September 29, 2016

Trolley Square Utah’s local mall once again?

Trolley Square was facing demolition and irrelevance, when a man named Wally Wright had a vision for the space: to turn it into a place for local artists, boutiques, antiques and food. The character of the building matched the character of the tenants. Wright transformed the Trolley barns into a true community gathering place. At its height in the late eighties Trolley was always packed. There was a store I especially remember as a kid. The Flight Store was a tiny shop where model airplanes hung from the ceiling. They offered model balsa-wood take home kits, water-powered rockets and specialty kites. This store was not a chain store but a hobby shop run by a passionate owner/operator. Later, I remember listening to the Olympic gold medal diver Greg Louganis give a speech in Trolley’s south end amphitheater. I also saw Christmas concerts there.
Trolley was a place full of fascination. I remember antique stores, specialty stores for men, stores with stained glass windows, art galleries. Nearly every space was occupied for years. JMR Chalk Garden was the coolest shop to buy jeans. Green Street was one of Utah’s most famous bars, visited by Michael Jordan when the Jazz played the Bulls in the NBA finals. But for the past 15 years Trolley has been in decline. The mall was shuffled from one short-sighted national mall developer to the next. Each had the same lame and boring vision, to fill the historic space with lots of national chain stores. Scanlon Kemper Bard Cos. LLC (SKB) of Portland, OR paid $38 million for Trolley in 2006. They invested approximately $56 million into Trolley, building more spaces and more parking. They attracted Whole Foods, but it’s hard to consider Whole Foods a part of the whole Trolley. There is virtually no crossover according to every tenant we asked. So what is the next chapter for Trolley Square?

Trolley 2 copy

All of the tenants we spoke to are very pleased the mall again has local ownership-S.K. Hart Properties. Chris Matthews, Trolley director of real estate operation said, “Right now, Trolley is half empty and we are looking to fill the spaces with local companies. It is harder for a national management firm like Simons to understand the local market. There are nuances that a local owner, like Mr. Semnani, can understand better than someone sitting in an office in a place like Chicago – sitting remotely and trying to make decisions for the local businesses of Trolley.”
Payne Anthony Jewelry has thrived in Trolley for over twenty years. Owner Stephen Farr has watched the rise and decline of Trolley. Farr says he is hopeful that Trolley will regain its local charm because the new landlord will be spending on tenant improvements.
One of the most promising signs that Trolley can once again become a unique local destination is Weller Book Works’ big investment into Trolley. Occupying two floors on the south end, Weller’s space integrates new releases with rare and collectible copies of Mormon western Americana. Trolley needs much more of this.
Tony Weller says that so far the transition from Main Street to Trolley has been a good move, but he needs more traffic to succeed. He is very pleased he no longer has to deal with all the previous parking problems he suffered on Main Street, but his store had more employees than customers when we visited at 5 PM on a Monday. Weller views Trolley as the perfect location to capture the growing segment of Salt Lake that is counter-cultural but also intellectual. “I have a lot of theories and one of them is that property management and community values are best supported locally. It takes management with equal intelligence and heart. Management operating on a national level is in the dark as to local issues,” says Weller says.
Tabula Rasa and Cabin Fever are both excellent destinations in Trolley for gift buyers. Both have found a unique niche and have done well despite the low occupancy of Trolley. Cabin Fever is a great offbeat gift shop. Tabula Rasa is a high-end pen and paper store that also does wedding invitations and custom stationery. The problem is that customers who now frequent Trolley for the eateries have very little reason to browse, because Trolley is no longer a community gathering place because the previous owners increased the rents and forced out all of the art galleries. The last owners gained Whole Foods but lost local art and the reason to browse the upstairs.
The Hive Gallery, now closed, opened in Trolley three years ago as a boutique gift shop/art gallery and they were doing well in Trolley until the mall management decided that they were too loud when they had events. When they attracted large crowds to their upstairs space, they were repeatedly told to “quiet down” when bands were playing.
Trolley could be the new home for local and unique shops. The key term I kept hearing was “tenant improvements.” The mall will be making “tenant improvements,” said acting director Chris Matthews. It depends on how they define “improvements” and the “tenants” they wish to attract. Lets hope they are local and owner/operated.§
What were your favorite Trolley memories and shops over the years? We would like to hear about them.