It’s an opportunity that’s been described as “once in a generation,” “unprecedented” and “unlike anything, anywhere else.”
And now, an 11-member state board begins the work of overseeing how to make the best use of the 700-acre Draper prison site set to be vacated sometime in 2022 when the new facility, currently under construction in west Salt Lake City, opens for business.
The attributes that have driven the accolades include the size of the property, its location in the center of one of the fastest-growing areas in the country — one that has also become the epicenter of Utah’s booming tech economy — and that the entire parcel is owned by the state. Taken together, a well-executed redevelopment plan could become one of the biggest economic leverage opportunities Utah has ever encountered, according to experts.
San Francisco-based architecture, engineering and urban planning firm HOK has worked on large-scale redevelopment projects around the world and was retained by the state as a consultant to help create a vision for how to best reutilize the prison site. Brian Jencek, HOK’s director of planning, told lawmakers last year that the chance to redevelop the prison property was a standout, even when viewed through a global lens.
“It’s Incredibly unique,” Jencek said. “I think that you’re onto something incredibly powerful here. I know of no other area where so many people are concentrated in such a tight corridor that has, suddenly, such a large available piece of land.
“What major American — even international city — of this density has such a large, contiguous developable site at the center? It just doesn’t happen.”
That planning scenario calls for a mix of residential, office, retail and light-industrial uses for the prison site, as well as robust, new public transit connections including light rail and bus rapid transit. The hoped-for anchor for the site would be a world-class research/educational facility that, according to a report released by the Point of the Mountain Development Commission, could become a magnet for talent and further investment.
“A nationally recognized research presence creates a ‘wow’ factor that attracts employers and employees and contains open space that is appealing and important to residents,” the report says. “Research and technology transfer also boosts job growth, as does the skilled workforce that is trained there.”
Alan Matheson recently left his position as head of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality to take over as executive director of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority — the body tasked with overseeing the prison redevelopment. While the land authority first convened in summer 2018, its work had been mostly on hold ahead of Matheson filling the unoccupied director position in July.
He told the Deseret News that while the task before the land authority is a daunting one, he was attracted to the position in large part because of the scope of the opportunity and potential to play a role in creating lasting, positive impacts on the lives of Utah residents.
“I looked at the balance of my career and said, ‘I would really like to spend the rest of my working years building something enduring and meaningful,’” Matheson said. “And this presented that kind of an opportunity. … The kind that rarely comes along.”
Matheson is an environmental lawyer with a career that’s included participating in large-scale resource and environmental litigation, launching nonprofit groups, heading up Envision Utah and, of course, years now in public service. He said he sees the prison redevelopment effort as not only a chance to build a legacy benefit for the state, but an opportunity to showcase how a robust process can lead to world-class outcomes.
“This site is owned by the state, which means it’s owned by the people of Utah,” Matheson said. “And I think that gives us a different perspective and a different responsibility to make sure that we develop this property in a way that makes people’s lives better.
“When I talked to the board before taking this job, I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to do real estate transactions, or just a development project, I’m probably not your guy,’” Matheson recounted. “If you’re looking to do something that can make a real difference for our state for some time to come and create a model that people from around the world will look to and say, ‘Utah’s figured out how to solve tough problems,’ then I’d like to work with you and engage in making that happen.”
Draper Mayor Troy Walker made relocating the prison a campaign issue in the runup to his first term and has been involved with the prison redevelopment from the beginning as a member of the Point of the Mountain Development Commission and now as a board member of the land authority. He believes, like Matheson, that the prison site redo could stand as a model of how to tackle the challenges of balancing quality of life, transit solutions, job creation, affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods and all while trying to make inroads on the valley’s horrendous air quality.
“We have a chance here … to do something transformative,” Walker said. “This can be a place where the car doesn’t reign, where transit and walking and biking are easier than getting in a car. Where you can literally live, work and play.”
Walker also recognized, as did Matheson, that one of the biggest lifts will be zeroing in on how to finance infrastructure costs that are expected to run into the billions.
“My biggest concern is that we have a site that could be one of the biggest economic boons for this state, but it all launches from getting infrastructure, transit right,” Walker said. “I think it will be a top priority for the board.”
While the preferred scenarios for the entirety of the development commission study area came with an estimated $11.4 billion just in transit infrastructure costs, a breakout specific to the prison site wasn’t executed. Zeroing in on those costs will be part of the early work of the land authority, and Walker said that a state-requested report from Zions Bank is due soon and will present some options that will address the “how do we pay for it all” question.
That plan is likely to include a variety of potential project financing options, including tax increment, bonding and/or outright land sales to private developers.
Other similar projects in the U.S. have leaned heavily on tax increment financing, a funding mechanism that diverts future property tax revenue increases into an economic development fund. Those include the 300-plus acre Mission Bay project in San Francisco, a one-time railroad yard that is now the home to thousands of residents, a slew of businesses, a University of California San Francisco medical facility and the Chase Center, the just completed new home of the Golden State Warriors NBA franchise. And, the 1,100-acre redevelopment of Denver’s former Stapleton Airport site, east of downtown Denver.
Consultants said a Draper prison redevelopment done right will lead to tens of thousands of jobs — located proximate to employers — housing that is both affordable and attractive to those seeking a walkable, urban neighborhood vibe and a surrounding community rife with green space and recreational opportunities.
Jencek said the site represents not only a rare opportunity, but perhaps one that will not be seen again.
“You have so many advantages over so many other cities,” Jencek said. “And it may be the biggest and the last and only opportunity in the region like this.”