South Salt Lake’s housing boom driven by its transit lines

South Salt Lake • Railways helped turn South Salt Lake’s open fields of mid-20th century into “A City of Industry,” which is one of its nicknames. Trains brought people and businesses that fostered the first neighborhoods.

Today, the rails that once shipped lumber, stone blocks and other supplies are light rail and streetcar routes fueling a residential boom.

Since 2015, elected leaders here have approved more than 2,800 new apartments, town homes and other dwellings — mostly located adjacent to TRAX lines and stations.

For a built-out suburban city of roughly 25,000 residents spread over just under seven square miles, that’s a big number.

The new spate of apartments and town homes was followed in October by a groundbreaking for a massive new development at the historic Granite Mill site near 2200 South and Main Street — a project that will give South Salt Lake a real shot at building its own downtown just down the street from Salt Lake City’s growing core.

“This is so clearly not the South Salt Lake I grew up in,” said Mayor Cherie Wood, a lifelong resident.

To be called South City, the seven-acre project’s first phase is a six-story, 150,000-square-foot office tower. Software firm PDQ.com and GBS Benefits, a Utah employee-benefits brokerage and consulting company, have signed leases to occupy the new building.

The project has been launched after city leaders overhauled zoning rules in 2016 to encourage high-density developments along TRAX lines.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The new South City project will include a six-story office tower, 10-story apartment building, an assortment of new shops and an 800-stall parking garage on the historic Granite Mill near 2200 South and Main Street.

Subsequent phases in the $285 million project, according to investor-developer Dakota Pacific, will bring a 10-story apartment complex wrapped around an 800-stall parking garage, along with stores, more offices and a hotel.

It ranks among the largest redevelopments underway in the Salt Lake Valley.

Wood said that beyond transit and incentives spurring development, the city’s new growth is born of years of painstaking community building and efforts to shed South Salt Lake’s image as a bland, transient or unsafe place to live.

Likening it to a spoked wheel, the mayor said those efforts have involved more than a decade of trying to reduce crime rates, fortifying after-school and other youth programs, and “giving families a reason to stay and raise kids here.”

“I don't feel like we would have seen as much growth or as much positive change,” Wood said, “if we had not addressed every broken spoke in our wheel that we call community.”

‘Only going to grow’

South Salt Lake’s upswing in housing and urban growth is also part of a new wave of Utah cities pursuing variations of the same notion: locating higher-density homebuilding — often apartment complexes or town home projects — next to mass transit stops and land around the rail corridors that link them.

Housing density remains controversial in many communities, sometimes pitting the concerns of existing residents against potential newcomers. But there is often more consensus, city and planning officials say, behind locating large housing projects near rail nodes, partly because it can lessen traffic problems.

Major housing projects and a host of smaller developments linked to Utah Transit Authority rail lines are now in progress across the Wasatch Front. In fact, there is now more interest from cities in partnering with UTA on such developments than the agency can handle under state law.

“It’s really astounding to see the amount of transit-oriented development that is happening via market forces and city planning,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director for Utah League of Cities and Towns.

Officials at Envision Utah and other regional planning agencies have pushed the idea of high-density housing and retail development next to mass transit for years, not least as a land-use strategy to ease air pollution by reducing vehicle miles.

The trend is gaining new momentum now from what officials say is a dire regional need for housing at all price points as Utah’s population mushrooms.

New neighborhoods

To a city eager for housing options, a newly built enclave called Hawthorne — located at about 2800 S. West Temple in South Salt Lake, along a UTA rail corridor — is a win on several fronts.

It’s a gated community of 219 stacked flat-style apartments, for rent when town homes are more often for sale. The two-story dwellings are between 1,300 and 2,000 square feet.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hawthorne Townhomes is a new 220-unit residential project on West Temple and 2852 South.

The housing project is spread over a 20-acre former industrial site, once home to the Buehner Block Co., purveyors of stone blocks.

One top planner for South Salt Lake called Hawthorne “a great opportunity” to bring added housing density — Hawthorne is 15 units per acre — along a TRAX corridor, while also adding to the city’s network of open spaces.

“Large tracts of land rarely become available,” said Alexandra White, manager of the city’s Planning Division. “The project has been extremely successful.”

Since city leaders made zoning changes around the S-Line, also known as the Sugarhouse Streetcar line, South Salt Lake’s old patterns of single-story construction have given way to more multistory projects, she said. Several housing developments, such as Hawthorne, have created entire new neighborhoods on what were once manufacturing and industrial sites.

‘On the move’

South Salt Lake’s new downtown development area is framed by stretches of Interstate 15, Interstate 80, State Street and 2100 South. By one estimate, more than a million vehicles move through the city on these arterials every day.

The city center also has the valley’s only TRAX station — Central Pointe — that accommodates every rail line run by Utah Transit Authority, including the S-Line.

“Developers are being drawn to this area because of the access and connectivity to the rest of the valley,” said White, the city planner.

Real estate brokers say heightened interest in South Salt Lake is also a function of rising demand among residential developers for available land within commuting distance to downtown Salt Lake City.

“That’s part of why I’ve never left South Salt Lake,” Wood said. “I can get anywhere in 20 minutes, it feels like.”

That easy access to other places is, ironically, part of what is driving development of South Salt Lake’s own distinct downtown center.

In its zoning plan for its downtown district adopted three years ago, the City Council converted a neighborhood previously focused on retail and manufacturing to one allowing high-density projects that combine buildings with a mix of different uses. The plan also created incentives for high-density development near the S-Line, with no caps on dwellings per acre or building heights in the downtown district, White said.

When a new WinCo Foods grocery store opened in the district the following year, city officials predicted the area would one day be filled with more than 2,500 new housing units, 1.5 million square feet of retail and office spaces, several parks and a recreational link to Parley’s Trail.

There are other signs that this vision is taking shape.

Not far from South City there is a new cluster of breweries and distilleries that have sprung up in old warehouses, including Beehive Distilling, Level Crossing Brewery, Salt Fire and Shades of Pale.

The city’s downtown rezone in 2016 and its approach to transit were key to Beehive Distilling’s decision to open in South Salt Lake, said co-owner and head distiller Chris Barlow.

“They have a high push for a live-work, walkable center with an urban industrial feel,” Barlow said, “and that made it an area we were interested in.”