Wasatch Community Gardens getting $250K loan from city to grow not tomatoes, but apartments

They’re part of the nonprofit group’s expansion in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renovation of three historic homes being converted into offices is underway, as well as construction on eight new studio apartments, on the Wasatch Community Gardens property at 615 E. 800 South in Salt Lake City, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

It may be going up next to famous tomato plots, but this isn’t your garden-variety housing project.

Elected leaders said Tuesday that Salt Lake City will chip in $250,000 to help Wasatch Community Gardens plow forward with a quirky mix of converted homes and new micro-dwellings going up next to the nonprofit’s shared growing beds at 615 E. 800 South.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renovation of 3 historic homes is underway, as well as construction on 8 new housing units, on the Wasatch Community Garden property, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

But the city Redevelopment Agency rent toward the campus expansion is aimed at keeping rents on those eight studio apartments more affordable than most — and the cash won’t be forgivable, as backers had asked.

“I’m struggling with this, looking even at a loan for it,” Councilman James Rogers said Tuesday, reacting to an initial ask that money drawn from the city’s housing trust fund not be repaid, in light of other benefits from the project to city residents.

The group’s forgivable-loan request came amid several fundraising drives related to the project since 2019. The request also called for several exceptions to city policy on how the RDA treats money in the housing trust fund, which drew nearly $2.59 million in new sales taxes in 2019-2020.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The foundation for eight new housing units on the Wasatch Community Gardens property on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

Ashley Patterson, Wasatch Community Gardens’ executive director, said Tuesday the city stood to gain from a rare hunk of preserved open space and new, denser housing wedged into an established and historic neighborhood, where land values can make it cost-prohibitive to build.

“We’re not a housing developer, so we’ve been challenged,” Patterson told the RDA board in a virtual meeting. RDA documents said that in light of the group’s inexperience, members sought the cash to cover “to protect themselves in the face of unknowns.”

Rogers and other City Council members, in their dual role as the RDA board, eventually settled on a flexible but full payment plan, drawing an adjustable share of the group’s cash flow for up to 30 years. RDA board members then sought pointedly to scrub the word “forgivable” from any city contracts authorizing the loan — a further sign of demand for city resources in addressing an ongoing affordable housing shortage.

“We recognize your sensitivity there,” said RDA Chief Operating Officer, Danny Walz, whose staff had also recommended the flexible repayment.

In an interview, Patterson said the option was acceptable, although the group might have to pursue additional funding to make it all pencil out. The housing units are part of the $6.2 million expansion and site redesign over the gardens’ acreage alongside rows of gardening beds familiar to many as the Grateful Tomato Garden.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The renovation of historic homes is underway, as well as construction on new housing units, on the Wasatch Community Gardens property on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

In a project whose borrowing is largely self-funded, the nonprofit is also converting three historic homes into offices and other facilities and putting up the eight 435-square-foot dwellings in a two-story building facing onto midblock Green Street.

Rents on those homes are to be kept accessible for folks at 70% of area median incomes for 50 years, starting at $1,025 a month when they open, according to city documents. The homes will also be net zero on energy use, thanks to solar panels.

As advocates of community building around healthy, locally grown food, Wasatch Community Gardens has pursued the small development project after getting a 2016 easement protecting as farmland that residential corner in east Salt Lake City.

To meet other city rules on mixing building uses on the 1.2-acre site, Wasatch also obtained a rezone of part of the land in a two-year process. The group also passed review of the designs on the two-story apartment corner building located in the Central City Historic District.

City code to offset loss to its housing stock from demolition also required the group to replace the three historic homes it is renovating into office spaces, Patterson noted. Instead of building a few homes or selling to a for-profit developer, she said, the group has planned eight units on a 3,200-square-foot site, each suitable for up to two residents.

Walz noted the RDA had offered forgivable loans to developers in the Granary District on conditions they rehabilitate and reuse existing buildings, but the board made clear Tuesday that was to be treated as a rare exception.