SOUTH SALT LAKE — For 102 years, Granite High School was the picture of constancy for South Salt Lake students.
But since the school closed its doors in 2009, citing declining enrollment and prohibitive costs associated with safety upgrades, the future of the vacant property has been anything but certain.
City officials initially talked of plans to build a large arts and recreation center there, but the proposed $25 million bond for that project failed by just five votes in 2011.
In 2012, Woodbury Corp. and Redman Movies and Stories announced their intentions to coordinate on an ambitious TV and film studio on the property that promised to bring along with it about 1,000 jobs and a $40 million investment. That idea fizzled when the businesses announced they no longer had enough money for the project.
Then in early 2016, South Salt Lake Mayor Cheri Wood vetoed the City Council's approval of a Garbett Homes plan to put a Wal-Mart or potentially another grocery store on the property.
After seven years without a resolution, the new fate of much of the unused property appears as assured as ever after the South Salt Lake Planning Commission unanimously approved Thursday a proposal from Garbett Homes to build single-family homes there.
"We really don’t have any grounds to delay this any further," planning commissioner Rachael Lauritzen said, conceding she gave her vote of approval "reluctantly" because it would mean not preserving the area.
About 16 of the 27 acres that housed Granite High will contain new homes. Pending mostly routine approvals and finalizations by city staff, about 76 homes are expected be built there.
"We think this will be an awesome subdivision for the city of South Salt Lake. It will attract families," Jacob Ballstaedt, Garbett Homes spokesman, told the planning commission. "This will be a community where they’ll want to stay and raise their family."
Garbett Homes plans to purchase and develop the remaining 11 acres, but left that northern part of the property out of the specific proposal discussed Thursday. Ballstaedt said the business wants to move quickly with its plans on the approved portion.
Thursday's vote followed a contentious public hearing in which several residents expressed their opposition to the Garbett Homes development. Three of the old high school's four main buildings will be demolished as a direct result of the pending purchase, a sore spot for many residents who spoke.
Some residents criticized Garbett Homes for only submitting details for one portion of the property, saying the company was purposefully leaving the planning commission with limited information to work with.
"Without the totality of that plan I would urge you to vote against it until there’s a total plan for the whole lot, because we don’t want to end up with another vacant lot for years," resident Kevin Miller told the commission.
Ballstaedt said the company is still working on a proposal for those acres and is open to various retail or mixed retail and residential options. He insisted that getting the property development approved in two parts is not an end-around because the city would have to approve a zoning change for the northern parcel in order for commercial developments to be put in place.
"Really what it comes down to is trying to determine what the city wants" in that area, Ballstaedt told the Deseret News.
School district satisfied
Granite School District thought highly of South Salt Lake's plans to purchase the property for its own purposes in 2011, said district spokesman Ben Horsley. But since those plans never materialized, he said, they're pleased to make a sale to Garbett Homes.
"While that would have been in our opinion the best option, moving forward it is no longer feasible and this is the next best option," Horsley said.
The sale of the southern portion of the property is expected to be finalized by Jan. 23.
The minimally maintained property has become a magnet for crime, drawing more than 200 calls to Granite School District police alone over the past year because of trespassing and other issues, Horsley said.
"We continue to have squatters, copper theft, drug deals and even young people entering the property to explore and do all manner of vandalism," he said. "It is an attractive nuisance."
Last ditch efforts
A permanent resolution appears to be right around the corner for the old Granite High, but one organization hopes to make a last-minute bid for the property and keep the buildings standing.
Merili Carter, a former fourth-generation Granite High student and project manager for the Utah Arts Alliance, said her organization has been in contact with Garbett Homes and made a preliminary $11.5 million offer for the property in December.
Carter hopes the developer will turn around and sell their newly purchased property to the Utah Arts Alliance, which she said wants to preserve the existing buildings and transform them into a community arts and theater campus and one or two small shops. The organization would buy the property using grants and donations, she said.
Carter said it would be "a shame ... to lose the buildings and lose the open space."
Ballstaedt confirmed the Utah Arts Alliance has been in touch with Garbett Homes, but described any sale to the organization as a longshot. He said that's especially true as Garbett Homes ramps up more and more of its own financial resources behind plans to build single family homes on the property.
While some residents may want to see the seven-year saga end with their old high school standing, Ballsteadt said it is doubtful that the Utah Arts Alliance's last ditch effort to buy the property will be successful.
"The biggest challenge is ... they haven't demonstrated the ability to perform and actually buy the property," Ballstaedt told the Deseret News.