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Salt Lake planners OK measure for walkable downtown

Plan would remove rule that ground-floor sites be commercial

Salt Lake City planners moved forward Wednesday with a measure to recruit more downtown housing, while also considering an ordinance to stave off changes in the city's neighborhoods.

A new plan to beef up residential use in the downtown district — including Main Street — will now be pushed on to the City Council for a final decision after receiving a favorable recommendation from the planning commission. The ordinance would strike a current city ban on street-level multi-family dwellings, removing the requirement that the ground-floor buildings be commercial.

"The commission is very much into a walkable community and having a community alive after 5 p.m.," commissioner Babs De Lay said. "We are in such a bind for residential housing in the city proper that it's about time that we got better use out of our commercial property."

The crunch for housing also brought a second ordinance before the planning commission Wednesday to put strict boundaries on how big and how close homes can be in the city's neighborhoods like the Avenues and the Harvard/Yale area.

Limited options for remaining land have made many homeowners resort to scrapping older homes and putting up larger, out-of-character houses in their places, city planner Joel Paterson said.

"We have desirable neighborhoods, but there is limited developable land in this city," Paterson said. "The wants and desire of homeowners have changed quite a bit."

The newly-crafted ordinance would reduce the maximum height of new homes from 30 feet to 23 feet at the crest of the roof. It would also change setback requirements from the current 20 feet to a standard based on the average setback of other homes on the same block.

Accessory structures would have to be at least 20 feet from the home, and allowable building coverage would sink to 40 percent from 55 percent of the lot.

The planning commission did not reach a decision by press time on a new ordinance to combat the "monster homes" popping up in older neighborhoods, but listened to more than two hours of comments from residents.

Kirk Huffaker with the Utah Heritage Foundation applauded city planners for drafting the ordinance, which he said is reasonable while also allowing flexibility for appropriate exceptions.

For most residents, Huffaker said the central issue is the height of new buildings that tower over neighboring one-story bungalows. The 23-foot requirement would limit those two-story homes and encourage homeowners to remodel instead of completely demolish, he said.

Many residents, however, spoke against the blanket approach of the ordinance, which would be applied citywide. The new rules, they said, could hurt some neighborhoods that need special consideration.

Jared Bulloch, an architect with Renovation Design Group, said the lowered height restrictions could result in a row of flat, unattractive homes that could do more damage to a neighborhood's character.

Most homeowners want to maximize livable space, he said, and so would build straight out from the 23-foot limit. Although Bulloch said his design group is "dismayed by the trend" to build homes out of scale with the neighborhood, it does not support the ordinance.

"The proposal will certainly stop monster homes from being built, but the solution needs to be on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis," he said.


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com