News | Tower of Power: Huge development beside Rice-Eccles is the U’s way of playing nice 

You can’t say the University of Utah doesn’t try to play well with others. It even took a recent crash course on playing well, and now there’s a lot of gushing going on.

This is a “first,” you know, for niceness. And given the expansive nature of what the U is calling the Universe Project, it’s important to be seen as something of a benevolent dictator.

Targeting the 8-acre parking lot abutting Rice-Eccles Stadium on the west, the project proposes a minimum of 40,000 square feet of office space, 143 “affordable” condo units, 70,000 square feet of retail and 10,000 square feet of restaurant space. That’s not to mention the parking—500 stalls onsite, and 450 somewhere within a five-minute walk.

The idea is to plunk a mixed-use, transit-oriented development around the stadium as a cash cow for the university and an education and entertainment draw for the community. With Salt Lake City developer Boyer Co. sniffing the air, the Universe Project is really kind of a Gateway East, holding huge potential profits for whoever the winning developer is.

Meanwhile, some of the neighbors were shocked by previews of high-rises towering six stories high and casting shadows on their diminutive University Street housing. But, hey, they survived TRAX, didn’t they?

At a recent city Planning Commission meeting, Salt Lake City’s Nick Norris took note of the unprecedented opportunity to enhance the relationship between the city and the U. That’s because the U is under no obligation to ask anyone for permission here. The land in question is state property and not subject to the rules and regulations with which others in the University Historic District must comply.

“This is the first time we’ve had such a collaborative opportunity,” said Esther Hunter, a former community council chairwoman-turned adviser to the mayor. “The university is very significant to the city, and if we can pioneer the process for the future …”

Indeed. No one wants the future to be as contentious as the past. Take Research Park, for instance. That area, too, has been leased to developers, but not without controversy involving the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Most of the opponents there were bicyclists and dog-walkers, though.

The University historic neighborhood is a different animal altogether. That’s why the university is walking carefully through the minefield. First, U officials hired Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants to look at the “opportunities for development,” but also to emphasize “integration with the surrounding community.” They want a buy-in.

“We’re really interested in a win-win, and we mean that in all sincerity,” says Michael Perez, the U’s associate vice present for facilities management. The project was kind of meant to be, he suggested. It came together with the completion of the city’s master plan for the area and a student-led research project on stadium development.

When planning commissioner Anne Oliver wanted to know how the project would affect the existing retail below President’s Circle, Perez said that was why they hired Wikstrom. The project would not compete with the types of business there, he said.

Of course, that was the promise from the western Gateway developers—who also had a market analysis—in response to the angst from Main Street business owners.

Perez also promises a traffic study, knowing that parking is a big issue, despite TRAX. There are scenarios that would allow for parking structures. After all, they’re talking about 143-plus town houses or condos, which they want to be affordable to “interlevel” faculty. That means something that a family making $60,000 to $85,000 a year could afford.

Community activist and landlord Cindy Cromer is not happy. “You’re going after my market,” she says. “I rent to young faculty.” Isn’t this competition with the private sector? she asks. “You can’t have everything everywhere all the time.”

That’s not how the university sees it. Perez noted that TRAX makes four stops through the U, and each one of them could be developed for mixed use.

But why the long-term lease for developers? What will it mean to the tax base and school revenue if, as is often the case, the project’s taxes are waived for a period of time, Cromer asked.

Landlord Kendall Phillips encouraged the U to stick to student housing, since their affordable condos would affect his rentals.

These are the neighbors who just won’t play nicely. No matter. The U did its homework, co-opted some community activists, and put on a smiley face. It doesn’t have to be nice, remember. It can do what it wants. And this is just the beginning of the Universe.

 

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