Salt Lake City has ‘ambitious vision’ as it seeks to turn Rio Grande around

Apr 20, 2024, 2:56 PM | Updated: 3:05 pm

A rendering of an arts campus plaza within the "Rio Grande District." (Photo: Redevelopment Agency ...

A rendering of an arts campus plaza within the "Rio Grande District." (Photo: Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City)

(Photo: Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City)

SALT LAKE CITY — The blocks behind the Rio Grande Depot — and the building itself — have gone through some tough times over at least the past decade; however, Salt Lake City planners say they have an “ambitious” plan to turn the site around.

The Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, which is working to rebrand into the Salt Lake City Community Reinvestment Agency, released its Rio Grande District Vision and Implementation Plan on Tuesday.

The document is considered a type of road map to guide the agency, which is led by Salt Lake leaders, through measures to enhance about 11 acres of land that it owns within 200 South to 400 South and 500 West to 600 West, just west of the city’s downtown core. Most of the land is located between the Rio Grande Depot and the Utah Transit Authority’s Salt Lake Central Station.

The agency also owns about another 4 acres near 600 West and 100 South, which is a lesser focus in the plan. Ashley Ogden, senior project manager for the agency, said that the agaency doesn’t own a few blocks included in the plan, but the property owners agreed to include the lots in the city plan.

“We do have a very ambitious vision for the district, but it feels appropriate because we have such an important opportunity in front of us to create a neighborhood that’s a model for the type of development we want to see in Salt Lake City,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work, persistence and collaboration to see it through.”

What’s included in the plan

Overall, the plan seeks to build on density and transit access, and it also seeks to squeeze in “as many community benefits as possible,” Ogden explained during a presentation on Tuesday.

Some of its recommendations for the area include:

  • “Maximize” transit-oriented development potential, while increasing building heights and density. Salt Lake City has worked to increase building heights and density in and around downtown in recent years.
  • Improve mixed-use developments by adding “activated” ground floor spaces. This includes spaces for shops, restaurants or other uses.
  • Establish more “compact” and “walkable” blocks by adding side streets within the standard blocks to promote more “compact urban development.”
  • A “shared parking strategy” that includes “progressive parking ratios” and a “shared garage for neighborhood users.” Ogden said most of the parking would be moved to one side of the site and lower than most areas, as it looks to rely on its proximity to public transit options.
  • “Curate public spaces,” such as plugging the proposed Green Loop pathway into the area. The latter could also help with another goal to plant native species and promote more biodiversity in the area.

There are specific ideas outlined in the plan, as well. For instance, it recommends turning 300 South into a “festival street” on the west side of the Rio Grande Depot. Bollards would allow the city to close off the street so it could be used for community events. A plaza with dedicated space for art installations and cultural events would also be included on top of the Green Loop running through the area.

“We’re really excited to use the Rio Grande District to test out some of our pending commercial assistance initiatives, which would prioritize establishing a critical mass of retailers to make the district a known destination for shopping at small businesses or seeing artists at work,” Ogden said.

Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy, who is also the chairman of the redevelopment agency board, told KSL.com that the city may decide to move the city’s farmer’s market to the area in the future, as well. USA Climbing is also looking at building a new headquarters in the area.

The plan also recommends that more affordable housing be included in the project, as well as sustainable options like all-electric buildings, mass timber construction, renewable energy options and new uses for historic buildings in the area.

It outlines ways to make sure the project works, too. As the land owner, the agency can issue ground leases that can “facilitate the development of RDA-owned properties.” It can also design, construct and manage infrastructure and public spaces, oversee any programming efforts and provide incentives for other entities to reach goals in the plan.

However, there was some intense debate over how the district would be governed in the agency’s board meeting. Puy requested there be more “clarity” in that structure before “we put this online.” In the end, the board agreed to remove those sections of the plan for now, so it could be sorted out later.

He explained to KSL.com after the meeting that the City Council and redevelopment agency board want to make sure they have a “seat at the table” so they still have control over “the vision” of the area.

“I trust that the RDA staff and the administration is working out those kinks and we’re going to reassess that in our future,” he said. “But there’s a huge hope for this area to develop. It makes no sense that this land is sitting empty.”

What’s not included

There was also some tension on Tuesday over what’s not included. The plan doesn’t consider possible changes to the Rio Grande Depot, which is still vacant as it undergoes repairs and seismic retrofitting following the 2020 earthquake.

The building is owned by the state and is slated to house state agencies like the Utah State Historical Society when it reopens; however, it’s also at the center of a community-led effort to bury the railroads in the area. City leaders said they could look at state and federal funding options to pay for the equally ambitious plan estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion.

Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan said he believes the plan to bury the rails will become more important as the district grows, especially with goals in place to increase FrontRunner frequency and bring in more Amtrak service. These, he said, would create more “walls” between the east and west sides.

“I agree with the vision, but I’m not quite sure it’s hitting the vision,” he said of the district plan, adding that he would look to see it include more options to overcome these barriers.

The city has received several emails and other public comments asking why the Rio Grande Plan isn’t even mentioned in the Rio Grande District plan, Puy told KSL.com after the meeting.

Puy said it’s a fair critique and city leaders discussed ways to get federal funding for those types of projects before the public meeting because of the ongoing barriers breaking up the east and west sides.

“This is not just three or four blocks. This is a greater project,” he said, adding that it would require other major infrastructure improvements. “I hope (the district) is something the city pushes forward and it comes online soon.”

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Salt Lake City has ‘ambitious vision’ as it seeks to turn Rio Grande around