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Salt Lake City officials have endorsed the first step in Trolley Square's plans to build a new multistory complex of shops and apartments on a parking lot and adjacent parcels just south of the landmark mall.
After two hours of clashing public testimony and debate, the city's Planning Commission voted Wednesday to support a request from Trolley Square owner Khosrow Semnani to rezone a nearly three-acre plot along 600 South near 700 East.
The commission's thumbs-up and the zoning request now head to the City Council for final approval.
Semnani's Trolley Square Ventures is seeking added latitude in what it might build in place of the surface parking, disused homes and empty lots beneath that end of the mall's iconic sky bridge as the millionaire businessman continues efforts to turn around the once-bankrupt shopping center.
Semnani said Wednesday he's proposing the new mixed-use development not only to draw new residents and shoppers to boost the fortunes of the mall's retail tenants, but also to lift property values in the surrounding Central City neighborhood.
"This is a jewel of the city that needs more than a face-lift," Semnani said of the mall.
Semnani's staff at S.K. Hart Management released early renderings of the project featuring a grand five-story structure with towers, domes and other architectural nods to a pioneer-era exhibition hall that once stood on the site. He spoke Wednesday about his respect for Trolley's history and its support from residents.
"I've always loved that place," said Semnani, a Utah resident since 1968. "There are good memories there for a lot of people."
Word of his proposal brought more than 100 residents to City Hall late Wednesday in support and opposition. Some said it promised important economic gains and the elimination of blight and vagrancy. Others saw it as a snub to historic preservation and feared it would eventually squeeze out longtime residents and businesses, diluting the neighborhood's distinct character.
"This is a planning fail, from an academic standpoint," said Nicholas Rupp, a neighbor and an instructor at the University of Utah's Department of City and Metropolitan Planning.
Despite some neighbors' worries, critiques from outside planning experts and concern over a lack of public notice, commissioners endorsed giving all but one small piece of the residential property a new form-based zoning designed for urban neighborhoods.
If the council signs off, the zoning switch would allow commercial uses, reduce setback requirements and lift maximum building heights to 50 feet from the current 35- to 45-foot cap.
Commissioners Michael Gallegos and Clark Ruttinger called Semnani's application "a great opportunity."
Of the seven commissioners present, only Michael Fife voted no not in opposition to the new mixed-use project, he said, but in light of so many residents stating they had too few details. The head of Central City's own neighborhood council said he also had been of out of the loop.
"I suspect the developer knows this project will be unpopular," Neighborhood Council Chairman Michael Iverson said, "and that's why they've done no community outreach."
Promising more dialogue, Semnani said the rezone is necessary to inform further market studies, planning and more exact designs for community review "once we have something to show."
"We want their input," he said, "but we need to get to first base."
City planner Lex Traughber said the new zoning met wider goals in the neighborhood for a blend of land uses, housing types, density and walkability. He said public concerns about any project details fell solely to the city's Historic Landmark Commission, once site plans emerged.
"It's not your decision," Traughber told the Planning Commission, adding later, "this is not your jurisdiction." The assertion drew claims the panel was effectively ducking its duty.
"This is your turf," former Planning Commission member Cindy Cromer told them. The landmark panel "can't do a thing about zoning."