Members of the Salt Lake City Council will be faced with a decision next Tuesday on proposed changes in Salt Lake zoning laws that would discourage the practice of demolishing buildings and replacing them with surface parking lots.
At stake is a philosophy that may affect downtown development and private business decisions for years to come. The issue has divided the business community.The zoning change would affect the central business district bounded by North Temple, 200 East, West Temple, and 400 South, an area struggling for survival since opening of the ZCMI Center and Crossroads Mall in the northern downtown area.
The proposed zoning change would require any proposed demolition to show an "acceptable" use of the property - acceptable in this case meaning something that would improve the downtown area.
It would make surface parking lots a "conditional" use that must be approved by the City Planning and Zoning Commission. At present, they are an "allowed" use that does not require advance approval from the city.
These ideas were put forth last June by a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team - better known as R/UDAT - invited to study the city and make suggestions for reviving the downtown area.
Until now, some owners have simply "banked" downtown property by turning old buildings into asphalt parking lots. The proposed zoning change, in effect, would discourage such practices.
There is nothing wrong with tearing down an old building and replacing it with a parking area as a short-term step before starting construction of new development. The real problem that downtown leaders want to avoid is doing that on a long-term or open-ended basis.
Questar Corp., which owns about $25 million in downtown property, is caught in the middle of this argument. It owns the old Utah-Idaho School Supply building on State Street and has long-range, but indefinite, plans for the entire block.
The company says it would be too expensive to renovate the building for any commercial use in the meantime. So Questar wants to tear down the structure and make a parking lot until such time as it needs the property for another building.
Imposing new rules at this point may not be entirely fair to Questar. But any change in zoning will catch somebody at an awkward monent.
If Questar can't tear down the building and can't renovate it, the edifice will simply stand there, crumbling, serving as a hangout for transients and posing a fire danger.
It becomes a question of which eyesore is better, the parking lot or the empty building. What limits can or should the city place on a company that affect its business decisions?
Yet it seems clear there needs to be a better procedure for dealing with demolition of older structures - one that enourages downtown growth. Once such a procedure is in place, then owners will know by what rules they must play.
Still, there ought to be an alternative to parking lots when demolition is necessary. Why not replace a building with a mini-park, something like the one built by Utah Power & Light on West Temple, across the street from the Salt Palace?
This would not resolve the basic problem of vacant land versus acceptable development, but if there is going to be vacant land, at least it would look more attractive.