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Retailer Rebirth

Sears is gone, but its land could help transform a neighborhood just a few blocks from downtown.


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  • Enrique Limón

For decades, the Sears department store and its accompanying auto center were Salt Lake City's paragon of capitalism, a concrete-and-marble monolith that stood the test of time. That is, until online competitors came along and took the lion's share of the retail pie. Nestled on an expansive State Street lot between 700 and 800 South—where the only remaining sign of life is the flock of birds perched on the building's corpse—the former behemoth's halcyon days become a faint memory.

"Sears was sad, man," Brighton Page, a tattooer and apprentice at nearby Big Deluxe Tattoo & Piercing, says. "Everything was overpriced, and there was nobody in there."

The Salt Lake City location was among the 18 Sears and 45 Kmarts that closed nationwide in January 2018, following the market trend that flushed the brick-and-mortar shops of yesteryear down the toilet. In keeping with the theme, Page and his fellow artists would occasionally make the short walk from their parlor to the emporium's bathroom "if we had something really gnarly cooking," he says. "That's basically what Sears was good for. That, and like, if you didn't make it to the bathroom, they sold underwear for pretty cheap."

The old Sears occupies nearly 10 acres in an up-and-coming, downtown-adjacent neighborhood. The city confirmed that late last year a local real estate company signed an agreement to lease the land. Hoang Nguyen, who owns the neighboring Asian fusion restaurant, Sapa, says she's been in regular contact with the group and their financial backers, and that they plan on adding business offices, commercial properties and "hundreds" of new residential units.

While the city declined to name the new lessees, Nguyen identified them as Kimball Investment Co., a group whose portfolio includes downtown's historic Peery Hotel and Judge Building. The company did not respond to City Weekly's multiple requests for comment.

There's a lot of potential, Nguyen says, to create a development that lets people "live where they work," so they can eat, go out and shop, all within a stone's throw from their jobs.

"With Sears going away, it gives prime opportunity to bring in the type of business and residential that this area really needs, and is really starving for," she adds. "We're trying to build our own community right here."

State Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, has long had his eye on the area, a block that had been in his district when he served as a city councilman. He sees an opportunity to inject different types of housing and businesses—offices, a grocery store, maybe a health clinic—into a part of the city that could become a popular place to live, given its proximity to the central business district. "Mix up the use," he says, "that's the key to a good urban environment."

Kitchen says it'd be smart to make the surrounding blocks on State Street more transit-friendly. "There's a lot of opportunity to recreate what once was a true urban block before Sears came in," he says. "How do we go back to these walkable blocks that people can go down?"

The mysterious new occupants seem willing to align their development ideas with the city's State Street community reinvestment plan according to Lara Fritts, Salt Lake City's director of the Department of Economic Development. The plan's four key strategies include creating employment opportunities for locals, adding single- and multi-family housing, building off the existing ethnic restaurant scene, and supporting community arts and culture fixtures. "You would never go on a trip without a road map," Fritts says. "And so you never really want to enter commercial revitalization without a plan on how you are going to get there."

Hidden beneath Kitchen's wish list for expanded walkability, more housing and a range of businesses, the councilman-turned-senator hopes the city and developers take a long-term approach. "If we develop just based on what's quick, easy and cheap today, it's going to be another 50 years before we have the opportunity to develop it again, so we have to do it right, right now."

In the meantime, changes to the community are already afoot. Sapa Investments, the financial muscle behind Nguyen's restaurant, will play a key role in helping rebrand what she calls the "Midtown District." The first phase of "Food Alley," a diverse collection of 17 locally owned restaurants, artists' lofts and a year-round farmers market that'll be located just south of the old Sears building, is slated to be finished later this year. The second phase, which includes building new additions on the property's east side that will house the 20-foot "micro restaurants," should be completed before spring 2020, Nguyen says. "The whole idea of the Food Alley is to be able to get as many different cuisines and cultures represented from all around the world as possible."

The culinary expansion will give shoppers an array of options and hopefully won't negatively impact the trio of taco carts that have called the neighboring sidewalk home for years. Each morning around 9 o'clock, Crescencio Amaral cuts up meat at his stand, Tacos Mi Favorito, ahead of the lunch rush. Anticipating a long workday one February morning, Amaral wore a heavy jacket, two fuzzy hats and a plaid scarf to protect himself from the cold. "All the people coming say, 'Hey what happened to the Sears?'" he says, smiling as flecks of moisture fly from the cutting board and land on his graying mustache.

Amaral is a community mainstay. He's been slinging Mexican grub on the same corner for 20 years. Five days a week, he wakes up early and hitches his food cart to Main Street's 800 block. His wife joins him around lunchtime to serve hungry masses hankering for some carnitas and street tacos. "They come for years," Amaral says of his loyal clientele. "Some people come for 9, 10 years."

Amaral has heard rumors about what'll eventually replace Sears—an apartment complex or maybe another big store. He says he doesn't care what takes over the lot, so long as the city lets him keep setting up shop there. "Whatever they want to do is fine," he says.

Since opening its doors in 1998, Big Deluxe, where Page works, has also become a neighborhood staple. Collier Baird, another tattooing apprentice there, says new housing isn't necessarily good for business, but more local bars and restaurants could do the trick. "People come from all around to go to Sapa," he says, "and then they happen to walk by a tattoo shop, and then they're like, 'Fuck it, I'll get that tattoo.'"

Whatever ends up getting built on the lot, Page says it's likely he and his colleagues will wind up spending money there between shifts. "If they could put in a convenience store, that would be bitchin'," he says. "Any place that's got something to offer us, that's right there, we're going to be going there a lot."