U. project worries residents

'Universe' » After a preview, Salt Lakers say it's mundane and could crowd out local businesses.
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Salt Lake City residents got their first full-color taste Thursday night of the University of Utah's proposed Universe Project, a mixed-use development slated to replace the Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lot.

And many gathered at the workshop did not like what they saw or heard.

"This is tepid, it's pedestrian, it's blah," said Sugar House resident Deanpaul Russell, who hoped the U. would grasp the opportunity to create a "keynote" structure like the nearby Hoberman Arch, Olympic bridge and Salt Lake City Main Library. "What's here that sings 'We're making a place here'?"

At the workshop in the stadium tower overlooking the very ground at stake, the U.'s preferred developer, Inland American Communities Group, and its partners laid out a vision for transforming an 8-acre patch of asphalt into a vibrant commercial center with far-reaching effects on the neighborhood.

Plans call for 40,000 square feet of university offices, 150 rental apartments and 85-square-feet of lifestyle-oriented retail anchored by the University Campus Bookstore, along with a grocery and a cinema. The project is to tie into the Stadium TRAX stop, which sees 15,000 riders a day, and is a key part of U. officials' vision to get students to spend more time on campus.

"Almost a third of the entire system's riders on any given day go through this station," said Steve Smith, a principal at GSBS Architects, Inland's local partner. "Our goal is to create an exciting environment for people to live and come and enjoy. … This is an opportunity to enhance the retail environment."

The developers' concept, still in a preliminary stage of design, calls for a five-level parking structure at the southeast corner of the square site, and to the west a grocery under offices on the corner of 500 South and University Street. The north half of the development would be four- and five-floor apartment blocks.

Between the two halves would be a retail-oriented internal street linking a series of plazas between the train stop and the stadium's northwest entrance.

But Smith and his colleagues faced a battery of skeptical and pointed questions from the more than 60 neighborhood residents.

Will the proposed parking configurations really work? How will it add to an already congested traffic flow? Will taxpayers be on the hook should the project fail? And this worry: The concept seems far out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

Perhaps foremost on residents' minds was how the U. will ensure Universe's commercial tenants are not just a pack of chains that will undermine local business and degrade the character of the city's East Bench. Residents and local merchants are openly fearful Universe could replicate the Gateway's impact on downtown.

"Will there be a place for local businesses?" bookstore owner Betsy Burton, a leader in Local First Utah, posed rhetorically. She said Inland officials had previously told her locals would be welcome -- if they could pay market rents.

"The minute they say those words, "market value," you know you're in trouble," quipped Tempe, Ariz., bookstore owner Gayle Shanks. She cautioned how chain development a few blocks from Arizona State University in the 1990s turned Tempe's Mill Street district from an enclave of independent retail, patronized by students and nonstudents alike, into a chain mall and then to no-go zone of empty store fronts and seedy bars.

Smith affirmed that the developers' central tenet is to create active public space.

"Local businesses would be very important to achieve that goal. It's the Universe, not just any place," Smith said. "We are not about ugly. We are about successful environments that support human activity and endeavor."


Get involved

Inland American's associates in the Universe Project include GSBS Architects of Salt Lake City, JH&P Architects of Dallas, Sahara Construction, the consultant Nelson Nygaard and the broker CBRE.

Although the U. and its private partners are not beholden to city building requirements, they have promised to seek community guidance.

What's next

Two more public workshops are planned: Feb. 26 and March 26,. Plus, city officials plan invite the public to three advisory task force meetings in the coming weeks, starting Feb. 12. See www.universeproject.com