This old LDS gymnasium will get new life as affordable housing

The church donated the Liberty Wells Center, once a popular neighborhood recreation spot, to Ivory Innovations.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells Center, once a popular neighborhood gym built in 1950, is pictured on Friday, June 23, 2023. The building is being repurposed for affordable town homes and apartments, by Ivory Innovations.

There’s a pleasant musty smell inside the 1950s era Liberty Wells Center on the corner of 400 East and 700 South.

Amro Al-Nimri walks through two sets of doors into the gymnasium where a scoreboard is dead, a few of the basketball nets torn and the old wood floors gleam. It’s been many years since kids and a good share of adults played on this court.

This former community gathering place will soon be transformed into something entirely new: housing for moderate-income families and individuals.

Al-Nimri is the director of construction and design for Ivory Innovations, an affordable housing nonprofit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated the land to Ivory Innovations. Building Salt Lake first reported the acquisition.

“As this building approached the end of its viability, the church is grateful to have this property bless the neighborhood and community in a new and innovative way,” church spokesperson Irene Caso wrote in an email.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells Center in the Central City neighborhood hosted basketball games for decades. Now, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has donated the facility and land to Ivory Innovations for affordable housing. Inside the old gym, on Friday, June 23, 2023.

Ivory hopes to preserve the outside of the brick building while transforming the interior into 30 apartments. The adjacent baseball field will become 36 town homes. The plan is to rent out 25% of units at market rate, 35% to those making 80% of the area median income and the remainder to those making 60% of the area median income. (In Salt Lake City, one person making 80% AMI earns $59,400 a year).

Needed, but residents are wary

Central City is diverse and walkable. It’s dense and the proximity to bars and restaurants makes living without a car possible. Historic apartment buildings stand next to doll-house-like homes built in the late 1800s. Mixed use is another characteristic of the neighborhood, with office buildings and retail spaces peppering the area, too.

The particular corner where the Liberty Wells Center sits is populated with duplexes, apartments and small homes with well-tended but rambling garden-box front yards.

Most new construction and remodels around downtown seem to be targeting a more affluent-type worker. Take the Avia, a high-rise apartment near the downtown public library. The baseline one-bedroom apartments run from $1,791 to $2,380 a month. The building boasts of an on-site pet spa.

With the Liberty Wells recreation center, the plan is to provide workforce housing, said Darin Haskell, chief operating officer of Ivory Innovations. “Firefighters, policemen, school teachers,” Haskell said, “those that want to live downtown.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Long vacant, the Liberty Wells Center, pictured on Friday, June 23, 2023, will eventually become affordable apartments and town homes in Central City.

While affordable housing is needed, people living near the recreation center are wary of adding more rental units because homeownership is already low in Central City. The people living in nearby high rises tend to drive in and drive out, rarely spending time on the street, one resident noted. They want to see more families and kids hanging out and while they’re not against resources for low-income residents, they don’t want all of those resources concentrated on a few blocks.

Residents in the neighborhood were generally supportive of the new housing project, but they noted that River Rock Apartments, another affordable housing project, is nearby and has been mismanaged in the past. A River Rock resident told KSL TV last July, “We’ve found two needles with blood and drugs on them with the cap off.”

“In the last two months, I’ve been hearing a lot of bullets shot,” another told the station.

Haskell, with Ivory, said this project company has experience with apartment management. “We’re committed to the community and the long-term hold,” Haskell said. “It’s not something that we’re going to build and sell.”

He ensured that the right property manager and resources would be put in place for the rental units, but also noted “we’re not at a low AMI, and we’re not providing casework.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) After sitting vacant for many years, the Liberty Wells Center has been donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Ivory Innovations. Pictured on Friday, June 23, 2023, the old gym and its adjacent baseball field will be transformed into affordable housing.

Emily Long has lived in a home across the way from the recreation center for about eight years. She notes that while she doesn’t feel unsafe, police officers are in the neighborhood frequently responding to calls.

“We are all for supporting our unhoused population and low-income housing,” Long said, “but we are doing it for the entire city.”

A mix of apartments and town homes would be a “good fit for the neighborhood,” Long said. She is glad that the plan isn’t to build more towering high rises, and hopes the town homes will attract more families.

“We don’t see as many kids,” Long said, “and it’s harder for families to live in this neighborhood.”

Matt Haines, another neighborhood resident, appreciates that the recreation center is likely remaining. “It provides a bit of privacy for me,” Haines said, “not to mention afternoon shade in the backyard and whatnot.”

He’ll miss letting his dogs run around the baseball field. “I’m losing some privacy,” Haines said, “but I’m also gaining a little bit. It’s better to have more occupancy in any given place.”

(Ivory Innovations) An illustration of the town homes that Ivory Innovations hopes to build on the baseball field adjacent to the Liberty Wells Center.

(Ivory Innovations) An illustration of the town homes that Ivory Innovations hopes to build on the baseball field adjacent to the Liberty Wells Center.

Homeownership is still up in the air

Ana Valdemoros, City Council member for District 4 that includes downtown and Central City, said residents want to see more projects that improve the neighborhood.

Selling some of the town homes to residents is one way to do that, Valdemoros said. Providing a pathway to homeownership “can help lift the neighborhood and diversify the income levels.” She would like the project to “give [residents] a chance to get into the market and start building wealth that way.”

Ivory Innovations representatives still aren’t sure if the town homes will be for sale or rent — they hope the city might pitch in some funds to make selling the homes at an affordable rate possible.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells Center, built in 1950, is pictured on Friday, June 23, 2023, before undergoing a planned redesign by the nonprofit Ivory Innovations. The adjacent baseball field will be turned into town homes.

Council member Valdemoros said she’s already working to set up a meeting with the mayor’s office, the city’s Redevelopment Agency chair, and other groups responsible for funding housing in the city.

Focusing on individuals making 80% of the area median income is particularly promising to Valdemoros.

“All of the ingredients are there,” she said. “It’s now making sure that we’re mixing them right to get the perfect recipe for the benefit of Salt Lake City residents.”

Editor’s noteThe Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation is a donor to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab.