Bentley Peay insists that Intermountain Health sees the old Sears site in midtown Salt Lake City as the perfect place to set up a new hospital not just in the next few years but for decades to come, as a way to serve areas in and around the city.

"We want to be an anchor here and we build our facilities that way," Intermountain's director of corporate real estate told members of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission during a meeting last week. "We plan to be here for a long time if we're allowed to build what we want to build."

Peay's message came as Intermountain Health provided the most details about its plans for the property since filing paperwork to rezone the block around 754 S. State to make way for an "urban hospital" in November. The company spoke about the project as it seeks to turn a now-empty lot into that facility.

The Salt Lake City Planning Commission voted 7-3 to give a favorable recommendation of Intermountain's rezoning request to turn almost 9 acres of land at that address from a downtown support district (D-2) to a central business district (D-1) zone.

The commission's vote included that the use of a hospital and ambulance services be considered as "conditional uses" that will be reviewed further by the Salt Lake City Council. Intermountain is requesting to amend the city's D-1 zone language to allow for hospitals and other hospital-related items to be included in the list of permitted uses within the zoning code.

It's ultimately up to the City Council to approve the rezoning request and zoning amendment before the project moves forward.

Why Intermountain picked the Sears site

Intermountain acquired the shuttered Sears building at the end of 2021, though little has been said about the project. However, Peay told the commission that it meets all the needs for a new hospital in the city, which is why Intermountain pounced on it.

The location has enough space for a downtown hospital but is also close enough to freeways and major roads to get ambulances in and out of the hospital. It's near public transportation and near where new development is already happening.

"We were really excited about this opportunity to pick up this much acreage at one time, as opposed to having to get half an acre every three or four years and assemble that," he said. "It really was an excellent opportunity for us to pick this site."

Crews began demolition on the old department store in October, shortly before the company tipped its hand about its future plans. The rezoning request documents outlined a plan for a hospital.

Intermountain hasn't started its design process, so there are no renderings just yet. Peay said the facility will look completely different than other Intermountain hospitals because of its location.

Heather Wall, the CEO and administrator of Intermountain's LDS Hospital in the Avenues, said the new hospital has the potential to bring in about 1,700 employees along with a few hundred patients or families every day. It could also draw in 22,000 emergency room visits, 10,600 surgeries and 2,000 deliveries annually among other services, based on LDS Hospital's current demand.

She added that connecting with the neighborhood is another large component of the plan, which is why the company began speaking with neighboring landowners about its desire for a downtown hospital. Based on the feedback from current employees, Wall believes many staff members will want to live within blocks of the facility because of easy transportation to work, offering another reason to want to fit in with the community.

"This is a really big deal to us," she said. "As you build a hospital, you become a part of the community, and so it should be expected of us that we're making these connections."

It's unclear what that means for LDS Hospital. An Intermountain spokesman told that "no decisions have been made" yet on the future of the site in the Avenues, adding that it's still possible that it's used in the future along with the new site.

Why a rezone matters

The rezoning would allow Intermountain to construct a bigger building on the lot, which is pivotal for project planning.

Salt Lake City urban designer Amanda Roman points out that the city's downtown core, which is the heart of the D-1 rezoning district, ends about a half-block north of the proposed hospital. Given its proximity to the line, she said it's not much of a stretch to extend it farther south into the midtown area.

"The (downtown) growth is expected and it is appropriate," she said during last week's meeting. "The applicant has stated that part of the request to rezone would be to increase the development potential of the property and, specifically, additional height might be requested as a part of their proposal in the future."

Under Salt Lake City's D-1 zone for corner block buildings, which the project falls under, the proposed hospital would be between 100 feet and 375 feet in height, though it can be taller as long as it's approved by Salt Lake City planners. The Wells Fargo Center is currently the city's tallest building at 422 feet; Astra Tower will surpass that when it's completed.

The only other zoning requirement is that the building must have ground-floor glass. Medical helicopters could be allowed to land at the hospital with approval. Wall explained that there would be some medical helicopter flyovers, just not as much as a Level I trauma center like University of Utah Hospital in the eastern part of the city.

The property could only reach a maximum of 120 feet in height design review approval under its current D-2 zone. For context, that's about 90 feet shorter than the Salt Lake Temple's tallest point, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Roman adds there are more design standards currently written out in the D-2 zone.

Excitement and concern

A city staff report created for the meeting shows mixed reactions from residents and businesses in the area, though most of the documented feedback has been positive so far.

"We are excited to have Intermountain join the downtown area," said Tom Merrill, the former chairman of the Downtown Community Council, in last week's meeting. "We think is just going to be a really important development, really going to create a bit of an important anchor in the southern part of downtown."

However, some residents said they would prefer a smaller complex. Salt Lake City planning commissioner Andra Ghent brought up concerns about parking, something that is yet to be determined because it's too early in the design process. She encouraged designers to find ways to nudge people into riding transit as much as possible to curb that impact.

Given the size of the property, she said it's important to make sure the project is handled correctly.

"That hugely influences what sort of businesses we have downtown," she said. "It's a huge opportunity and I just wouldn't want to see it squandered."

Even supporters, like Merrill, said they look to see design concepts before the rezone is finalized. He views it as a way to help reassure that the project will fulfill what Intermountain Health has told community leaders so far.

Members of the commission ultimately agreed to move the project forward with these concerns in mind. The only dispute seemingly fell over whether the hospital and related services should be recommended as permitted or conditional uses. That led planning commissioner Anaya Gayle to vote against the measure despite her support for the plan.

"This to me is a no-brainer," she said, of the project. "Maybe some of us don't like the fact that the city is getting larger and higher and noisier but we are trying to be a central, large city."

It's unclear yet when the Salt Lake City Council will take up the final vote. Intermountain officials add there's no construction timeline as they await the final zone ruling.