SLC unveils its latest grand plan for remaking the Rio Grande District

The run-down neighborhood west of the historic depot is envisioned as a new health-focused, transit-friendly, high-rise extension of the city’s growing downtown.

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) Rendering from a northeasterly view of Salt Lake City's latest vision for its Rio Grande District, when fully built.

That dowdy and concrete-flavored area of Salt Lake City west of the historic Rio Grande Depot has reached another moment where it might shine.

As a new population surge pushes development westward, the city is readying new and ambitious plans it hopes will entice developers into helping to build a green, densely stacked and more car-free neighborhood on that edge of downtown, around the Utah Transit Authority’s intermodal hub.

On Tuesday, the city’s Redevelopment Agency released its long-awaited and latest grand vision and implementation plan for those 11 disused acres by an Interstate 15 ramp, once known as Station Center and now to be renamed the Rio Grande District after the storied depot.

This new blueprint for private and city-owned land bounded by 500 West and 600 West between 200 South and 400 South calls for what amounts to an open-space-infused, high-rise extension of downtown into the gritty Granary District.

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) Rendering of a future Arts Campus plaza, part of Salt Lake City's latest vision for its Rio Grande District.

The plan would also give an environmentally friendly lift to part of an emerging 5.5-mile west-side Green Loop running along 500 West, intersecting with a new festival street and arts campus on 300 South. Those, in turn, are part of wider, more sustainable and pedestrian-centered approaches throughout to transit, roads, bike paths, parking and housing.

But no sooner was this newly incarnated framework with dazzling renderings unwrapped than City Council members, in their role as RDA overseers, began finding major holes and heartburn.

They tilted at one point toward delaying its public release, tapping the brakes over worries they might surrender future authority over how the renewal project unfolds. With delicate portions later ordered deleted from the RDA’s 78-page draft document, they approved its publication, pending more review and jawboning at later meetings.

RDA Board Chair Alejandro Puy, who earlier raised some of the council’s hottest objections, said in a statement he was “thrilled to support this transit-oriented development that lays the groundwork for an accessible and bustling area in our city.”

‘Strategic launchpad’ for a new neighborhood

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) A map showing key goals and land uses in the city's latest vision for Rio Grande District, west of the depot.

City Hall sees that area as a chance to work with UTA and state officials on creating a model for building an innovation-focused area near the transit agency’s expanding hub, which includes links to TRAX, FrontRunner and many of the region’s rapid bus networks.

Instead of being known, as it is today, for hosting a government-sanctioned temporary camp for the unsheltered amid its aging buildings and dusty lots, the envisioned overhaul under Mayor Erin Mendenhall calls for a housing-heavy neighborhood focused on transit, west-side equity, open areas and health care.

In the same RDA statement, the mayor called the new plan “a strategic launchpad” for the area’s redevelopment and said it “identifies and explores functional designs for spaces and buildings that will advance creativity, community wellness, economic growth and opportunities for all.”

The city’s main priorities for developing the Rio Grande District, the RDA added, were climate-positive design; affordable housing for those at a variety of incomes and ages; similarly affordable commercial spaces for locally owned businesses; and creating new employment and educational opportunities for residents.

Mendenhall also said the plan, developed with consultants at the architecture firm Perkins & Will, also dovetails with the city’s initiatives to grow its life sciences sector, with new incubator, laboratory and office spaces.

To spur the development, the RDA plans to upgrade utility capacity in the district to support higher density and create several new midblock connections to better tie into transit lines.

Worries over city authority

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) Rendering of the future Green Loop on 500 West as part of Salt Lake City's latest vision for its Rio Grande District, formerly known as Station Center.

Puy first raised concerns during Tuesday’s pitch over suggestions on how the Rio Grande District might draw other property owners — including the University of Utah — into a mutual plan to oversee the area’s development.

As recently as 2021, published plans for the Rio Grande area included a sizable U. presence, centered on technology and business innovation in connection with the 1.9 acres it owns in the district adjacent to 400 South. The city had contemplated selling the U. some of its acreage as part of its expansion.

Yet that element of the vision is now all but vanished, save for a mention among other stakeholders for the U.’s interest in a downtown presence and access to state funding and research programming.

An RDA spokesperson said last week the U. had since “gone a different direction” with leadership changes on campus. A top official overseeing the the school’s real estate portfolio did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue of what the city and RDA call “governance” over land use in the district has been a delicate topic among council members in the intervening months. Though not mentioning the U. in Tuesday’s debate, control issues raised in previous discussions clearly remain.

Despite assurances from RDA Director Danny Walz that nothing in the new plan for Rio Grande deviated from seeking developer interest and launching the redevelopment under full RDA control, the council ordered a section on governance deleted pending further debate.

“I don’t understand many pieces of this,” Puy told RDA staffers, asking for more time “to make sure this lines up with our values and where we are right now.”

(Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) A map from the city's latest vision for its newly named Rio Grande District, showing building heights and its approach to shared parking.

Echoing comments from residents, council member Dan Dugan also complained the vision doesn’t adequately embrace alternative transit options, including a grassroots proposal dubbed the Rio Grande Plan that calls for removing many rail crossings and redoing train service across the area

Council colleague Victoria Petro took issue with the substantial boost to that segment of the Green Loop, suggesting the Rio Grande vision cut ahead of other park improvement priorities across the city funded by a recent $85 million bond.

“It does feel like we are backing ourselves into policy decisions here,” she said as she joined Dugan in also wanting to preserve options for eliminating rail crossings in the district.

Other members countered that the city’s plans for the area have already languished for too long and that minor objections shouldn’t interfere with gauging interest from developers in long-term ground leases with the city to develop the land.

Council member Darin Mano pointed to support for the plan’s overall approach — taller buildings, open spaces and strategies for more active street life and cultural hubs. He urged the city to proceed with requesting proposals from the private sector despite other concerns.

“We’ve had this land for years,” Mano said, “and I don’t want to delay this any longer.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This city-owned land and blocks around it in the Depot District are drawing intense interest from developers: apartments, offices, retail and green spaces envisions in 2015 may now start coming true, as seen on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.