Homelessness Solutions Will Only Help Downtown Commercial Real Estate, Say Experts

Salt Lake City—The proposed de-centralized homeless shelters won’t just benefit the homeless—they’ll economically benefit the downtown area, said multiple commercial real estate industry veterans.

Last week, Utah Business held its annual Commercial Real Estate Roundtable at Holland and Hart’s downtown offices. Around 20 commercial real estate executives and professionals met at the meeting to discuss the state of the industry, absorption rates, potential growth areas, and changes that have come in the past year.

One of the biggest changes for the Gateway area of downtown was Operation Rio Grande, a three-phase public safety initiative that began in August 2017. In order to cull the active drug trade that was flourishing in the area, phase one of Operation Rio Grande was enacted to arrest repeat offenders, drug dealers, and those interfering with the recovery of homeless addicts. Phase two of the operation is to support those with mental illnesses and drug addiction to “return to a path of self reliance,” according to the Operation Rio Grande area. Police have made nearly 3,000 arrests since last August.

The number is staggering, but it points to how dire the situation around the downtown homeless shelters has been.

“We seriously applaud the state leaders and the city for getting together and figuring out a solution on the homelessness issue. We had serious concerns from tenants down there at Gateway that felt like they weren’t safe or felt like it was somewhere that they could no longer feel was an attractive place to office,” said Nate Boyer, president of the Boyer Company. “From an economic development perspective, for SLC, to have people come into our city and have that be one of the first things they see, is a concern. So, it’s been really refreshing to see everyone band together and come up with a solution for the homeless issue.”

Today, those that do business in the area have seen a marked change, said Dana Baird, executive director of Cushman & Wakefield. That, coupled with the improvements Vestar and Oaktree Capital Management, LP, are making to the outdoor mall, makes the future seem much brighter for those who have been leasing in the area.

“It has dramatically decreased, the people who are wandering around and are homeless,” she said. “We’re seeing a huge impact on The Gateway. We lease about 200,000 square feet to about five different tenants at The Gateway—all of them see the vision and the hope of what housing is going in and what retail is going in.”

For those who have been in the area a long time, Operation Rio Grande has changed the face of a downtown area that has endured a rollercoaster of changing circumstances over the past five or six years.

“We’ve had front-row seats to how this has unfolded. … My office now, my window looks out to the homeless shelter. It is night and day what it was six months ago,” said Dusty Harris, senior managing director at Hines. “Having said that, we still see a lot of activity you’d rather not have your family or your tenants see. The charitable side of us comes out of us and say, ‘How is this happening in Salt Lake City?’ We’re a very charitable community. To see the drug impact and the social impact has not been good. From an economic perspective, I think moving [the homeless shelters] is going to have all kinds of benefits for the city. I think it’s going to help transportation, I think it’s going to help air quality—because people are going to be riding trains more. I think it’s going to help downtown vitality. I’m hopeful that, more than anything, that it helps the social environment—that the drug problem can become solved.”