Officials try to get ‘a handle on the height’ of office tower in Cottonwood Mall replacement plan

(Tribune file photo) The Holladay Planning Commission is nearing a decision on a plan to revitalize the site of the torn-down Cottonwood Mall, but a requested building height of 136 feet is a sticking point.

As the Holladay Planning Commission weighs a revised development plan for the old Cottonwood Mall site, the height of the proposed live-and-work community’s centerpiece office tower remains the focal point of dispute.

It’s unclear what — or whether — the board will decide Tuesday, when it considers the issue for a fifth time. In a three-hour meeting last week, developers Ivory Homes Ltd. and Woodbury Corp. received commendations for several proposed revisions to their plan for the 57-acre site. In the revisions:

• They reconfigured the internal road system in an effort to improve vehicular and pedestrian flow between a mixed-use zone of office and retail space on the northern end and a much larger residential area to the south.

• They replaced a swimming pool and a clubhouse — solely for project residents — with more green space that would be available to everyone in the broader community.

• They rearranged space to build a plaza larger than the plaza at Temple Square.

• And they moved the proposed project’s premier piece — a 136-foot-tall office tower — off the corner of Highland Drive and Murray Holladay Road.

But in sticking with that desired height, which they deemed vital to giving the project the financial wherewithal to cover its offered amenities, the developers stoked the opposition of at least two commission members.

“You’ve done an incredible job with connectivity, open space and the plaza,” said Commissioner Chris Layton. “But you’re not showing us a compelling reason why it has to be 136 feet. We’ve been told there may be a tenant [for that size of a building]. But we’re representing a community that I see as vehemently opposed to the height of these buildings.”

Added Commissioner Marianne Ricks: “It’s hard to approve something this tall with so much opposition. It just seems out of character with our city.”

Colleagues Jan Bradshaw and Jim Carter didn’t share their aversion to the height. “The public reaction to height has always been strongly negative,” said Carter, the commission chairman. “I’m not saying we should ignore that input … but good design can overcome a lot of different flaws.”

Given the disparity of opinion, it could be difficult for the commission to accomplish its goal, as stated by Carter when last week’s meeting began, “to develop a strong consensus recommendation that all of us feel comfortable with.”

That recommendation will go to the Holladay City Council, which will hold more public hearings on the plan that emerges from the commission sessions. The City Council will consider a wider array of issues, including the project’s financial viability and potential tax incentives that could help make it work.

A number of Holladay residents attending the latest session bristled at the idea that the public could not comment on the proposed plan changes, periodically heckling Ivory Homes President Chris Gamvroulas.

He, in turn, said, “There is a lot of intentional misrepresentation going on in the community about this process.” Gamvroulas maintained that opponents, while vocal, actually are in the minority among Holladay residents. “It’s the silent majority who really want something done here.”

The latest development plan would move the project’s tower off the corner of the intersection, filling that location with a grassy area near a restaurant. Three- and four-story apartments on top of a ground-level commercial floor would flank that open space, with one structure fronting Murray Holladay Road and the other going next to Highland Drive.

Set back 65 feet from the street, these residential buildings would be 80 feet wide, meaning the tower behind them would be at least 150 feet from both streets.

Gamvroulas emphasized that the 136-foot limit would include a barely visible 20-foot-tall mechanical/electrical building in the center of the roof, so the ceiling of the top floor would be 116 feet high. Viewed from afar, only the top four or five stories would be visible above the flanking apartment buildings, he said, and those residential structures would block views of the tower from a sidewalk around the project’s periphery.

Still, Commissioner Troy Holbrook questioned why the project couldn’t be done with a maximum tower height of 90 feet (not counting the mechanical/electrical structure). That was the height limit approved when the now-dormant 2007 plan for the mall site was adopted.

Woodbury spokesman Mack Woodbury said the 90-foot limitation would not allow the developers to attract the type of big-time tenant it believes it could lure to the site with an “iconic” tower. Without that, the rest of the project would have to be revised again.

“Could we find a way to make it work? I’m trying to find a way to say yes, but … this [136-foot-based plan] does work and this is what we’re marketing. … We may not build it [that high], but having the ability to market that height is helpful. Taking that off the table changes the dynamics about what we’re trying to attract here. It could result in less green space to accommodate more parking. There’s a much smaller group of tenants we can attract with less height.”

The discussion will continue at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Holladay City Hall, 4580 S. 2300 East.

If a decision is reached then, Carter said, “it’s important for us to demonstrate we have a handle on the height, rather than just saying, ‘That’s OK with me.’ We need to say substantively that these are the effects and this is why we’re recommending what we’re recommending.”