Plan to OK skyscrapers around Delta Center for sports district meets resistance from SLC Council chair

Japantown advocates fear “living in a pit” if all building height limits are removed; council leader Victoria Petro vows to oppose such blanket permission; SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall commits to reviving the area.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City's skyline is shown in 2021. The Smith Entertainment Group is seeking permission to remove height restrictions on blocks around the Delta Center.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and his group bringing professional hockey to Salt Lake City are seeking to remove all height restrictions on buildings in a roughly seven-block area around the Delta Center, but the City Council chair said this week that she is not inclined to go along with the request.

The proposed zoning change would allow buildings of whatever height engineering would allow to be built on the block where the Delta Center sits, the Triad Center block to the north, the two blocks east to the Salt Palace Convention Center, and the blocks immediately south of them.

Buildings currently can be built up to 125 feet — roughly 11 stories — over much of that area, although there are portions of Block 67 immediately southeast of the Delta Center, where buildings up to 375 feet are allowed and a new high-rise stands.

The tallest building in downtown Salt Lake City is 450 feet.

The proposed rezoning would also allow helicopter landing pads anywhere in the rezoned area and commercial parking structures, provided buildings aren’t demolished to build the lots.

Representatives of the city planning commission held an open house Thursday evening. A few dozen residents turned out to ask questions.

In a meeting afterward, about 80 members of the city’s Japanese community expressed concerns about the fate of historic Japantown in a meeting with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, several City Council members, city and county staff and Mike Maughan, who is leading the project for Ryan Smith.

Attendees worried the development in the new sports, entertainment and culture district would leave the remnants of a once-bustling Japanese enclave — all but obliterated with the construction of the Salt Palace in the 1960s — overwhelmed by towering skyscrapers, disrupting funerals and cultural events at the Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.

Earlier this week, the nonprofit Preservation Utah named Japantown one of the state’s most endangered historic places.

“I’m concerned we’ll be basically living in a pit because of the tall walls all around us,” said Lorraine Murakami Crouse.

But Salt Lake City Council Chair Victoria Petro told the group that she would not support removing all height restrictions — a move that would require the approval of the city’s planning commission and the council.

“I was real direct with Mike Maughan that I have no intention of granting unlimited height to them in a zoning request,” she said. “I anticipate us staying closely connected, especially as design goes on and to try to work collaboratively … to make sure that it’s beneficial to the community at large.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council Chair Victoria Petro makes a point during a meeting about the proposed downtown sports and entertainment district Tuesday, May 7, 2024.

Mendenhall also committed to reviving some of what Japantown has lost through the decades.

“What is here today should be the baseline and never be less than it is right now,” she said. “And what I hope we are doing here is building a partnership that cultivates more Japantown.”

In Mendenhall’s budget request, sent to the council Tuesday, she asked for $300,000 to build public art installations at either end of the Japantown block and $100,000 to update plans for a Japanese streetscape along the block.

Petro assured the audience members the request has the support of the council. She also urged them — as did county Mayor Wilson — to come up with their own vision for what they want from the area.

“Challenge yourselves to show up with not just what you don’t want, but what you want,” Petro said. “Don’t let a history of marginalization that has taken so much from you be the limiting factor for what you ask for yourself going forward.”

Maughan said there is no plan as of yet for the district. Smith Entertainment Group has hired a firm to prepare a master plan. That work is ongoing.

“We will stay at the table. We will be at the table with you,” Maughan said. “There’s so many other places we could go. … What Ryan and Ashley Smith care about is this mission to re-imagine downtown Salt Lake City and what it can be — that this can be a gathering place for all people and all communities to come together in a really meaningful way.”

Public comments on the proposal to remove the height restrictions are being accepted until May 15. The city planning commission has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for May 22. The council will consider the request sometime after that.

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