Sugar House Powers Have a Conflict in Vision
May 29th, 2008
Craig Mecham wants to invest nearly $200 million dollars in Sugar House. However, progress has stalled and city leaders could mandate penalties that could derail his vision.
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Sugar House- Salt Lake City, "I just don't understand it," Craig Mecham says while nodding, "How [The city leaders and press], can't see the incredible benefit that will come from this project...The city is supposed to help developers not hinder them." Mecham is the developer of the Sugar House Granite Block. To many who live in the area the Granite Block is one of the last places left in the Sugar House community in Salt Lake City that still retains some of the original charm from the era when it was built around the turn-of-the-century. The streets in the Sugar House neighborhood are lined with tall sycamores and restored bungalow homes. Sugar House is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, just a few miles from downtown.
The development plans have been lauded by some and vehemently opposed by others. When Utah Stories first began coverage, we defined the battle as one between bohemian hippy artists wanting to preserve the historic character of the neighborhood and wealthy yuppie professionals, driving up home values and replacing the bohemian counter-culture. However, it's clear that defining the two sides is more nuanced than originally reported.
Omar's dread-locks, drape over his tie-dyed tee-shirt as he chops cilantro then spoons up hummus onto a bed of vegetables all while greeting customers. Omar's Living Cuisine has gained noteriety outside of Sugar House and customers come from all over Salt Lake to pay $15 dollars for his unique vegan salads.
Omar greets me with a kind smile and is happy to answer my questions regarding the demolition of the Granite Block. My inaccurate preconceptions of Omar were that he would reside in the "vehement opposition, hippy camp." Asked first about the demolition and the hole left behind, Omar responds, "There was some dark energy. Honestly, I was glad when it came down...There were kids who would spit and use vulgar language, and that's not what I consider to be good for a community...If you want to make a difference in a community you need to be a doer, I don't consider sitting around smoking weed and sipping coffee doing anything positive."
|Omar Abou-Ismail is immigrant from Iran, of Lebanese decent. After his father died of cancer he decided to start making raw foods which are conscious of ingredient origins. Coming Monday a 10 minute podcast interview with Omar.|
"Do I support the project... Am I happy to see it happening? Yes...But I don't want corporations to move in. That would bring only negative energy." Omar says he wants to see local businesses like dance studios, music studios or farmer's markets move in. Omar believes the problem with corporate stores in small communities like Sugar House is their lack of rapport with customers. "When you enter a Gap they say 'welcome to Gap, have a nice day', there is no soul, they might as well be robots." Availability and openness to local businesses is one of Mecham's expressed goals for the project. However, he concedes that the rent he will be charging will be prohibitive to most local merchants.
Retaining local flair, while investing nearly $200 million dollars in an upscale mixed use development, (to attract both high-end merchants and wealthy residents), is the contradiction that causes this project to be another classic case of urban gentrification. According to City Council Member Soren Siomonson, [the project] "neglects the master plan in retaining the historical integrity of Sugar House." In asking Mecham why he was unwilling to appease the preservationists and perhaps retain one historic building, he put it this way:
"I looked into keeping the [Granite Lumber] building. I found out it would take between $1.5 to $2 million dollars to seismically upgrade and renovate the building...Now I was getting about $15 per square foot [from Blue Boutique] for that space...To get a return on my investment, I would need to ask much more than this." Mecham said that asking around $30 per square foot would be impossible with the current available parking. He then added it would be impossible to underground parking without tarring down the building. It's clear to Craig Mecham that the economics of historic preservation were unrealistic for his plans. But this didn't stop many residents and eventually a few in the Salt Lake City Government from making attempts to change his mind.
Prior to demolition, Councilmember Soren Simonson had been requesting that the city take a second look at the property. As Simonson indicated in a previous story, he believes the City Council's decision to work with Mecham to rezone to allow for demolition of all buildings, underground parking and ad potentially 200 residents living on the block, was neglecting the master plan for Sugar House.
In the ensuing months, Simonson proposed two moratoriums to the City Council for further historical studies. Both failed, However Simonson's efforts seemed to be noticed by the Salt Lake City Planning Commission because they ordered Mecham to conduct more traffic and parking studies. According to Mecham, Its these studies, that have caused the approval process to be extended from a few months, to many months. The second reason for delays is a result of Mecham apparently rushing demolition before realizing the engineering and legal issue of having part of Rockwood Investments wall, structurally shared and on Mecham's property. (This issue we will cover more extensively in another story.)
While Mecham said nothing personally about Simonson, it was clear that he considered the power used by Simonson's office in stalling progress to save buildings, to be an attempt to thwart what will be a highly profitable venture in which the city and Sugar House residents will reap huge rewards.
We read two quotes to Mecham that clearly express the other side of the argument to hear his response. One quote is from Simonson, the other from a resident of Salt Lake City:
Sugar House stands at a crossroad today. Nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, the former Granite Lumber Company and ZCMI building, now the Blue Boutique, is one of these places that can and should be preserved as a part of the story of Sugar House. It still has many chapters left to tell in its bejeweled history."- Soren Simonson (two months prior to demolition, written for the Sugar House Community Journal)
Seeing this part of Sugarhouse get torn apart is like watching old farms being torn out and replaced with yet another subdivision. We are gradually...but surely, losing our heritage. It's no wonder people need GPS nowadays. We wouldn't know where we were without it because every street, town, and city all look alike with their gaudy shopping malls, strip malls, franchise eateries, subdivisions that look like loaves of bread on a shelf, etc. What a disgrace that SLC's governing body chose to do the same thing with Sugarhouse.--Deseret News forum
In response Mecham said, "I agree completely... Which is why I showed my architects pictures from the original Sugar House and said, 'this is what I want to bring back'...This will in no way be another strip mall, this will be very upscale and very unique to all of Utah." Mecham then again recounted his connection to Sugar House and his family ties to the neighborhood.
The city is now threatening to retain Mecham's $20,000 bond for development and cite criminal charges against his development company if he doesn't fulfill his obligations to landscape the property. Mecham is already one month late under the terms of the contract. There is another card the city could play if plans don't progress in the near future, which is the city could force Mecham to fill the hole caused by demolition until the final plans are approved and construction is ready to proceed.
Mecham said in the unlikely event of that the city requests he fill the hole, he would not be able to continue with his plans and be forced to sell the property. Mecham went on to say that the city would be highly unlikely to find another investor who would be so willing to make such a substantial investment and improvement to the area. Mecham also believes that in this case The Granite Block would likely get something like a generic strip mall in its place.
Utah Stories has more Sugar House Stories we are working on that will be released in the coming days, which include:
- New Granite Block Plans: (now available) photos of the resulting plans from the agreement Mecham has made with Rockwood Investments
- Video Interview with Omar's Living Cuisine Hear Omar's insight into Sugar House and what he believes a counter-cultural movement should be about.
- Ruins Now Home to Pigeons video footage of the birds living in the ruins of the former Granite Lumber building