Salt Lake City says owner must restore the partly demolished Fifth Ward LDS meetinghouse

City Hall is also eyeing tougher fines and other penalties to better protect historic structures.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of the Fifth Ward meetinghouse on 300 West in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 1, 2024. Salt Lake City says it will force the owner of the building to restore it after an unauthorized partial demolition on Easter Sunday.

Salt Lake City says it will require the owner of a partially destroyed historic Latter-day Saint meetinghouse to fully restore the building.

City leaders also are eyeing a series of toughened sanctions against unauthorized demolitions of historic sites across Utah’s capital after an Easter encounter when an excavator working for the owner tore off the front portion and wrecked other features of the 114-year-old Fifth Ward building without a city permit.

The partial razing of the red-brick structure at 740 S. 300 West was halted after city employees noticed the unauthorized work, confronted the demolition crew and issued a stop order.

The City Council on Tuesday praised that swift reaction. “Your promptness saved this beautiful historic building,” council member Eva Lopez Chavez told Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s chief of staff, Rachel Otto.

And, in a statement, the council said it was “deeply saddened” by the Fifth Ward’s partial razing, calling the meetinghouse “a cherished historic landmark” and urging “a thorough investigation.”

Officials confirm that the wrecking had proceeded without city authorization, submittal of formal development plans or any required review or public hearings before the Historic Landmark Commission.

The city’s civil enforcement authorities issued two formal violations against the property owner, Otto said, for failing to secure a certificate of appropriateness from the city and for working without permits. Both carry daily fines of $100 incurred after the owner is given a reasonable time to “cure” the violations.

In this case, Otto added, that would mean restoring the portion of the vacant building that was destroyed, although city attorneys are researching how much time they will give the owner before fines begin.

The city might also impose a lengthy ban on any redevelopment of the 0.48-acre property and is considering a measure to extend such moratoriums for up to 25 years when historic buildings, demolished minus a permit, are not restored.

Otto also referred to an outpouring of concern from residents over the familiar meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, built in 1910 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the city’s roster of landmarks.

“This is truly a devastating situation for many,” Otto told the council, “and we are taking this incredibly seriously.”

Though Tuesday’s debate highlighted the Fifth Ward, council member Chris Wharton said “everybody in Salt Lake has a building that, when something like this happens, it’s traumatic and you feel like a piece of you has been stolen.”

Demolition was the goal, contractor says

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of the Fifth Ward meetinghouse on 300 West in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 1, 2024.

State documents show that real estate executive Jordan Atkin, an investor and developer who heads Salt Lake City-based TAG SLC, applied in mid-April as the property’s owner and manager for clearance to demolish the entire building starting as early as last Thursday.

County records, meanwhile, list the site’s owner as a Salt Lake City firm called 300 W Holdings, which was registered in December with Atkin as its manager.

Atkin has not responded to several requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune. He was quoted in the news site Building Salt Lake, which first reported the Fifth Ward demolition, as denying ownership of the property and claiming the wrongful razing stemmed from miscommunication.

But Atkin’s demolition contractor, Karl Christensen with Move Man LLC, told The Tribune he was explicitly hired to raze the structure and began removing a back shed and mature trees adjacent to the building on Good Friday after ensuring water and gas lines to the property had been shut off.

He asserted that utility crews had been on-site previously to ready the property for demolition. “All of that,” Christensen said, “had to be permitted as well.”

Christensen said he had worked for Atkin, who is listed as president and owner of TAG SLC, on several previous jobs and had no reason to believe the required city approvals had not been obtained. When Christensen was confronted by city workers at the site on Easter Sunday, he said he assumed Atkin “would go down there and straighten it out.”

“It looked like any normal job,” Christensen said Wednesday. “You can imagine my surprise when I saw it on my YouTube feed the next day.”

Tougher protections for historic sites

The demolition firm’s excavator remained parked Wednesday atop a pile of red-brick rubble and broken concrete in front of the meetinghouse, which has since been surrounded by a chain-link fence affixed with signs labeling it private property.

Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris said Monday the city’s Building Services Division would exercise its authority to secure the structure from added damage and protect the public if the property owner failed to do so.

Last week, Mendenhall’s staff sent the council a new proposal to toughen penalties for unauthorized construction and demolitions of landmarks and other buildings deemed to be of historic value. That includes all structures within the city’s 16 historic districts, as well as roughly 165 landmark sites.

The reforms, which were in the works well before the Fifth Ward’s partial razing, are meant to prevent and deter violations by raising fines and toughening other sanctions, including bans on property redevelopment where work proceeds without adequate city approval.

Where buildings are demolished without a permit, said Amy Thompson, planning manager for the city, owners would be obliged either to keep the site vacant for 25 years or reconstruct the historic structure in question. The changes, she said, also make violators ineligible to argue economic hardship to justify demolition “because it’s essentially self-imposed.”

Daily fines for unauthorized work would rise to $250, while penalties for boarding up abandoned historic buildings would be increased to $14,000 a year — or even higher for structures designated as landmarks or those labeled as contributing to the historic character of a neighborhood.

The package is expected to come before the council for final approval in the coming weeks.

Council chair Victoria Petro said owners of historic properties should be held to a higher standard than other landowners — a concern underscored, she said, by the city’s ongoing and rapid growth trajectory.

“Our shared history is at increased risk of being subjected to ‘oopsies’ and ‘better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” said Petro, a former member of the city’s Historic Landmark Commission. Historic-property owners, she added, “are agreeing to be a faithful steward so that the future generations can have their chance at stewardship.”

“It should be taken with more gravity,” said Petro, who urged the city to sway its policies toward protecting historic sites.

Council colleague Alejandro Puy also urged the city to develop ways of monitoring historic buildings to ensure they are not being allowed to deteriorate as a tactic to bolster later arguments that they should be torn down, in so-called demolition by neglect.

Vacant at least since 2019, the Fifth Ward building had deteriorated dramatically through the years, primarily due to roof leaks and trespassers occupying it illegally, according to Christensen, the owner’s demolition contractor. He said the building was severely weakened structurally and that portions of it were filled with char and mold.

“It’s scary,” Christensen said.

“Whatever society wants out of this deal,” he added, “they’ve got to get out their checkbook and fix them a little quicker. If somebody had fixed that roof five years ago, it would have been a thing of beauty.”