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Teardown for What?

As Salt Lake City's population booms, neighborhoods find themselves in a losing battle against 'densi-fication.'



It's gone. At least for Angela Jensen, Alex Sparks and the countless residents who cycled in and out of this bohemian icon, it is gone, and with it not only the opportunity for community, but also for affordable living in a city growing anxiously in anticipation of an onslaught of population.

China Blue—or the Blue, as it was fondly called—sits at 959 E. 200 South in an historic district on Salt Lake's east-central community among five homes targeted for demolition to make way for new, multi-family apartments. When the owners lost their fight with the city, they painted it white. The psychedelic murals didn't fare any better, lost somewhere under layers of coverup.

The fight is just one of many as neighborhoods across the city revolt in an effort to save what they have in lifestyle, affordability and character. Right now, it's about something called RMF-30—the first piece of the city's Residential Multi-Family zoning plan. "The plan specifically calls for the removal of local zoning barriers to housing development such as density limitations and ineffective lot dimensional requirements (lot width, oversize setbacks, etc.)," the city plan says. Think "height," too—a maximum height of 30 feet, and that's just the beginning.

As the city builds up, residents wonder if Salt Lake is on the road to Beijing—saturated with box-like multi-family dwellings, tearing down "naturally occurring affordable" homes, while leaving a few single-family homes only the wealthy could afford.

Goodbye, China Blue: Images of an eclectic historic home slated for demolition, one of five included in the Lincoln Street rezoning. - STEPHANIE STANCZAK
  • Stephanie stanczak
  • Goodbye, China Blue: Images of an eclectic historic home slated for demolition, one of five included in the Lincoln Street rezoning.

Four of the five homes in the Salt Lake City East Side Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places were built in the 1890s. That designation doesn't provide any protections but does allow homeowners to apply for renovation tax credits. And although the neighborhood won the battle over the designation, it wasn't enough to save China Blue, the residents there or the historic homes that were part of the Lincoln Street rezoing project. While townhomes with up to 30 units will not be built, something else probably will.

Are ADUs the answer?
The issue is not so different in the upper Avenues, in Sugar House, Glendale, Yale-crest and just about anywhere in the city because there is growing anxiety over the inevitable population crunch. To residents, this is Armageddon against the invading hordes.

The city is expecting 50,000 more inhabitants to pack in by 2030. Already, some 50,000 families are doubled up, and because of the dearth of living spaces, that leaves a shortfall of 100,000 units. Of that, The Salt Lake Tribune writes that "Utah lacks at least 50,000 moderately priced homes and rentals." The city council is frantic to make room for them.

"We've reached the tipping point—we're probably past the tipping point where we need to look at proposals," says Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton.

Proposals. Dotted along the upper Avenues is sign after sign decrying, "No Ivory Homes Re-Zone." Long ago gentrified, the Avenues was Salt Lake's first neighborhood, attracting both young professionals and hipsters as wealthier homeowners moved up the hill or to the suburbs.

The Avenues Historic District was designated in 1980 to include 487 acres and sites such as Brigham Young's grave. High above, on 12th Avenue and E Street now sit 28 luxury condos in the renovated old Veterans Administration hospital, a red-brick neo-classical structure that stood empty for 16 years as a ghostly remnant of past wars.

At the entrance, Ivory Homes has erected a sign proclaiming the Capitol Park Cottages—20 single-family houses to be built just north of the condos on what is now an open grassy field. The mature Siberian elms, a nesting site to two families of redtail hawks, would have to be clear-cut. The plans look strikingly like Daybreak.

"Ivory originally filed in May of 2020 for rezoning the 3.1 acre plot," says Peter Wright, who along with 100 other residents formed the Preserve Our Avenues Zoning Coalition.

Ivory's website emphasizes the affordability issue and "onerous burdens on new housing development." Indeed, there's not much affordable in the upper Aves. The Capitol Park condos have been selling for upwards of $2.4 million, and a home just below is for sale for $2.7 million.

"We are aware and we appreciate the input and have made numerous changes to our plan based on that input," said Ivory Development President Chris Gamvroulas. "There is a strong, well-funded NIMBY group working overtime to make sure only super rich people get to live in the neighborhood."

The proposed development would be a first-of-its-kind in this market, with ADUs being built into the homes from the start.

"I can tell you we are not going to develop it under the current zoning," Gamvroulas said. "If this plan not approved, we will come back with another plan—and it may be more dense. This is a way to create some housing affordability in the city, and we intend to do that on that property."

Ivory saw an opening when the city passed its 2018 ordinance on accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The first year, the city received only six applications for ADUs, according to the online Building Salt Lake real estate news. But this year, an additional 31 would mean a 1,000 percent increase.

And according to a report by the city's planning commission, it's obvious "that ADUs are currently not contributing to alleviating the city's housing shortage. ADUs have only been built on 0.15% of the city's 44,000 single-family residential lots."

That hasn't stopped Ivory from singing its praises, even though an ADU typically might cost $156,000 to construct.

The oversize impact of tiny homes
Wright calls the affordability refrain "a perversion of the concept of ADUs." Still, affordability is only one area of dispute with POAZC.

"Our objections are principally environmental," says Wright. They are concerned about runoff on the steep foothills, wildlife protection and of course pollution.

The city's five-year plan calls for walkable communities, but that is virtually impossible in the upper Avenues. "Everyone that lives in this environment drives everywhere. It's seven blocks down a steep grade to Smith's," he says. And people won't be going by wheelchair.

With only one driveway per unit, cars could be starting up and shuffling about frequently, polluting all the while.

"We're trying not to be NIMBYs over this," Wright says. And yet developments like this are headed to everyone's backyard—and in them.

ADUs, which have a mixed record, are just one piece of the population puzzle. Often called mother-in-law apartments, the city has had them in neighborhoods for decades, although many aren't officially recognized. Internal ADUs don't create a lot of pushback, but stand-alone ADUs and the now-in-vogue tiny houses require separate hookups and permissions. That puts them out of reach for many.

"For these stand-alones, it's a minimum of $200,000 for sewer and line," says Lynn Pershing, whose neighborhood activism started in Yalecrest. "The sewer alone is $25K. ... This isn't about affordability."

Gamvroulas says that building costs are what's driving the escalatig price tags. "Lumber prices have increased 300 percent," he says, noting that the smaller Capitol Park cottage homes will likely start at $1 million.

The city once was beholden to the livestock barons, then the mining barons, "and now it's the developer-builder barons, and they control all the state," Pershing says.

Building in the city is supposed to be "compatible," but the definition in the code has been fuzzy. "That's what destroyed the Avenues—all the teardowns and incompatible structures in terms of building style, mass and scale," she says. "Compatibility is in the eye of the observer or regulator, and they will contort themselves to make it compatible."

Khosrow Semnani thinks of himself as an accidental developer. Once known as the founder of the waste-management company Envirocare, Semnani sold the company and started the global investment company S.K. Hart Management and bought Trolley Square when it was in receivership.

"I was approached by the bank, and now I'm selling real estate by default," he says. There had been plans to convert the mall to a storage area, but Semnani had other ideas because after his many decades in Utah, he has found history worth preserving. "It's the history of the people in Utah who shaped it," he says.

His office sits along historic South Temple in a restored building. He looks across the street at the John Glendinning House, sometimes called Victorian Picturesque. Semnani wonders aloud how the city approved a shed-like addition to the side. Dave Amott of Preservation Utah thinks the addition, used for state offices, was likely approved in the late '70s or '80s before local landmarking laws were codified.

With residential demand going up, along with prices, homes are out of reach for many people. "I don't have a magic wand," Semnani says. "But you cannot cram everybody downtown." Semnani says he appreciates the mayor looking at the problem, and city council trying to revisit it, but "testing should not be done in historical districts first. It doesn't make sense... It's like testing a face cream on an eye."

The testing appears to be fueled by rising homelessness and anxiety over an increase in population. Tiny homes and ADUs are being held up as solutions, if only stopgap, to both affordability and housing availability. But is it true? Certainly, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall thinks it could make a dent. She is proposing a tiny home community/compound for the homeless.

"The glorification of what is essentially a well-designed, small trailer covers up the fact that many people are not freely choosing tiny houses but are forced to live in them because of inflated housing prices and flat salaries in many housing markets." That was a comment on a New York Times article entitled, "What No One Ever Tells You About Tiny Homes."

A coming attraction in the Avenues: Capitol Park Cottages (with a protest sign below) - KATHARINE BIELE
  • Katharine Biele
  • A coming attraction in the Avenues: Capitol Park Cottages (with a protest sign below)

Destroying what's already good
Utah's housing prices are skyrocketing like most markets in the country, and March saw the hottest market since 2012, according to discount real estate broker Redfin. There are many reasons including flight from the suburbs, and when supply can't keep up, prices rise.

"Income inequality drives hundreds of people into homelessness on any given night in dozens of communities across the U.S.," according to new researchinThe Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Sugar House used to be an attraction for residents of moderate income. "The city council stopped using the term 'affordable,'" says Judi Short, a former planning commissioner who is now Land Use chair for the Sugar House Community Council.

These days, the cheapest rent in Sugar House is $1,200—and it may be for a studio apartment. "You can't see anyone building an SRO (single-room occupancy, a low-income form of housing that includes a single room and often a shared bathroom and kitchen) that really serves the purpose," she says. With some 80 percent of land in the city not zoned for housing, "you're cramming it in."

City Planning Director Nick Norris concurs, noting the current formula of 15 percent of city land reserved for single-family homes and 6 percent for multi-family homes contributes to making housing less affordable.

The Affordable Housing Overlay Zone allows any residential lot in the city to add as many units as can fit on a lot. Only District 6, which includes the Yalecrest area, is exempt.

But that area has been hit hard, too. Since 1990, there have been 56 teardowns or demolitions of mostly historic homes in the area. And what is going up in their place is anything but affordable. "The city allows developers to do whatever they want and get a tax benefit for it," says Yalecrest activist Pershing.

Pershing is among many who think the city should help develop west-side communities "instead of destroying what's already good."

Colonizing the hood
But west-side Salt Lake has its own unique issues. Developers are planning to put 58 townhomes on a 2.37-acre commercially zoned parcel in the Glendale neighborhood. This would displace the existing, if aging, Glendale Plaza.

"This neighborhood could use a few good retail stores, like a small restaurant, ice cream or coffee shop," says Charlotte Fife-Jepperson, managing editor of West View Media. "This development proposal does not encourage a 'walkable' community. Are these townhomes going to be affordable, or market rate?"

The west side has never had the respect it deserves. When Deedee Corradini was mayor, she moved roads, bridges and freeway corridors to erase the divide, but the west side struggled with identity politics. A low-income migrant population added to a perception of crime, and a lack of business opportunities meant residents often lived in virtual food deserts.

While much of that has changed, the west side continues to be a dumping ground for unwanted development and increased pollution. Think of the inland port, for example.

"The west side has a suburban development pattern and single-family homes," says Luke Garrott, a former Salt Lake City councilman for that district. "It needs density, rooftops, and people need services instead of driving. ... You get what you zone for."

Much of the problem centers around parking because developers tend to overbuild for parking, and no one wants to walk by an empty parking lot, Garrott says. "It's a paradox because business owners generally think all customers come in cars and that makes walkability less."

Meanwhile, in the Guadalupe/Jackson neighborhood, families in seven houses are being evicted to make way for a new apartment complex. The Kozo House will include 319 residential units with ground-floor commercial space. Members of the Rose Park Brown Berets protested the development, telling KUER 90.1 FM it is "definitely gentrification, but we call it 'hood colonization.'"

History worth preserving: the historic Glendinning Home at 617 E.  South Temple in Salt Lake City now houses the Utah Division of Arts and Museums - KATHARINE BIELE
  • Katharine Biele
  • History worth preserving: the historic Glendinning Home at 617 E. South Temple in Salt Lake City now houses the Utah Division of Arts and Museums

No crystal ball
On a smaller scale, members of the Summum religion are protesting a seven-story apartment building with 244 units along 900 South near 700 West. "We have voiced our objection to it, but it is being crammed down our throats," says Summum president Su Menu.

She fears the height and noise will destroy their sanctuary and garden, which has been there for 40 years. Founded in Utah, Summum claims to be the only place worldwide where one can undergo modern mummification.

"I realize a need for housing, but this low-income housing is not affordable. It's high!"

Displacement and gentrification are going on simultaneously, Wharton says, and they are problems in every growing city. "Even though you see all these cranes across city, you think, 'How can there be not enough?' but we are seeing unprecedented growth, and it's projected to continue.

"We can't stop growth, but we can manage it. There's no one solution. There are a bunch of little levers we can pull and a bunch of course corrections we can take," he says. "Nobody has a crystal ball."

It's all a process—and not an easy one. For instance, a developer comes to the city and asks for a zoning change, for GAP financing (an interim loan given tofinancethe difference between the floor loan and the maximum permanent loan as committed) or a writedown on the price of land. The city tries to do an analysis through planning and the redevelopment agency to determine what the value of the public benefit is. "Any time somebody is building in the city, regardless, they are going to have to go through the planning process—transit, streets, zoning, height, public utilities," Wharton says.

If the city foresees an affordable-housing shortage, it might send it to the RDA. The administration will transmit a proposal to the council, which then weighs in. "Salt Lake City has a lot of community input built into the process through community councils and direct comment, too," Wharton says, "but the reality of the situation is that the valley is built out, especially in Salt Lake City, and we're running out of ground."

Accepting inevitability
Community activist Cindy Cromer is well aware of the needs and the tension. "The neighborhoods are pushing back, but they're not coordinated. If we could all just link together, we could be a lot more effective," she says.

In February, dozens of downtown renters were evicted from The Annex and the Carlton Hotel on South Temple after a Chicago company bought the buildings. Most were on month-to-month agreements and couldn't afford to move.

"The city is not addressing affordability. It's just creating more housing and just made the problem worse," Cromer says. "The city keeps milking the land."

Wharton says he feels their pain, and the city pays money to community-action groups to help people being displaced. Many, however, end up homeless or moving out of the city. And in fact, the city did have to move some of the Kozo residents out of the city.

Not only are rents going up, but housing prices in general. "If everybody who's a homeowner now had to rebuy, well over 50 percent couldn't afford what we have now," Wharton says. The median sales price in Salt Lake County is $468,000, and national reports say buyers are handing out cash, sometimes hundreds of thousands over the asking price.

Even when "affordability" is added to the housing mix, it's often only a small percentage for up to 10 years. After that, anything goes.

The Avenues community believes affordability is a cover for Ivory Homes' hunger for that empty field of developer dreams. The last community council meeting ended with a stunning vote: 1,244 opposed, 25 in favor. Still, the council chair said that the assumption is that something will be developed there, and they will accept that inevitability.

Communities must advocate for themselves
Angela Jensen is not as charitable about the demise of China Blue and its companion houses. It was a place of folklore and energy. It was home to the famous botanist Marcus Eugene Joneswho died in 1934 after spending most of his career self-employed in Salt Lake. Elizabeth Smart was said to have partied there while she was in captivity.

Tenants stepped up to renew the lease and clean up the house, but it was for naught. They got a notice of eviction on the day they had to vacate. Alex Sparks ended up in an unfinished basement on the west side for $1,200 a month, which he can't afford.

The community council came out in force with hundreds attending a city council meeting. Ultimately, they defeated the RMF-30 designation, but the houses now sit empty and their fate unknown.

Pershing has called on the state and city to fund its rehabilitation. It hasn't happened. "We need diverse housing types for a diverse city of residents," she says. "One size doesn't fit all."

While master plans exist, they are just plans. As the city scrambles to build and fill, each community has to be its own advocate because, as Cromer says, "Bad ideas never die."