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In its quest to make downtown more vibrant, Salt Lake City is opening another front on its war on blight — taking aim at surface parking lots.

About 20 percent — about 55 acres — of downtown's central business district is paved over for surface parking lots that planners say suck the life out of the city's pedestrian experience.

Earlier this fall, the City Council began to formulate a pair of ordinances that would make it difficult for building owners to demolish structures without plans to replace them. The newest proposal would prohibit demolition of buildings to make way for surface parking lots.

However, new lots would be allowed behind buildings and 75 feet from the sidewalk. Temporary surface lots could be paved in some circumstances, and the proposal could not be retroactive.

The proposed ordinance is aimed at the area from North Temple to 700 South between 200 East to 200 West, which encompasses 269 acres of buildable land, according to Salt Lake City planners.

"Parking lots are blight," said Councilman Luke Garrott, comparing them to "broken teeth" in the face of downtown.

The relatively high number of them downtown diminishes the urban experience, added Councilman Stan Penfold, who proposed the parking-lot ordinance.

"Surface lots leave the perception you have nothing to go to," he said. "We want streets where there is somewhere to go on every block."

Penfold said his proposal "closes a loophole" in the ­city's ongoing effort to reduce surface lots. Presently, in the downtown zone, they are allowed as a "conditional use."

The council's efforts may not bear fruit overnight, but Kirk Huffaker, executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, said the ordinances the council is pursuing are crucial for the future of downtown.

He pointed to the barren block from 400 South to 500 South between Main Street and West Temple, among examples of parking-lot blight. The location was once home to the historic Hotel Newhouse, which was demolished in 1983. More than 25 years later, it's still a parking lot.

On 200 East between 100 South and 200 South, both sides of the street are largely parking lots. There remains, however, one Victorian house. It's likely that a number of historic structures like that were razed for parking, Huffaker said.

"It's one of those lamentable things that happened in the city," he said. "It's the lowest and worse use instead of the highest and best use."

But Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance business group, said the council's efforts would be better spent looking for ways to make development of surface parking lots more feasible for property owners and developers.

"A developer's goal is to make money," he said, "not hang on to a parking lot forever."

Mathis pointed to a number of recent downtown projects that have been built on surface parking lots, including Harmons grocery store, the high-rise at 222 S. Main and the Questar headquarters between 300 South and 400 South.

Council Chairman Soren Simonsen agreed and added that the city should find incentives for property owners to keep older buildings, rather than the current system, including property tax rates, that encourages tear-downs and "land banking" — holding undeveloped land in the hope it can be sold later for a higher price.

Present economics "can be conducive to tearing a building down and leaving a parking lot," Simonsen said. "But that doesn't create a walkable city."

The demolition ordinance and the surface parking-lot ordinance seek the same goal, Penfold said.

"My goal," he said, "is to see new construction and development downtown."

The more that new buildings replace surface parking lots, the more activity downtown will see, Penfold said. In turn, more activity will attract more businesses and more new building. No date has been scheduled for a vote on either ordinance.

Online: What's in demolition, parking lot ordinances?

O Read the Salt Lake City Council's demolition and parking lot ordinances. >

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