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The City Journals

New Sugar House developments viewed differently by residents and stakeholders

Jan 08, 2020 02:25PM ● By Drew Crawford

MVE marketing rendering of Sugar Alley. (Photo courtesy MVE + Partners)

By Drew Crawford | [email protected]

With access to some of Utah’s best mountains, a quasi-urban lifestyle, and rich pioneer heritage, Sugar House is one of the most coveted areas to live in the Salt Lake valley. 

The city, which is distinct for its rich legacy in the furniture industry, has always been a hot area for economic development for businesses eager to attract customers and for homeowners who want to preserve the culture and accessibility of the community. 

Over the last decade Sugar House has seen unprecedented commercial real estate development. 

Large apartment complexes like The Vue by developer Craig Mecham have been constructed and rented for expensive rates. Tenants who are eager to live in the city and take advantage of the business district pay high rates at the Vue, which is currently the most expensive complex per square foot in Utah. 

It is for reasons like these that developers know that any real estate which can be put to use in Sugar House represents the opportunity for a profitable venture. 

Two of the apartment complexes currently under development near the business district are Sugar Alley and Dixon Place, developed by The Lowe brothers, both natives to Utah. 

MVE + Partners, an architecture firm based in Orange County, California, was contracted by the Lowes to design both projects and the firm got involved after a design competition in which they made a good impression on the two brothers. 

At the beginning of 2018, the brothers connected the architecture firm to the neighborhood council to present the projects to the residents of the area.

“Sugar Alley was received very, very well,” Pieter Berger, senior associate partner at MVE + Partners, said describing the council’s reaction.

“There was not even a comment of what needed to change. On Dixon Place, however, there was some feedback. On how they wanted to see the brick expressed on a certain edge. Before going into the city, we changed the project based on that feedback to make sure they were being heard and being respected.” 

“When considering the space that the project uses, they were able to develop all the way up to the property line of neighboring houses, but decided against it,” Berger noted. “Not every project in Sugar House has done that.”

“What we tried to do at Dixon Place is respect the homes. We had the ability to develop all the way up to those homes.”

Sugar Alley will be located on Highland Drive and will break ground during the second quarter of 2020 and will be complete by 2022. There will be a total of 186 units and the ground floor will be home to a potential 15,000 square feet of retail space. 

The firm’s other project, Dixon Place, will be located one block west of Sugar Alley at the corners of Elm and McClellan, and will house 86 units and have a boutique feel. 

Both units will provide convenient access to Sugar House Park, Parley’s Trail, the S-line and local shopping. 

“There’s still a rich history of brick and industrial quality of buildings in the Sugar House district because of that warehouse production culture. That’s what influenced Sugar Alley as well as Dixon Place. I’m trying to utilize brick — different mediums. The design of Sugar Alley has a much cooler palette where it’s more about blacks and whites and grays. Dixon Place takes on much more authentic red brick warehouse-style architecture,” Berger said.

Residents who have lived in Sugar House for a long time have different opinions on the apartment complexes and what they bring to the community.

Amy Barry lives in the area of Sugar House next to Westminster College. She has a firm commitment to the values of public service and served on the neighborhood council from 2009 to 2018. After finishing her work for the council, she began to serve on the planning commission. Most of her work on the commission involves code compliance and making sure that buildings are the correct height or that they engage the street front in the way that they are supposed to. 

During her time serving on the commission she has seen a lot of diversity of opinion within her community regarding what Sugar House should become. 

“The only thing constant here is change. I want to try and make them better because development is going to happen,” Barry said as she reflected on the tradeoffs that are involved in changing a historical area when different stakeholders are involved. 

These projects vary in scope, but all try to offer access to the coveted amenities of Sugar House.

Developments such as Wilmington Flats, located at 1235 Wilmington Ave., have taken advantage of money from the Salt Lake RDA fund to include affordable housing units in their complexes. With subsidies coming from the city, developers can be more likely to make housing in the area accessible. 

However, this isn’t always the case. “Much of less-affordable housing is economics and caring less,” Barry said. A standard studio apartment at Wilmington costs $1,275 a month. 

With over a decade serving her community, Barry takes a practical approach to all of the possibilities of what the area can become. She notes that with the significant rise in prices of the housing market that developers are the only ones that have the capital to make real estate growth possible. Facing this reality, Barry wants the developers to make the best use of the land that is possible given the circumstances. 

“Property owners have the right to do that,” Barry said. “We all have our bottom lines and we all view progress differently. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

This is just one of the issues that Barry feels that Sugar House has as a historic city that is facing the complexities of affordable housing and growth. These growing pains that are faced by the apartment complexes and business district are not unfamiliar to her own family history and heritage.

Barry’s great-grandfather, Mormon pioneer Abraham O. Smoot, helped to raise the trolley line in Sugar House, which was the first public transportation available in the area. With the population predicted to grow significantly in the next few decades, Barry feels that public transportation can make a difference in the accessibility of the area, but different departments with varying roles will have to work together. 

“Traffic is not a land use issue, it is a transportation issue and the streets are maxed out,” Barry explained describing how traffic is an issue that the Utah Department of Transportation is responsible for and not a land use issue. 

“Salt Lake City has to come up with different ways to move people in the future,” Barry said. 

The traffic has created issues with some of the area residents who feel that it is problematic and others who recognize that it is inevitable with the supply of retail shops and the daily commute to work. 

Pete Kane, 41, a city planner who works on zoning codes in Draper, moved to the Sugar House area for a change of pace and to be able to access the amenities that the community offers. 

Kane lives in 21 by Urbana located at 974 E. 2100 South next to the Smith’s Food and Drug and McDonald’s. He was attracted to the apartment complex because he lived in Liberty Wells and his apartment there had not been renovated in how he had expected, nor did he like the property management group. 

“I like the selection and the different retail plazas in Sugar House. There is a really good range of retail, fast food, groceries, movie theaters,” Kane said. “Yeah, there’s traffic, but because we’re living (in 21 by Urbana) we don’t have to deal with it. Traffic is caused by destinations and the retail can have an impact on it. There is a good amount of traffic but with the transit that we have, the bus lines and Parley’s trail.”

For Kane, Sugar House has a perfect balance for everything, and he loves the apartment complex that he lives at. “The property that we are at has really good features, brand new, much more secure, good management, and the cost was pretty much the same as Liberty Wells,” Kane said. 

Kane feels that the way that Sugar House is being built is a net positive, although recognizes that change is helpful to the design of the area.

“I would like to see some of the shopping plazas be redeveloped so they aren’t single-store buildings with multiple parking lots. Thankfully, they do require that the buildings be set to the street rather than have a massive parking lot in front of it like the Smith’s,” Kane said. 

“If the retail lots could be redeveloped in a manner like the apartment buildings that are creating a better fabric for the community it will help go a lot further,” Kane said. 

The way that the streets are built around the business district are designed to help residents adopt a mentality that is oriented around being a pedestrian. However, some residents who are deeply invested in the community have strong feelings about the transitions that have taken place. 

Su Armitage, who recently moved to Midvale and had lived in Sugar House for decades, is disappointed in how the master plan of the community came to fruition. She worked on the neighborhood council, helping to influence some of the area development between 1999 and 2000.

Armitage lived in the community during the time that 21 by Urbana was built and still remembers the Standard Optical store, Rockwood furniture, the local café and the art store that decorated the corners of the business district. 

“The store owners really felt lucky to be able to have their stores in such a visible corner of a popular neighborhood. They had also heard the rumors that the community council had heard that their landlord, Craig Mecham, was going to eventually tear down all the structures on that block and build apartments and new retail,” Armitage said. “They knew that they would be priced out and they weren’t looking forward to it because it had been a great run for them at that location.” 

During Armitage’s time on the council, the two glass office buildings across the street from Sugar House Park were erected.

“They were radical structures at that time, because they were five or six stories and they were shiny glass fronts. They weren’t that homey hospitable work that we encouraged,” Armitage said. “We wanted a walkable community and we really rode developers and property owners pretty hard about making welcoming storefronts.”

Armitage worked with the neighborhood council to help change the height of Mecham’s office buildings so that they conformed to the building code in place. Through compromise the offices ended up being six stories in height and set back from the street.

Armitage also worked with other developers during this time to change the approachability of other storefronts such as the Walgreens. 

Armitage left the neighborhood council in 2004 because she felt that the council became stagnant in its progress. When the economic recession hit in 2008 the area of land where the small retail outlets once stood were torn out and became derisively known to residents as the “Sugar Hole.” The lot remained vacant for years until the economy began to recover. That’s when the first apartment complexes began to be built starting with 21 by Urbana. 

After these complexes were built the traffic started to drive her away from the area. Armitage would do her errands in other locations to avoid the traffic and having to walk everywhere. 

“For the life that I live it’s not good. I want to go home, and I want to hear quiet. I want to be able to open my windows and hear birds. I don’t want to hear traffic. I lived in a high traffic area for many years when I lived in Sugar House. Every year it got noisier and noisier,” she said.

Armitage feels that the state of the business community now is a reflection of the opportunities that the developers see.

“I guess what we have now is exactly what developers wanted. They wanted a community for 20- and 30-year-old professionals, and it seems like that’s what they pretty much have gotten,” Armitage said.

Other residents feel that as history continues to unfold that Sugar House will have to navigate hard decisions. 

Lynne Olson is a veteran of the community who helped found the Parley Trail’s Coalition in 2000 and has extensive experience working with the community master plan. Olson feels that two of the main competing tensions in Sugar House are preserving history and economic development.

“I think that the thing that was most important and continues to be most important is that for a good deal of its length the Parley’s Trail follows the historic Parley’s Creek down into the valley but then picks up the alignment of the historic Denver and Rio Grande rail corridor,” Olson said. “Those two key geographic features are the two things that have never changed in our planning consciousness.” 

These processes can be lengthy and involve significant time and collaboration. 

“Building trails through private property or already developed places is one of the most important political accomplishments of Parley’s Trail,” Olson said. 

“It took an awful lot of negotiation, compromise and expense in order to get it built, but it has added immeasurably to the value of properties like Sugar Alley and the Boulder Ventures project, and others along the same corridor as the S-Line because it does think of an alternative transportation feature, an asset that those people marketing retail and residential development are going to use in their advertising.”

Olson knows that residents are going to continue to move to Sugar House and that property owners who own the land will make the ultimate decisions about its use. 

“The reason that they are moving here is because they like the historic character of Sugar House, which, of course, is rapidly changing due to this influx of new residents,” Olson said. “They like the accessibility, the fact that you can walk to transit, you can walk to shops and restaurants.”

Olson has spent a lot of her time studying the history of Sugar House. She has pictures of the business district after the land had been altered from a park and parts of the land had been sold off. Sugar Hollow was referred to as “Dump Hollow” during the 1940s before George Dixon (the namesake of Dixon Place) proposed plans to build a parking lot in the area during the 1950s. 

The land which was owned by the city remained vacant for years. 

The rest of the business district has housed various establishments over time, including the first shopping mall in the territory, a department store and Southwest Theater. 

Now that these buildings are gone new ones continue to take their places. “It is cheaper to knock them down and build something new,” Olson said. 

With the old buildings gone and the community in flux as apartment complexes spring up, the demographic shifts, and the business district changes, one might wonder what is to become of Sugar House. 

Out of an interest to connect people across generations, Olson is working on a new project that honors both history and development. She is involved in helping to create a virtual museum with the curator Meggie Trioli that will serve to preserve and archive Sugar House’s history in a digital format. 

In a changing city like Sugar House these records will serve residents who are curious and want to understand the past. 

“The historic infrastructure is threatened, but history is not necessarily concrete,” Olson said in an excited tone.