Salt Lake City’s Sears outlet might have gone to that big retailer necropolis in the sky, but life goes on for the oversized parking lot and its accompanying property, located at the intersection of 800 South and State Street. Lara Fritts, the city’s director of the Department of Economic Development, says a local real estate group has purchased about 8.5 acres of the space.
“They are in the process of doing initial design work to begin to gather community input on,” Fritts says, marking a big change for an up-and-coming neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown. “They’re looking at a mix of uses to include housing, retail and office.”
The Salt Lake County Assessor’s website still lists Gershman Properties, a real estate investment and property management company with assets across the U.S., as the owner. “We own the dirt. We don’t own the building,” David Lachoff, Gershman’s executive vice president of sales and leasing tells City Weekly. Lachoff says an agreement was struck between Sears and the new buyer around September of last year, giving the local group the leasehold interest, meaning they pay the property taxes and rent.
“We have a lease with the current tenant, and it’s a long-term lease, and as long as they pay the rent, they have control over the real estate,” Lachoff says. “There’s no story here until there’s a story. And right now there’s still no story.”
Fritts declined to confirm which local group will develop the area—she says they are a client of the city’s that does not yet want to be publicly identified—but says they appear open to aligning their plans with the city’s transformation strategies for State Street. The plan includes building off and supporting existing culturally-diverse restaurants, making sure there are employment opportunities for residents, incorporating arts and entertainment into the space and adding housing options. “You would never go on a trip without a road map,” Fritts says of the city’s goals for the community’s rebirth. “And so you never really want to enter commercial revitalization without a plan on how you are going to get there.”
As for the possibility of adding affordable housing to the space, Fritts says, “the city is very committed to affordability. It will definitely be a part of our conversation, to see how we can weave that in.”
Fritts underscores the city has not yet seen any designs that detail how the area will be utilized. Once officials receive the drawings, Fritts says, there will be a revision process, followed by meetings with a design review team and opportunities for the public to give their feedback. “This is very early stage,” she says.
Before he was a state senator, Derek Kitchen represented the City Council district that included the Sears property. He says Sears owns some of the parcels, but there are also a couple of land leases held by car dealerships that use the lot to store their vehicles. “We see the Sears block as an enormous opportunity for housing, for office space, for urban density,” Kitchen says. “I would look at this as an opportunity to grow in a productive and dense way.”
Kitchen hopes the city and developer see the empty lot as a chance to invest in the future, to ensure the metropolis progresses in a smart, responsible way that’s mindful of the region’s explosive growth. “When you have a unique opportunity for an almost 10-acre block, that doesn’t come very often this close to the downtown urban corps,” he says.
Salt Lake City Planning Director Nick Norris says the area would not need to be rezoned in order to add housing. The developers could build high-rises of up to 125 feet. Norris says the city is exploring how to change similarly zoned districts to make them more walkable and amenable to alternative modes of transportation, like buses.
Sears, Norris suggests, was not drawing customers to Salt Lake City’s downtown, but new restaurants and brewpubs just might. Making the area more walkable and bike-friendly could inspire surrounding blocks to change their development patterns, Norris says, making the city more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly. “It has the potential to set the tone for future development and be catalytic.”