The Tech Center development proposal seemed to enter a new phase on Wednesday, with county councilors indicating their receptiveness to innovative ideas like swapping land with the developer or collaborating on expensive projects like an underground transit hub, Kimball Junction intersection fixes or a pedestrian bridge across S.R. 224.
Dakota Pacific Real Estate suggested many of these ideas in its original application 18 months ago, which was shelved after the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission recommended the developer return with a project it could fund itself on land it owns.
“We’re now kind of starting right back at the beginning of where they started a year and a half ago,” said Councilor Malena Stevens, who was a member of the Planning Commission when the application was submitted.
Dakota Pacific is seeking to create an 1,100-unit residential project at the Tech Center site, undeveloped land near the Skullcandy headquarters southwest of Kimball Junction that is currently entitled for a 1.3 million-square-foot office park.
The original application contained what developers called “aspirational” components that could help address county priorities, including a bus rapid transit hub with 1,000 underground parking spaces, a pedestrian bridge connecting both sides of Kimball Junction, a proposal for how to improve the two traffic-choked intersections near the S.R. 224-Interstate 80 interchange and a gondola swooping over the project.
The developer acknowledged that it wouldn’t be able to pay for those improvements on its own and that it would take collaboration with the county to swap land where the current transit center is, for example, and with the state agencies involved in redoing the Kimball Junction interchange.
“Candidly, we were looking for somebody in the county to throw us a bone saying, ‘Yeah, you know what, this does make sense. So how are we going to get this started? Are you guys going to set up a meeting with UDOT, what are we going to do?’” said Jeff Gochnour, Dakota Pacific Real Estate director of development. “But we never really got that sense.”
So Dakota Pacific submitted a pared down application late last spring, which was given a negative recommendation by the Planning Commission in September.
Now, the County Council is prepared to revisit those initial ideas to determine whether there might be a way to accomplish them.
“Maybe it was inevitable that we get to this point,” Councilor Chris Robinson said, adding that the county’s approval process hadn’t served the developer particularly well. “… I don’t believe the Planning Commission would be empowered to do this, to engage with UDOT, to engage, to discuss the equities of trading lands and bringing in partners and stuff that’s just so far outside their wheelhouse.”
Robinson was participating for the first time in a public meeting about the Tech Center proposal after recusing himself last fall. The County Attorney’s Office determined that Robinson’s voluntary recusal, made because he had received Utah Jazz tickets from someone associated with the development team, was non-mandatory, and that he was clear to participate in discussions. Robinson reimbursed the developer for the tickets.
He spoke at length and was seemingly energized by the prospect of leveraging the developer’s plan to tackle big county goals like connecting the east and west sides of Kimball Junction, enhancing the Kimball Junction transit center and working with the Utah Department of Transportation to improve the Interstate 80-S.R. 224 interchange.
The developer and the County Council also indicated their support for exploring a different funding mechanism for infrastructure improvements in the area, one that would capitalize on the future tax revenue created by development on what is now empty land.
The general idea is that if the county were to designate the project site as a special area known as a “CDA,” the difference in property taxes between what the owners pay on empty land and what they would pay on developed land would be paid back to the CDA, funding infrastructure projects like the ones eyed as ‘aspirational’ improvements to the area.
The money could be used to build a new transit center, contribute to UDOT’s project to improve the Kimball Junction interchange or pursue projects like a pedestrian bridge connection.
Councilors indicated they would be interested to learn more about the funding option in coming meetings.
Robinson asked Gochnour to establish a rough price tag for some of the more ambitious aspects in the original plan.
“I think (costs) ought to be (estimated) so that we can see whether it’s just a pipe dream that none of us can afford, or whether there’s really a way forward,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can find a win-win here that’s going to be good for the community, good for the developer and good for our visitors.”
Other councilors appeared to agree with Robinson’s assessment, including Doug Clyde and Glenn Wright.
Clyde, in particular, offered his sharpest comments on the proposal to date.
He called the existing approval, which envisions uniform blocks of office buildings with adjoining surface parking lots, “horrifying.” But he said it would be a mistake to think the plan is so bad it would never be built.
“I’ve got shelves of books that explain how land planning goes wrong, and they all start with similar sorts of ridiculous assumptions,” he said. “If you’ve got an entitlement, you’d better expect it’s going to be built, and you’d better expect you’re going to see the full impact of that.”
The development agreement restricts projects to only technology-related businesses, a provision that has slowed development at the site, and one Dakota Pacific is seeking to change.
Wright and Robinson indicated they agreed with Clyde’s assessment that the office park would eventually be built.
Clyde lambasted the 2008 development agreement that laid out the office park concept.
“It was made for all the wrong reasons, it had no respect whatsoever for the consequences of those decisions, and we have an opportunity to change that,” he said. “We should change it now.”
The council indicated it would begin holding regular work sessions with the developer in public meetings held on days other than regular County Council meetings, which are normally held on Wednesdays.
“Now we’re going to start talking turkey,” Robinson said.