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Trolley Square- A Salt Lake City Icon
November 6th, 2008

An in-depth look into Salt Lake City's last historic shopping center. How local merchants and chain stores alike have found such a nice home in the former trolley barn for over 30 years.
Trolley square water tower in Salt Lake City
Trolley Square water tower in Salt Lake City

by Zacharia Razavi

Complete redevelopment plans now available

Trolley Square will soon be celebrating its centennial anniversary and the end of Phase One of its renovation. On November 8, The festivities will feature events and prices remembering the era when Trolley cars were the main method of getting around Salt Lake City. On-hand Saturday will be the Radio Disney Road Crew, the Mountain Jubilee Chorus, silent movies, barbershop quartets, portraits taken in period clothing, restaurants rolling back lunch and dinner prices, and snacks sold at 1908 prices. There will be drink specials at the Desert Edge Brewery, food specials at the Old Spaghetti Factory, and even fireworks over the new parking garage at 8 pm.

Phase One of the construction began in April 2007. It comprised building a new underground parking structure on the west side and renovating to the main building to increase leasable space and improve lighting. According to Dawn Katter, the mall manager and director of marketing for Trolley Square, Phase One will be complete by the centennial on November 8, which doubles as a "re-grand opening of the common area and the parking deck," Katter said.

Phase Two, includes a new 53,000 square-foot building which will house Whole Foods in the northeast corner. There will also be three more retail buildings on the west side above the parking structure. This phase is scheduled to open in March 2010. By the end of Phase Two, the amount of leasable space will have increased from 225,000 sq-ft to over 350,000 sq-ft. The expansion will allow for 35 additional retail stores. The total cost of renovation is approximately $70 million.

Trolly square utah light rail sign
Trolly Square's iconic curves

Trolley Square merchants hope that the remodeling and additions will reinvigorate the historic site. Rhonda Thompson, a manager at Harold's boutique, said the last year had been challenging for business because "not many stores have opened. We're kind of in a difficult transition. I think it will be great once the stores are opened." April Nelson, a manager at the The Secret Garden, echoed Thompson's sentiment. Nelson said, "This is our fourth move in the last year...construction can't help anybody's business. " Taubula Rasa's Sean Bradley as well as Nelson, were both grateful to their loyal customers and the local community for sustaining Trolley durring difficult circumstances. Nelson added "I think there will be much more traffic" after the renovations are complete.

Surprisingly, according to Katter, pedestrian traffic in the mall has marginally increased over the last two years, despite the construction. Pedestrian traffic is about 3 million people annually. Katter said, "Our sales were very strong last year, and our traffic was up last year, and I think part of that is because we were very conscious of how we did the renovations inside the property. We did all the work from midnight to 9 am, so as shoppers came in. . .there wasn't a lot of really loud construction going on during the day. We've been very, very mindful to make sure that we always kept good access for the customers to get in." Katter expects pedestrian traffic to increase to 4-5 million after renovations are complete.

Desert Edge Brewery Patrons
Desert Edge Brewery

In February 2007, a terrifying shooting occurred at Trolley Square leaving 5 dead and 4 wounded before the gunman was killed by police. Despite the tragedy of the shooting, people did not shy away from Trolley Square. According to Nelson, on the Friday after the shooting when Trolley Square re-opened, "the mall was busier than it was at Christmastime, by far. People were coming back to Trolley. They were not going to let something like this affect. . . where they got to go in their own city. The outpouring of the community just really helped us get through all of that."

A True Community Center

The community of Salt Lake City and the surrounding area has been supporting Trolley for over a century. The land has served a significant roll in the progress and development of the Salt Lake valley since the Pioneers first arrived. Before it was Trolley Square, the ten acres were originally designated as the 10th Ward by Brigham Young in 1847. It served as the fairgrounds until 1908 when E.H. Harriman, president of Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, purchased the Utah Light and Railway Company and built its central storage and maintenance facility for light rail trolleys on the grounds. Harrington invested $3.5 million ($60.7 million in 2008 dollars) into the company and developed it into one of the most successful light rail systems in America, with over 144 cars by 1914. The trolley lines ran through and around Salt Lake City to Holladay, Sugar House, Bountiful and Centerville, totaling 146 miles of track. The iconic water tower was built in case of fire and has a capacity of 50,000 gallons.

But despite their renowned success, the trolleys began to be phased out of commission in the 1920s. They were gradually replaced by gas-powered buses, which were cheaper and did not require tracks or electric lines. The last trolley ran on August 19th, 1945. However, the emergence of TRAX reminds us that history has a way of repeating itself.

trolley lines on south temple
Whats old is new again. Trolley lines
(photo courtesy of the Utah State Archives)

After the trolleys were removed, Trolley Square was painted yellow and converted into storage for the city's buses. It fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition in 1969, when it was rescued by developer Wallace A. Wright, Jr. Inspired by Ghirardelli Square, an old chocolate factory in San Francisco which was refinished as a shopping mall in the early 1960s, Wright remodeled and restored the old trolley barns into a shopping center and festival market. This re-adaptation of an old structure for a new purpose was an early example of a trend which grew in popularity throughout the last three decades.

The renovations included removing the yellow paint to restore the original brick exterior, adding a second floor to the main building to utilize its height, and decorating the mall with scavenged parts from various locations. These parts included the doors from the Gardo House, balustrades from the ZCMI building, an old elevator from East High School, and a stained-glass dome from the Long Beach First Methodist Church. Perhaps the most unusual second-hand part was a conveyer trestle from an oxide mill east of Tooele, which became the skywalk spanning 600 South. The total cost of renovations was $10 -12 million.

Trolley Square photo circa 1912
Trolley Square photo circa 1912

The first store to open in 1971 was the Trolley Gas Station at the corner of 500 South and 700 East. Unusual for a large shopping mall, Trolley Square opened without a major department store, and still lacks a major retail anchor to this day. In 1973, the State of Utah officially recognized Trolley Square as a Historic Site. In 1986, Trolley was sold to the Simon Property Group, America's largest real-estate development company, and underwent a major renovation to add a food court and atrium. Unfortunately, many of the original decorations including the stained-glass dome were removed during this renovation. Trolley was again renovated from 1995-98 when the Pottery Barn and Hard Rock Café were added. Trolley was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Currently, Trolley Square is the second-most popular tourist destination in Utah, with thirty percent of its 3 million annual customers from out- of-state.

In 2006, Simon sold Trolley Square to ScanlanKemperBard Companies, LLC based in Portland, Oregon for $38.6 million. ScanlanKemperBard intended to reformat the shopping center into a commercial and residential complex with expanded areas for shopping, parking, and an additional condominium complex with 150 units. Later, the condominiums were removed from plans because the city wanted the main complex to be exclusively used commercially. Tom Bard, a principal of ScanlanKemperBard, said that while there are no plans to build apartments, the company is considering the idea for the 600 South lot, connected to the Trolley Square by the skywalk. The lot is currently used for parking.

salt lake city trolley
A Trolley In The Station

When the construction began in 2007, Trolley joined the national trend of malls undergoing renovation into more modern, all-inclusive urban centers. Katter said, "There's a lot of [mall] renovation going on in this valley... Typical regional centers such as enclosed malls, in the last five years, have been looking to create what we call "lifestyle centers.". . .Trolley really is the original lifestyle center because we always were exterior buildings and interior [shopping]."

Despite the new face, much of trolley's history still remains on display for shoppers to enjoy as they explore the campus. The trolley car in The Old Spaghetti Factory was an original trolley, found abandoned in a field in West Valley City. The Hard Rock Café still bears an original "U L R C" sign from when the Utah Light and Rail Company used that building as the paint shop. Near the south entrance is a display of historic photos showing trolleys in their berths and Trolley Square through the years. After the renovation is complete, a series of plaques will be added around Trolley Square detailing historical facts and their significance.

restoration hardware trolley square
Restoration Hardware In The Old Repair Shop.

For over a century the success of Trolley Square has ebbed and flowed, but the newly-renovated urban center should mirror the popularity of its early years. Once the center of transportation of Salt Lake and now a growing shopping and dining campus, Trolley Square remains a fun, functional, and significant part of Salt Lake's history.

Much more coming soon. Utah Stories is producing a documentary on Trolley Square including more historic photographs and commentary and interviews provided by local merchants in Trolley Square. We will also soon have a page dedicated to explaining the details of the rennovation plans for Trolley Square.

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