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Salt Lake City unveils plans for mixed-use urban neighborhood

SALT LAKE CITY — Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance, channeled his inner Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday in describing development plans for Station Center, a mixed-use urban neighborhood west of the historic Rio Grande Depot.

"This is a big deal. This is a big deal," Mathis said.

Planners envision Station Center as a mixed-use urban neighborhood with retail, commercial and residential development on about 9 acres between the Depot and UTA’s Salt Lake Central Station.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker described Station Center as the "premier transit-oriented development opportunity in our region and perhaps anywhere in the country."

"Promoting the development of a new downtown neighborhood where residents will have access to every transportation mode is a key aspect to my livability agenda. New residents of this neighborhood will be able to easily reduce their automobile trips and make positive impacts on our air quality challenges."

The elephant in the room, or the depot veranda, at least, is what the planned development could mean for The Gateway and services for homeless people who are also part of the neighborhood.

DJ Baxter, executive director of the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, said Station Center would not replicate The Gateway.

"I don't expect this to compete with The Gateway but rather to add a lot of new activity to the neighborhood," he said. "In fact, if we're successful here, I think it will actually help The Gateway."

With respect to homeless services, Baxter said Becker is leading "a robust effort" to study the location of homeless services in the city. The recommendations of the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission are expected to be delivered at the end of the year.

"I don't think anything we're doing … is intended to or likely to displace those services. In fact, the folks who work here and use those services are a very important part of this neighborhood," Baxter said.

The first phase of the process opens five of the RDA’s Station Center sites for development proposals in the area, which is between 200 South and 400 South from 500 West to 600 West.

Other improvements include narrowing 300 South and creating a “festival street” that can be closed off for events. It also would create new green space and public plazas.

The RDA also owns two historic structures in the neighborhood, the former Serta Mattress and Beehive Brick buildings. Renovation of the latter will begin this summer, Baxter said.

"Artspace, as an organization, is the one taking on that renovation. They'll start that this summer," he said.

Artspace is a Utah nonprofit organization that creates affordable living and work spaces for artists, and cultural and nonprofit groups.

Baxter said the city will spend the coming year selecting development partners and working on the final designs of the public infrastructure elements of the project.

"We hope to start construction on those components next summer, the summer of 2016," he said. "If we're really aggressive and really fortunate with our development partners, we'd love to see some of the private development get underway by next summer as well. But that's a pretty ambitious timeline so that point may take a little longer."

Completion of the development could take three to five years, Baxter said.

Julie Fisher, executive director of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, said the historic Rio Grande Depot was a fitting setting for the Station Center announcement. The department is housed in the depot.

"At the turn of the last century, the Rio Grande Depot was the gateway of Salt Lake City and the hub of its vibrancy. One hundred years ago, immigrants seeking new lives stepped off trains mere feet away from where you are right now. It's where relationships bloomed, business deals were struck and families welcomed kin with open arms right where you are standing," Fisher said.

"Now, 100 years later, we look forward to bringing that vibrancy back to this historic area of Salt Lake City," she said.