ourselves as committing to a community for 100 years and being an anchor for the area,” Bentley Peay, Intermountain’s senior director of real estate, told the planning commission. That means high construction standards, he said, and regular building refreshes.

“We plan to be here for a long time if we’re allowed to build what we want to build,” said Peay, who added that the new hospital would bring a daily flow of up to 1,700 employees to the area.

Heather Wall, CEO and administrator at Intermountain’s LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, said the chain envisions moving staffers and services from that site to the new facility. Several sources involved in the discussions have told The Salt Lake Tribune the health system hopes eventually to demolish LDS Hospital, where facilities are aging. Intermountain has not confirmed that.

Wall, who would have clinical and administrative oversight of the new facility, said Intermountain has launched a survey of area residents and businesses to determine “what the community would want and need” to determine what mix of services it might offer.

Rezoning of the former Sears site — which would expand the central business district to 800 South along that southern edge of downtown — now goes before the City Council.

Rezone would allow for 26 stories — or more

Intermountain bought the properties in late 2021, in what Peay called “an excellent opportunity” to acquire that kind of contiguous acreage downtown, where land is at a premium. The 75-year-old Sears store and adjacent automotive repair center were demolished last fall.

The site now sits empty and fenced, with a large pit of green water where the store once stood.

The commission also voted 7-3 on Wednesday to add to the city’s list of uses allowed within that requested D-1 zoning, including a hospital and indoor and outdoor ambulance services. Those would be conditional uses, according to the vote, meaning they will require additional city review on offsetting any potential impacts.

That, too, will go to the council for review.

The panel did not act on a suggestion that the city also require hospital design and construction to be subject to a more detailed development agreement.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Intermountain LDS Hospital, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021.

Planners do not anticipate other hospitals being built downtown under the change, according to Amanda Roman, an urban designer for the city, because Intermountain’s new facility is likely to fulfill health care needs across its service area.

In city applications, Intermountain has said the new hospital may also incorporate biomedical facilities, laboratories, a heliport, offices, retail outlets and other uses — all of which would be permitted in D-1.

Other D-1 rules permit buildings up to 375 feet, or roughly 26 stories. But in combination with other changes the city proposes on downtown buildings in general, D-1 essentially would allow for unlimited height when applicants submit to a design review.

Roman said the central business district is expected to continue its current growth trajectory and that an urban hospital is appropriate to the area, although she added that existing city infrastructure — streets, utility lines, etc. — would need to be improved.

The zoning change, said Roman, is also in keeping with city guidelines for neighborhood safety, a balanced economy with quality jobs, equity for residents in access to amenities and services, and creating “a beautiful city that is people-focused.”

Neighbors are watching closely

Although located within the northern boundary of the city’s Ballpark neighborhood, the Sears site also rubs up against with the downtown core, the Central Ninth neighborhood, an area referred to loosely as Midtown as well as Central City. Leaders from many those communities are watching closely and have been in intermittent talks with administrators as Intermountain’s plans take shape.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demolition last fall of the iconic Sears Store in downtown Salt Lake City. Intermountain Health wants to build an urban hospital on the site near 754 S. State Street.

“We’ve been pushy,” said Tom Merrill, a representative of the Downtown Community Council.

“This is a monumental opportunity,” he said, adding that the community council welcomed the hospital — and supported the rezone. “We want them to have all the height in the world.”

Community leaders, he said, are also pressing for a sustainable hospital campus that is connected with nearby neighborhoods; on-site housing for physicians and staffers; and improvements in and around the facility for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Invoking intermountain’s status as a nonprofit committed to public benefits, Merrill and others also have urged Intermountain to create a grassroots advisory panel to help guide the project.

“We want as much early public commitment as possible to keep this on that track,” Merrill said, “and to hold us all to what we know is a really special opportunity.”

The largest health care provider in the Intermountain West, Intermountain is a privately held nonprofit company. It merged last year with another hospital system, Colorado-based SCL Health, and is now the parent company over a combined network of 33 hospitals and roughly 385 clinics located mostly 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.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A green pond forms at the site of the former Sears in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, March 24, 2023, as Intermountain Health receives a green light to build a multistory urban hospital.