Ogden leaders vote for WonderBlock bond measures, project moving ahead
OGDEN — The controversial $240 million-plus WonderBlock project, which calls for redevelopment of a vacant parcel in the city’s core area, has overcome a key hurdle with the Ogden City Council’s vote of support for the bonding proposal that would help pay for the plans.
The council members were split, voting 4-3 to bond for up to $75 million to help with the core elements of the project and 5-2 to bond for up to $85 million to help cover the cost of building two new parking garages. But the margins were enough.
“I’m obviously really happy with it,” Mayor Mike Caldwell, whose administration crafted the plans and put them to the City Council for consideration, said Wednesday. “It does set a different tone for our downtown. It doubles down on our commercial district downtown.”
The City Council votes late Tuesday night followed a public hearing that drew comments from around 25 people. The speakers offered a mix of views — support, opposition, pleas to hold off on action. Many indicated they still have many questions while one speaker suggested calling for a vote of the public on the matter.
Council member Marcia White, who voted for both bond questions, indicated that the sort of development proposed will serve as a driver of the local economy. Aside from the apartments, office space, retail space, hotel and parking structures to be built in the 5.9-acre WonderBlock space, the plans call for a shift to paid parking in Ogden’s downtown.
“My philosophy is this — we need economic development, we need economic opportunity,” White said. The sort of tax revenue proponents say the WonderBlock plans will generate can help the city fund other initiatives — pay hikes for police, plans to rebuild the Marshall White Center, the proposal to overhaul Union Station.
Council member Ken Richey, who also voted for both measures, said he was able to get satisfactory answers to his questions. The project, he maintains, is key for Ogden.
“I think it is important to the future of the city as well as probably to the most prized possession, which is the Union Station,” he said, alluding to plans to revamp that city-owned structure. “I think this is a big component of making sure that goes the right direction as well.”
Foes indicated that the large scope of the project put them off. The WonderBlock area, former home to a Hostess production plant, is the vacant parcel off the north side of 26th Street between Grant and Lincoln avenues, just south of Historic 25th Street.
“I voted no because I just feel this is too much all at once,” said Council member Ben Nadolski. “I just couldn’t get on board with the scale at the end of the day, not without feeling like I was taking a little bit too much risk and too much gamble.”
Council member Luis Lopez, who also voted no, said his platform as a candidate for the City Council has been focused on promoting education and inclusiveness and supporting Union Station and the Marshall White Center, a city-owned community center.
“My platform didn’t include just build and build and build and build,” he said.
He’s not against development, Lopez said, but in his view there needs to be more parity in initiatives focused on helping people and economic development. “There has to be balance and I think we’re a little unbalanced,” he said.
White, Richey, Richard Hyer and Bart Blair voted for both bond measures while Lopez and Nadolski voted no both times. Angela Choberka voted against the bonding question focused on the WonderBlock plans and in favor of the measure calling for the parking garages.
The city is teaming with Centerville-based developer J. Fisher Cos. in the WonderBlock plans. J. Fisher would put up $124 million for the main WonderBlock development while the city would put up $64 million to $75 million of bond revenue.
The city alone would cover the cost of building the two parking garages in the WonderBlock footprint, using $53.5 million to $85 million of bond revenue. That money would also help cover the cost of shifting to paid parking throughout the downtown area.
Project proponents see the WonderBlock plans as a way to spur growth and economic development in Ogden and to further efforts to bolster the downtown area. The plans are contemplated in Make Ogden, the ambitious plan approved in 2020 to overhaul, upgrade and revamp the area from Union Station east past Washington Boulevard and from the Ogden River south roughly to 27th Street.
The proposed cluster of four- and five-story WonderBlock buildings would contain 354 market-rate apartments, 100,000 square feet of office space, 50,000 square feet of retail space, a grocery store and a boutique hotel. The parking garages aim to accommodate existing auto traffic and anticipated traffic flow as downtown development proceeds.
The plans were publicly unveiled last November though they’ve been in the works for much longer. Caldwell estimates city staffers put “thousands of hours” of efforts into crafting the proposal, also noting town hall meetings, work sessions and other gatherings focused on the downtown development efforts.
“We’ve looked at this from every angle we could,” he said.
Project proponents say the bonding wouldn’t result in property tax hikes. The bonding for the main WonderBlock elements would be paid back tapping lease-revenue funds the city gets from operation of Business Depot Ogden and tax-increment financing, or TIF, funds from the new development. The parking bonds would be paid through fees generated by the shift to paid parking.
Next, the City Council will have a number of WonderBlock decisions to consider related to the mechanics of bonding and more, said Janene Eller-Smith, who helps manage the City Council office. She estimates actual bonding could occur by next August or September.
The first phase of work, construction of one of the two proposed parking garages, could follow, depending on weather conditions and other factors. The second phase calls for construction of the second parking garage and the other WonderBlock buildings followed by the proposed hotel, actually fronting Historic 25th Street, according to Eller-Smith.
The first two phases of work could be done within two-and-a-half to three years, she said. City leaders have said paid parking would be rolled out over a period of three to five years.