This old gymnasium is being brought back to life as affordable housing

The 1950s Liberty Wells Center at 400 East and 700 South smells pleasantly musty.

Amro Al-Nimri walks through two doors into the gym, where a scoreboard is dead, a few basketball nets are torn, and the old hardwood floors are gleaming. It has been many years since children and most of the adults played on this course.

This former community meeting place will soon be transformed into something entirely new: housing for families and middle-income individuals.

Al-Nimri is Head of Construction and Design at Ivory Innovations, a non-profit organization dedicated to affordable housing. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated the land to Ivory Innovations. Building Salt Lake initially reported on the acquisition.

“As this building nears the end of its viability, the Church is grateful that this property brings blessings to the neighborhood and community in new and innovative ways,” wrote Irene Caso, spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in an email.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells Center in the Central City neighborhood has hosted basketball games for decades. Now, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has donated the facility and land to Ivory Innovations for affordable housing. In the old gym, on Friday, June 23, 2023.

Ivory hopes to preserve the brick building’s exterior while converting the interior into 30 apartments. 36 townhouses will be built on the adjacent baseball field. The plan calls for 25% of the units to be rented at market rate, 35% to those earning 80% of the region’s median income, and the rest to those earning 60% of the region’s median income. (In Salt Lake City, a person earning 80% AMI earns $59,400 per year).

Required, but residents are cautious

The city center is diverse and easily accessible on foot. The dense location and proximity to bars and restaurants make life without a car possible. Historic homes sit side by side with late 19th-century dollhouse-style houses. Another characteristic of the quarter is its mixed use, with office buildings and retail spaces characterizing the area.

The particular corner where Liberty Wells Center is located is populated with semi-detached houses, apartments and small houses with manicured but spacious front yards.

Most of the new construction and redevelopment in the city center appears to be aimed at wealthier workers. Take the Avia, a high-rise apartment near the downtown public library. The basic one-bedroom apartments range from $1,791 to $2,380 per month. The building has an on-site pet spa.

The Liberty Wells recreation center is planned to provide housing for workers, said Darin Haskell, chief operating officer of Ivory Innovations. “Firefighters, police officers, school teachers,” Haskell said, “those who want to live downtown.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Liberty Wells Center, pictured Friday, June 23, 2023 and long vacant, will eventually be converted into affordable housing and townhouses in Central City.

Although there is a need for affordable housing, people who live near the recreation center are reluctant to add more rental units because the number of condominiums in Central City is already low. People living in nearby high-rise buildings tend to drive in and out and rarely spend time on the streets, a local resident noted. They want more families and children to reside, and while they’re not opposed to resources for low-income residents, they don’t want all resources to be concentrated in a few blocks.

Neighborhood residents were generally supportive of the new housing project, but noted that River Rock Apartments, another affordable housing project, is nearby and has a history of poor management. A River Rock resident told KSL TV last July, “We found two needles with blood and drugs on them, uncapped.”

“In the last two months I’ve heard a lot of shots,” another told the station.

Ivory’s Haskell said this project company has experience in housing management. “We’re committed to community and long-term sustainability,” Haskell said. “It’s not something we’re going to build and sell.”

He made sure the rental units were given the right property manager and resources, but also noted, “We’re not at a low AMI level and we don’t offer casework.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) After sitting vacant for many years, the Liberty Wells Center was donated to Ivory Innovations by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Pictured Friday, June 23, 2023, the old gymnasium and adjacent baseball field are being converted into affordable housing.

Emily Long has lived in a house across from the recreation center for about eight years. She notes that while she doesn’t feel unsafe, police officers are often in the neighborhood and will respond to calls.

“We’re all for supporting our homeless population and supporting low-income housing,” Long said, “but we’re doing it for the city as a whole.”

A mix of apartments and townhouses would “go well with the neighborhood,” Long said. She’s glad no more towering skyscrapers are planned and hopes the townhouses will attract more families.

“We don’t see that many kids,” Long said, “and it’s harder for families to live in this neighborhood.”

Matt Haines, another local resident, is aware that the recreation center is likely to remain. “It gives me a bit of privacy,” Haines said, “not to mention afternoon shade in the backyard and all that.”

He will miss letting his dogs roam the baseball field. “I’m losing some privacy,” Haines said, “but I’m also gaining a little bit. It’s better to have more occupancy in a certain place.”

(Ivory Innovations) An illustration of the townhouses Ivory Innovations plans to build on the baseball field adjacent to Liberty Wells Center.

(Ivory Innovations) An illustration of the townhouses Ivory Innovations plans to build on the baseball field adjacent to Liberty Wells Center.

Home ownership is still in limbo

Ana Valdemoros, city councilor for District 4, which includes downtown and downtown, said residents want more projects that improve the neighborhood.

Selling some townhouses to residents is one way to achieve this, Valdemoros said. Providing a path to home ownership “can help add value to the neighborhood and diversify income levels.” She wants the project to “give [residents] a chance to enter the market and build wealth that way.”

Representatives from Ivory Innovations are still unsure if the townhouses will be for sale or rent – they hope the city will allocate some funds to enable the houses to be sold at an affordable price.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Built in 1950, the Liberty Wells Center is pictured Friday, June 23, 2023 before it undergoes a planned redesign by non-profit organization Ivory Innovations. The adjacent baseball field will be converted into townhouses.

Councilor Valdemoros said she is already working to organize a meeting with the mayor’s office, the head of the city’s redevelopment agency and other groups responsible for financing housing in the city.

For Valdemoros, focusing on individuals who generate 80% of the region’s median income is particularly promising.

“I think all the ingredients are there,” she said. “Now we make sure we mix them properly to create the perfect recipe for the benefit of Salt Lake City residents.”

Editor’s Note • The Clark and Christine Ivory Foundation is a donor to the Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab.

Justin Scaccy

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