Utah's capital city is projected to continue to grow, but it is running out of open land to build on.

As the old adage goes: If you can't build horizontally, build vertically. This is already happening with the forthcoming Astra Tower, which is quickly rising up to be the city's next tallest building.

"We're constrained geographically — that's the truth. We're going to have to build up at some point," said Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros.

A new city proposal to amend downtown city codes could pave the way for even taller buildings. It aims to address the space issue while making downtown Salt Lake City's code a little more uniform throughout.

The Salt Lake City Council is now considering the plan, which changes the building requirements for seven zoning types, all located in and around the central downtown area. It could potentially make downtown blocks easier and safer to maneuver around in addition to taller buildings.

The council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter later this month before potentially voting on it in May.

A taller downtown?

There are several parts to the proposed changes, but height might be the most noticeable off the bat.

If approved, minimum and maximum height requirements would change for new buildings within the Downtown Central Business District (D-1), which already allows for the tallest buildings in the city. These are the towers that shape Salt Lake City's skyline, frequently photographed underneath the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains.

The zone currently states that all buildings must have a minimum height of 100 feet, while the city allows for a maximum height of 375 feet — something that's set aside for corner lots.

The "by right" height minimum would be increased to 200 feet, but there would also be considerations for buildings to be under 100 feet, according to Jessica Garrow, a project principal for Design Workshop, a firm that helped Salt Lake City piece together the plan. Garrow presented the plan to the City Council on Tuesday.

The maximum height requirement would be removed for corner lot properties, under the proposed changes. While there would no longer be any maximum height, projects taller than 200 feet would have to go through a design review, Garrow said.

She explained that adjustments were made to help protect the city's treasured views while also adjusting for new growth.

"These changes really seek to balance development with the preservation of views and reflecting the existing character of different neighborhoods within Salt Lake City," she told city councilmembers.

This map shows the seven affected zones that would be changed under a proposed ordinance change.
This map shows the seven affected zones that would be changed under a proposed ordinance change. | Salt Lake City Corporation

D-1 could also grow soon. Intermountain Health is seeking a rezoning of its newly acquired property by 754 S. State so it can move forward with a new urban hospital. The current D-1 zone ends less than a block from the property. If both the ordinance and rezone requests are approved, that project would have to abide by the new dimensions.

The building height requirements would also change within the six other rezones, though none as drastic as the D-1 rezone;

  • Downtown Support (D-2): Minimum height remains 65 feet; maximum height remains 120 feet but with new conditions.
  • Downtown Warehouse (D-3): Minimum height remains 75 feet; maximum height is raised from 90 feet to 180 feet with new conditions and design reviews.
  • Downtown Secondary Business District (D-4): Maximum height remains 120-375 feet in permitted locations, but taller buildings would be subject to design review in the future. There is no minimum height requirement.
  • Gateway Mixed Use (G-MU): Minimum height is raised from 25-45 feet to 75 feet; maximum height is raised from 75-120 feet to 180 feet. Buildings 90 feet or taller are subject to design review.
  • General Commercial (CG): Maximum height is raised from 60-90 feet to 75-105 for buildings outside of the Granary District and 75-150 feet for buildings within the Granary District with design review
  • Form-Based Urban Neighborhood 1 and 2 (FB-UN-1/2): Maximum height is raised from 30 feet to 50-65 feet with a design review. There is no minimum height.

A few of the proposed changes take into account plans already sought by developers near the Rio Grande and Granary district, according to Salt Lake City planning manager Kelsey Lindquist.

"They are already going through a design review process to increase their height, and that area was identified by a lot of our stakeholder groups and the public as an acceptable location for additional height," Lindquist said. "Both the Depot and Granary are seeing a huge height increase."

Garrow adds that there's language included in the plan to handle wide disparities between building height, especially in clashing zones. For example, a 45-degree angular plane is required for any project next to an existing building that has a lower height. This doesn't apply if there's a pathway or road between the two.

This, she explained, is to allow for "some kind of transition" instead of an "abrupt" difference.

Other proposed building modifications

The plan also includes several changes that would be universal across all seven zones, such as certain entrance setbacks and midblock walkways. There would also be a minimum sidewalk width of 10 feet in an effort to improve "street connectivity and walkability" in the area, Garrow explained.

"This was something that was really important to include. We heard in our outreach, particularly from the disability community, that it's important to have clear paths for everyone to use and to experience downtown," she said. "So that's something that applies to all of the downtown zones."

There would also be new limits on surface parking lots within the D-1 through D-4 zones, though there are adjustments made to specific areas. Garrow said that there are exemptions that help the current car dealerships in the D-2 zone.

Adding new code rules would be a welcomed change for the D-1 specifically, said Salt Lake City's planning director Nick Norris. He pointed out that, aside from a rule that glass is used for the ground-level entry into a building, there are really no design standards for new downtown skyscrapers.

The point of the proposal is to allow for more consistency throughout downtown, while the varying heights serve as a way to add "variety and character" to the different parts of the area. It also closes a "gap" in the city code where some projects don't go through a review process.

"It's somewhat amazing that we haven't had more development that's detrimental to our rights of way and our public spaces," Norris said.

The plan moving forward

Members of the council had plenty of questions and comments, especially on specific details that they'd like to iron out before voting on the plan.

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Darin Mano said he would like to ensure that all sidewalks are the same so there aren't any massive sidewalks on one property and narrower ones next door. Councilman Dan Dugan also requested that language be added to include requirements for "bird-friendly" windows, which would reduce glare and bird collisions downtown.

Councilman Alejandro Puy added that he would like to see a requirement that mixed-use projects include public amenities like small markets or coffee shops over private amenities like gyms that many recent projects have included.

"We need to really think about not only incentivizing that but requiring it," he said. "(Downtown) is going to double in population. It's obvious that we're going to need it."

However, city leaders will still have time to mull over the measure and make adjustments before it becomes a part of the city code. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for April 18.

The council is tentatively scheduled to vote on the plan during its May 2 meeting.