More details of historic Salt Lake building demolition emerge; city seeks changes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A man who was hired to demolish the historic Fifth Ward Meetinghouse — a century-old former church turned private venue — said he was told by a developer that he had secured the proper demolition permits and was caught off guard when the city came rushing in to stop the demolition Sunday afternoon.

Karl Christensen, owner and operator of a small business called Move Man LLC, said Tuesday that he had been reassured by Salt Lake City developer Jordan Atkin about having the correct permits when he started tearing down the building over the weekend.

“I thought he had a permit,” Christensen said over the phone. “I’ve done a lot of work with him in the past. He’s really good at getting permits.”

Christensen declined to speak more about the incident; however, he told Building Salt Lake — which first reported about the connection — earlier in the day that he was paid to demolish the entire building. The outlet also reported that Atkin also filled out the correct paperwork with the state to demolish the building.
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Salt Lake officials have said he didn’t file the appropriate paperwork with the city. Since the Fifth Ward Meetinghouse is a city landmark site, the building owners were required to go through a public process before they could potentially tear down the building. City officials issued an emergency stop work order at the site Sunday afternoon when the demolition was discovered.

The order prevents further demolition of the 114-year-old building from taking place until the correct demolition permits are acquired.

City officials are still investigating the incident, but Tuesday’s update comes as city leaders are now accelerating the process to tighten its construction and demolition regulations within local historic districts and sites.

The Salt Lake City Council is considering a new ordinance that would create new enforcement, limit redevelopment and establish a reconstruction process among other things. Salt Lake City planning manager Amy Thompson explained that a developer who knocks down a historic building before approval would be barred from any development on that site for 25 years, unless they rebuild the historic property, under the proposed changes.

A developer would also not be allowed to apply for an economic hardship waiver — a document seeking to demolish a historic building because it no longer has economic value — if they illegally damaged the property, she added. City planners had started crafting the measure late last year, but the process was moved up after this weekend’s incident.

“The purpose of these amendments is to prevent and deter violations from happening in the first place. And if they do, to come up with tools that counter those violations,” Thompson said.

In a related text amendment as under consideration, developers could face steeper fines for violations of historic areas. General fines for violations would range from $50 to $250 per day until the property is back into code, including $250 per day for any violations that lead to a stop work order. A fee for boarding up a property that is left vacant and not reconstructed would be increased to $14,000 — about the most the city could fine violators.

Salt Lake City planning director Nick Norris said the fines were influenced by fines in other cities.

The city is considering the 25-year ban because leaders said they believe fines alone haven’t done enough to prevent developers from breaking the city code. Salt Lake City’s Historic Landmark Commission had floated around a 50-year ban, but that is not being recommended.

While the process was sped up after this weekend, members of the City Council explained that the measure was considered because similar cases with nonlandmarks have become increasingly common as the city grows.

The City Council voted Tuesday to set a public hearing on the measure, which will be held on April 16. The measure is tentatively scheduled to be voted on during the council’s May 7 meeting.

“The Fifth Ward is just one example. I think everyone has something in their district and everybody in Salt Lake has a building or something that when something like this happens, it is traumatic,” said Councilman Chris Wharton. “It feels like a piece of you or a piece of something important to you is being stol

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