New cafe soon could bloom in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House Park

(Kathy Stephenson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 55-year-old Garden Center Building, in the northeast corner of Sugar House Park, soon could be renovated and turned into a cafe.

The Garden Center Building has been a fixture in Sugar House Park for more than five decades.

Yet even regular visitors fail to notice the one-level, midcentury modern building tucked into the northeast corner of one of Salt Lake City’s premier outdoor spaces.

Large trees conceal part of the cinder block structure — which has been home to the Utah Associated Garden Clubs since it was dedicated in 1964.

And most residents have never had a reason to go inside, unless it was for a gardening lecture, flower show or — more recently — a wedding reception or quinceanera.

During the past year, though, a new idea for the building has sprouted.

The board that operates the 110-acre park has been working with a developer to turn the public space into the Sugar House Park Garden Cafe.

The public/private partnership was a financial move, said Landon Allred, president of the Sugar House Park Authority board. The Garden Center Building is in need of an estimated $525,000 in repairs — money that Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which jointly own the property, don’t have.

“One way to get enough money to save the building,” Allred said, “was to have someone come in and pay for structural repairs and do something that would benefit the community.”

A request for proposals went out and the board accepted the cafe idea submitted by Rebecca Lee, who lives within walking distance of the park.

Allred said the board wanted to take “a community approach rather than a capitalist one,” so it went with a small local developer who would appreciate the history of the building and work with the garden clubs that have operated out of the building since it opened.

Back in 1964, the Utah garden clubs raised money to furnish the building and — under a legal agreement with the city and county — were able to lease the building for $1 a year as long as they paid for all the maintenance costs, said garden club President Geoff Ellis.

The arrangement worked well until the past decade, when garden club membership has dwindled. At one time, the state had 62 clubs; today, it has 12. Over the past five years, membership has hovered around 330 people.

At the same time, repairs and upgrades to the building have increased due to its age.

Word of the new cafe has been circulating in the Sugar House neighborhood and has many wondering why a private company is taking over a public building.

“We’re not trying to turn it into a strip mall,” Allred said. “We are trying to use a community asset better. If you’re running in the park or playing soccer, hopefully this enhances the experience.”

It’s also not a done deal. Lee must still obtain funding and building permits, although she’s confident she can.

She already has assembled an all-female team of architects to help with the development of the 6,200-square-foot building. She’s hired a chef and has a tentative menu that includes coffee and baked items for breakfast, salads and sandwiches for lunch and a takeout window so visitors can enjoy picnics or ice cream in the park.

“The cafe combines all the things I love: cooking, gardening and the outdoors,” said Lee, a native of Australia who moved to Salt Lake City about a decade ago and frequents the park with her Scottish terrier.

One item that won’t be available is alcohol. State law bars the sale of liquor in parks or in close proximity to schools, and Highland High School is just east of the building.

While the Sugar House Park Garden Cafe will be a for-profit business, the parent company that Lee formed to do the redevelopment — called Garden and Park Conservancy Inc. — is a benefit corporation, she said, and requires her to include community and nonprofit groups.

To that end, she said, the Garden Center Building will have 900 square feet of dedicated space where garden club members can meet, have lectures and hold their flower shows.