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Trolley's new owner aims to give shopping mall a new life

Published April 22, 2013 11:07 pm

Business • Envirocare founder says he knows what to do to turn things around.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah businessman and real estate investor Khosrow Semnani has one goal for Trolley Square — return the historic shopping center to its former position of prominence in the Salt Lake retail community.

His challenge won't be an easy one, if the shopping center's recent history is any guide.

Semnani is known in Utah as the founder of Envirocare, the company that evolved into the nuclear waste operation EnergySolutions. That venture began in 1988, while today it's his company S.K. Hart Properties that will lead the way as the latest owner of Trolley Square, which debuted as a mall in 1972.

"This is a very exciting transaction for our company," Semnani said. "Trolley Square is a charming place that has a lot of history behind it. And I'm looking forward to seeing it restored to its former glory."

Despite several positive events, the center's glory days have been fewer and farther between in recent years, with everything from a shooting rampage to the Great Recession to financial troubles for its former owner standing in the way. Through it all, Trolley Square and several dozen loyal tenants have persevered, although occupancy levels this month are barely above 50 percent.

A $60 million renovation that began in 2007; long-term leases for marquee businesses such as Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma; and the 2011 opening of a gleaming Whole Foods store have breathed much-needed life into the center. But if Semnani is to make a go of things, he will have to find a way to rebuild and sustain momentum over the long term in an increasingly competitive retail market.

He said S.K. Hart will start with a $1 million upgrade over the next 12 months to 18 months to give Trolley Square a "good facelift." Semnani said he also has solicited proposals from several architectural firms to explore what can be done to bring a more modern feel to the interior decor of Trolley Square, while still maintaining its historic integrity and charm.

The center, at 700 E. and 500 South in Salt Lake City, has been a retail and cultural anchor just off the southeastern edge of downtown for more than 40 years. And Semnani notes that "when the former owners took over [in 2007], Trolley Square was almost 96 percent occupied. They started a major remodeling effort that displaced a lot of tenants, and then the recession hit and did its damage."

Those troubles eventually resulted in Trolley Square being placed in receivership late last year after Bank of America sued the Oregon-based Trolley Square Associates. The bank claimed it and other lenders were owed $57 million, and that Trolley Square Associates failed to pay off those loans when they came due on June 1, 2012. That suit has been resolved.

Semnani subsequently gained title to Trolley Square by buying the debt from Bank of America.

He believes Trolley Square will benefit greatly by having a local owner — someone who cares about the property and is able to ensure that everything is being done to maximize its potential. "My offices are only four blocks away, so I'll be able to keep a close eye on it."

He's also counting on continued tenant loyalty and intends to repay that faithfulness by working hard to bring in other first-class retailers and restaurants, from around the country, as well as local enterprises. "We've already had a number of businesses express interest in coming to Trolley Square. The challenge will be in finding the right ones," he said.

Another challenge will be luring them from the clutches of the sprawling year-old City Creek Center downtown, Fashion Place Mall to south and Station Park in Farmington to the north.

Tab Cornelison, senior vice president of CBRE in Salt Lake City, said he believes Semnani has a good chance to succeed.

"He is going into this project with a lot better cost structure than the previous owners," Cornelison said. "And he'll be in a great position to attract tenants that don't want to be at The Gateway or pay the high rents at the City Creek Center."

Cornelison also suggested there is a possibility that an office or housing component could be added one day to the Trolley Square development. "It doesn't have to be all retail."

Trolley Square covers about 315,000 square feet of retail, restaurant and commercial space. Tenants include popular eateries such as the Spaghetti Factor, Desert Edge Brewery and Rodizio Grill.

Tony Weller, owner of Weller Book Works, moved his store from Main Street to Trolley Square in early January 2012. He said he is encouraged that the mall is now locally owned.

"It always has been my opinion that people who manage things from afar do a worse job than someone who is local and understands the community," Weller said. "And from that perspective, I'm hopeful."

Weller said he also wants the new owner to recognize that there is a lot of value in having local retailers as tenants, and that they can be worth more than national counterparts in creating a distinctive and diverse shopping experience.

Sean Bradley, who owns the Tabula Rasa stationery store and Cabin Fever card store, also is encouraged but a little weary.

"We've been here eight years now. We've had our challenges — and I can't say that I'm unhappy to see the chapter involving the former owners closed. But, I still really like Trolley Square as a place to do business."