This proposal could cut emissions and boost SLC’s housing supply

06 March, 2024

Turner Bitton grew up in Ogden but dreamed of living in Salt Lake City.

“I grew up in a rural area as a queer person,” Bitton said, “the city is not only a great place to live because there’s so much opportunity here, but there’s a sense of safety. There’s a sense of connection and community that comes with being in the city.”

That experience of finding connection, community and safety and a desire to ensure that others looking for the same thing could find a place to call home in Salt Lake City spurred him to create the housing advocacy group SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors.

It also is the reason that Bitton is supporting a new proposed ordinance change that would, in part, create incentives for developers to turn older buildings into housing and allow multifamily housing in areas that would previously require a rezone.

“It’s sustainability,” Salt Lake City planner Amy Thompson told The Tribune, “but it’s also preserving the neighborhood character.”

The United Nations noted that the construction industry is responsible for 37% of global emissions. The most effective way to lower emissions in the industry is repurposing buildings, according to a 2023 plan that noted “building less by repurposing existing buildings is the most valuable option, generating 50-75% fewer emissions than new construction.”

The proposed adaptive reuse amendments are a rare solution that both housing advocates and those concerned with preserving neighborhood character support.

Lynn Pershing, president of preservation group K.E.E.P Yalecrest wrote to the city in support of the measure: “adaptive reuse should be the first approach ‘low hanging fruit’ used to address multifamily housing needs in the city.”

But developers are not sure that the incentives will be enough to actually make preservation pencil, especially for those used to tearing down and starting anew.

What is it and where has it been done?

The proposed “adaptive reuse amendments” would provide a few different sets of incentives.

A developer would be able to convert buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “historically significant buildings” and buildings that used to be churches, schools or hospitals into multifamily housing.

Right now, residential projects would have to go through a rezone process, which takes time. “The current process only allows for non-residential uses in a residential zone,” Thompson told the Planning Commission last week.

Now, a developer that buys an old church or cultural landmark with plans to build multifamily housing “can do that by right, which means that these projects can happen quickly,” Bitton said, “and they don’t have to go through a cumbersome process to make that project happen.”

Salt Lake City has roughly 300 historic sites.

The second set of incentives are aimed at making it appealing for developers to preserve buildings that were built 50 years ago or longer and help the city meet its sustainability goals.

“Sometimes it would be much cheaper just to scrape it and start over because of the development potential without it there,” Thompson said, “and so we’re trying to do everything we can from a zoning perspective to allow for that growth but still keep it in scale and character with the existing buildings in the neighborhood.”

Developers who preserve an older building would benefit from a more streamlined approval process for those projects, potentially build higher in some zones, and minimum parking for non-residential uses could be reduced.

There are already several examples of completed and in-progress adaptive reuse projects in Salt Lake City.

Ivory Innovations is building apartments and town homes on the site of the old Liberty Wells Center on the corner of 400 East and 700 South. The nonprofit plans to keep the 1950′s era recreation center intact while building 36 town homes on the adjacent baseball field. And the old Salt Lake City VA Hospital wasturned into high-end condos more than a decade ago.


(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells stake house, built in 1950, is pictured on Friday, June 23, 2023, before a planned redesigning by Ivory Innovations.

Not all adaptive reuse projects are turned into housing. The 29th Ward Meeting House on 400 North will soon be a community center, for example. But those looking to turn housing into something else would not benefit from the incentives.

What are the downsides?

Developers warn that the incentives may not go far enough.

Real estate investment firm TAG wrote in a public comment that it “overall supports the proposed revisions to the Adaptive Reuse Text Amendment. By removing square footage requirements, expanding eligibility, allowing more uses as permitted uses, and providing zoning incentives, we believe that adaptive reuse can be further encouraged, contributing to the revitalization and preservation of historic structures.”

But TAG also noted that “reducing the building code requirements for historic buildings” could alleviate major expenses.


(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 400 E Capitol Avenue in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

Dustin Holt with dbUrban Communities wrote to the planning commission that “the impact fees for the redevelopment of the entire site should be abated as well.” Impact fees are imposed on new developments to cover the costs of added infrastructure that the city may have to provide.

However, one citizen worried about holding developers accountable. “I do not feel that developers in this city have been held to account for their incentives on projects to date,” wrote Dayna McKee and asked that the city ensure developers follow through on their promises.

What’s next?

The Salt Lake City Planning Commission recommended that city council approve the amendments last week. The city council will ultimately approve, and potentially change, the code.

“An adaptive reuse ordinance gives us the opportunity to preserve some of these buildings that may have a unique cultural or historical importance in the community,” Bitton with SLC Neighbors for More Neighbors said, “but don’t necessarily have a useful life as what they were originally intended for.”

As the city grows, even those supportive of more housing worry about the culture lost.

“Keeping these existing buildings, repurposing them gives us this opportunity to really maintain some of these cultural icons,” Bitton said, “while also building new neighborhoods and creating housing in really highly desirable areas.”

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Lake Tribune website. Click here to read the original article.