Alixel Cabrera

(Uah News Dispatch) Many of the Salt Lakers who flooded the City Council chambers to share public comment may not be totally opposed to a downtown revitalization zone surrounding a sports arena to host the state’s professional basketball and soon-to-be hockey teams.

However, most want the city to “show teeth” and reach a deal with Smith Entertainment Group to include more affordable housing and public transit, and keep Abravanel Hall and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in place.

They also want to see more concrete plans and renderings before their elected officials vote on a tax increase.

Though a few attendees came to the Salt Lake City & County Building to discuss thoughts on the city budget during the council’s Tuesday night meeting, there were more than two and a half hours dedicated to those who wanted to speak about a proposed 0.5% sales taxes increase across Salt Lake City to fund a downtown revitalization zone and a space to host Utah’s new National Hockey League team.

Members of the Japantown community, officials from arts institutions, concerned residents, architects, artists, and Rocky Anderson, a former Salt Lake City mayor, asked the city to make the plan surrounding the Delta Center work for constituents.

“We know that it is in our best interest to be involved in all phases of this project. We ask that Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and SEG keep this in mind and make sure that there are a few seats at the table for all of us,” said Lisa Imamura, a board member of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. “Especially because it seems to be moving very fast.”

The Salt Lake City Council has the task of giving a final nod to a funding plan carved out by SB272, a bill that created a mechanism to raise $1 billion to pay for part of an NHL arena and downtown redevelopment through the additional tax revenue.

The Smith Entertainment Group revealed more details about the project in early May, calling the downtown area a “sports, entertainment, culture and convention district.”

One of the ideas, said Mike Maughan, the principal from Smith Entertainment Group who will lead the revitalization zone project, is to tear down some of the walls that divide the east and west sides of downtown, with an urban design offering a better flow. Also, to substantially remodel the Salt Palace Convention Center and work on Abravanel Hall and Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s buildings.

“(A) concern is the characterization of the Salt Palace as a wall. I get it. However, only describing the Salt Palace as a wall and not balancing that statement with the benefits and the purpose of the Salt Palace is risky,” Dan Hayes, general manager of the convention center said. “If the Salt Palace is misunderstood, its space and capacity could be reduced or eliminated in this process.”

About 70 people had registered to speak. After two and a half hours, the council voted to continue the public hearing at a future meeting and is reviewing a participation agreement, which outlines how the city and Smith Entertainment Group could use the tax revenue. On June 12, the Salt Lake City Planning Commission will discuss proposed zoning amendments, and on July 2, the council may vote on the plans.

While those processes are underway, many Salt Lake residents have shown concern about what the city prioritizes and the fate of its arts scene. Many gathered in the council chambers to describe what Abravanel Hall means to them and the arts community and how it’s a unique space that won’t be easy to replicate if it’s torn down. One commenter even sang in the chamber to demonstrate the importance of the acoustics that had been carefully controlled in the building.

“I ask each of you to scrutinize the untold impacts of voting to demolish this hall. What are the costs to our culture?” said Carolyn Abravanel, widow of Maurice Abravanel, the building’s namesake. She added, “what does your vote say to the world about the values of Utah when a financial incentive is more important than saving an iconic landmark?”

The building, owned by Salt Lake County, has an uncertain destiny. But, the County Council discussed a potential $200 million project to keep it in its present form, a goal that Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has pledged to keep.

Laura Allred Hurtado, director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, however, welcomed the changes that may come to the museum, calling it a “significant opportunity to address a problematic and aging facility to a generational change.”

Maughan said that it’s within the Smith Entertainment Group’s intention to keep the arts on site.

“We feel strongly that a symphony hall, that the arts stay on site and that we continue to have that as a deep and important piece of what we’re doing with this sports, entertainment, culture and community district,” Maughan said.

The company also expects to invest more than $3 billion in the district, he said. The project is expected to produce $600 million in economic impact for Salt Lake City every year.

“I know that this process is fast, but a fast process does not mean that it is not a deliberate one. This tax would be the first step, but to be very clear this process will be in depth. It will be deliberate and it will be iterative,” Maughan said.

After Maughan’s presentation, there were still doubts among Salt Lakers. Some, such as Sam Adams, a resident, consider sales taxes a “regressive tax paid disproportionately by those of low income.”

“Will the Salt Lake City we are building be a case study for inclusive growth or one in gentrification? And will the historically marginalized bear not only the financial but also the social costs?” Adams questioned. “This is an exciting and tempting proposal. But we must plan ahead in order to truly tear down walls without building new ones.”