Trading Historic Buildings For Blight and Parking Lots

Late last year, developer Greg Soter stepped forward with a plan to turn an abandoned church into downtown apartments. Soter bought the building, researched his options and began moving forward.

“Eight months later I had bought the building, hired the engineers and completed extensive engineering and architectural work,” he said. “I took the plans to Provo City for a plan check.”

By now, the building was gutted inside and ready to be rebuilt. The apartments would range from 500 to 1,100 square feet featuring loft bedrooms, high ceilings and laundry facilities. It all sounded wonderful and people from throughout the U.S. were sharing their approval for keeping the building’s historic flavor intact. The city leadership was excited, saying this was exactly the kind of project they were looking for in the downtown area.

And then the whole thing was killed by moronic city laws.

This old church was going to be turned into apartments until fees made that plan prohibitively expensive.

My colleague Genelle Pugmire reported today that Soter’s project has stalled because the city is asking for fees adding up to a small fortune.

In July Soter walked into the community development offices to pick up his building permits and to pay the fees. He was handed a bill totaling $130,535.51.

“I just about died. I tried to keep my best poker face,” he said. “I took the paper and walked out the door.”

For a city trying to add housing to downtown, this situation is absolutely nonsensical. The fees also aggressively discourage historic preservation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.

In other words, official city policy — as opposed to the usual villains of greedy developers or an apathetic populace — overwhelmingly encourages elimination of historic buildings. That needs to change right now.

In fairness, Provo leaders are working to resolve the situation. But the solutions mentioned — fee waivers or reductions for Soter — won’t fix the underlying problem and the ordeal could be repeated as soon as someone else wants to save a building. Then again, other developers may never step forward, given Soter’s experience.

Provo isn’t the only city that is dealing with this issue. Streetsblog recently reported on the struggle in Detroit to prevent historic buildings from being turned into parking lots.

Detroit is making some progress, but the situation offers a useful warning for Provo: make it possible for developers to save great buildings or prepare for developers to give up and replace those buildings with cheap apartment complexes at best, and parking lots at worst.

Genelle’s article comes to a similar conclusion:

Unless the city and the council can move quickly on a decision, the old 4th ward chapel may remain a vacant shell. Or, if Soter can’t build his apartments, the chapel could be demolished by some developer looking to put up another apartment complex.

In the meantime, Provo city officials are faced with two options. First, change the fee requirements so this project can happen. The changes would need to happen soon because every day the project is stalled Soter essentially loses money and has greater incentives to quit. The changes also should be designed to prevent this kind of fiasco in the future.

The second option is to do nothing — or take so long that it doesn’t matter any more. In the long term, that will mean replacing the historic church with something else, like a parking lot, but in the short term it also means nothing can happen with the structure. It will continue to sit abandoned, slowly falling apart until it becomes a pocket of unsalvageable blight.

The solution seems obvious, but so far Soter’s project remains stalled.

The north side of the church that Greg Soter wanted to turn into apartments.

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10 Comments

Filed under building, construction, Development, Downtown

10 responses to “Trading Historic Buildings For Blight and Parking Lots

  1. Genelle Pugmire

    Jim – I suggested to the mayor that Community Development provide “beginners” packets of information that include every fee, permit, required and common answers to questions to help these small developers before they bite off more than they can chew. . . also if they really want to follow the Vision 2030 plan historical buildings that could be restored or refurbished into usable housing or business in the downtown area should should be exempt from things like Parks impact fees (for Soter that was well over $41,000). These impact fees are the way the city gets money to build things like parks. Our downtown is quickly losing its history. Soter is doing this project for about $750,000. Only 15-30 people would live there, but he even has an asphalt fee for $1-2,000, and that isn’t even for the asphalt for the parking lot, its for helping maintain the roads with the heavier traffic coming from the church. Soter says how can they compare 30 residents to 150 church goers and the reception center traffic most recently. . I agree.

  2. mooncowboy

    why doesn’t the church buy it? (hypothetically). it’s such a rad building, and there are really only a few of them that cool that are left in Provo. I sometimes am surprised when the church abandons its own historic buildings. and this quagmire needs to be gotten out of, quickly.

    • Sarah

      The church has a hard time using old buildings because of accessibility issues for the handicap as well as higher maintenance costs. The church is not in the business of preserving old churches.

      • mooncowboy

        Good points, but the church is absolutely in the business of preserving its heritage.

      • mooncowboy

        oh, and by “quagmire,” I just meant the current situation with the developer’s intentions and Provo City. I’m not seriously proposing that the church buy it.

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