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Peg McEntee: Lessons of a ‘done deal’ streetcar in Sugar House

A few weeks ago, the Salt Lake City Council voted 4-3 to put a streetcar on a stretch of 1100 East in Sugar House, a popular and growing district that has become known as the city’s second downtown.

At least in the early stages, the streetcar would run from 2100 South to 1700 South on a narrow, heavily trafficked street lined with homes, shops, restaurants and a busy post office. But city officials envision a more comprehensive public transit system that could reduce traffic and pollution in years to come.

Now, I’ve lived in the area for 22 years, and Sugar House is my go-to destination for pretty much everything I need. I’d heard of widespread opposition, so I contacted a few businesses to find out how they view the streetcar.

I got an earful.

Among other things, they worry about even more clogged traffic, a loss of street parking and the long-term disruption that such construction entails.

Wayne Witzel owns Image Eyes Optical on 1100 East, and he says the full-service business has grown steadily, even during the Great Recession, and he’s earned a loyal clientele.

He and other proprietors claim that in its haste to get the job done, the city anticipated a considerable amount of federal funding. In reality, no federal or local funding mechanisms are in sight and there’s no definitive time frame for construction.

Witzel sees alternatives: Why not make 1100 East an exclusively southbound street, and have 1300 East run only north? And if pollution is such a worry, why not convert all city buses to use natural gas?

“People haven’t thought it through,” Witzel said.

I have some experience in such matters. In the late 1970s, I managed a gift store at a mall in San Diego. Our little family business did pretty well until mall management decided to add another wing to accommodate big department stores.

We still had plenty of parking, and the path to our door was clear. But we started losing customers, probably because they feared there wouldn’t be access. Our profits, hopes and ultimately the business were lost.

Nearby is the Soup Kitchen and its walls lined with drawings, posters and photos, including a black-and-white of Jimi Hendrix, presumably in concert at Lagoon in the 1960s.

The streetcar line, said owner Stuart Aitken, is “a done deal. They’re going to take the money. There’s nothing a small business can do.”

Consider, he said, North Temple in the aftermath of the construction that led TRAX to the Salt Lake International Airport. Businesses there have suffered, with the exception of the hugely popular Red Iguana restaurant.

“Everything else,” Aitken said, “is dead on the vine.”

Just through a parking lot near the Soup Kitchen is the Fiddler’s Elbow sports bar and Salt Lake Pizza and Pasta, both owned by Al Dieffenbach. The 1100 East alignment, he contends, “was thrown down our throats without input.”

He said the first time he got wind of it was during an April meeting of the Sugar House Merchants Association, which meets monthly at Fiddler’s Elbow. “I made a big stink about it,” he said. “I haven’t heard one person who’s for it.”

Salt Lake City contends the alignment was the result of a transparent process that included public meetings and an ombudsman who visited the businesses along 1100 East, and Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Ralph Becker, had told The Tribune that a majority of businesses favored the streetcar. But in late April, about 200 residents showed up at City Hall and most said they objected to the 1100 East option.

Maybe, however, some good came of the 1100 East issue. Earlier this month, the proposed Sugar House Monument Plaza was before the City Council, and nearly all its members said they wanted more public input. Consider that a lesson learned.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @ Peg McEntee.

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