Rezone for Avenues ‘cottages’ gets thumbs-up despite heavy neighborhood pushback

The change would let Ivory Homes build up to 38 new dwellings on a 3.2-acre patch of open space at the north end of F Street, but it still requires a vote by the Salt Lake City Council.

In the face of robust opposition from hundreds of neighbors, Salt Lake City planners have endorsed a rezone of 3.2 acres of open space in the Avenues to make way for new housing.

Ivory Homes, Utah’s largest homebuilder, has sought to convert the land at approximately 675 North F Street from a long-standing foothills residential zone, requiring quarter-acre home lots at a minimum, to a special development zone, allowing lot sizes of less than half that span and essentially doubling the number of homes Ivory is permitted to build.

The switch in density would let Murray-based Ivory enact plans for what it is calling Capitol Park Cottages, with 19 single-family houses, including five that would be custom-built. At least 14 of the homes would have built-in accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, for a total of up to 38 new dwellings on what is now green space on the north end of F Street at 13th Avenue.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ivory Homes, Utah's largest homebuilder, won a rezone Wednesday on a 3.2-acre plot at 675 North F Street in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, where it wants to build 19 high-end homes, 14 of them with accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, inside and five built as luxury custom homes. Hundreds of neighbors opposed the project.

Ivory has described the project as, among other things, an experimental demonstration of using denser construction with pre-built ADUs as a way to add more dwellings per acre for a city with a major affordable housing shortage.

The homebuilder won endorsement of the rezone late Wednesday, after more than two years of debate and four versions of the hotly contested proposal. The 9-1 vote followed several hours of public testimony largely against the idea.

The change still requires a final vote by the Salt Lake City Council.

Peter Gamvroulas, project manager for Ivory, said the property’s existing foothills zoning — first enacted as part of a master plan in 1987 — was out of date and explicitly limited construction to larger, more exclusive homes unattainable for most would-be residents.

“That is not the best outcome for such a rare infill piece of property in the city,” Gamvroulas said of the land, which Ivory bought from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And while the Avenues master plan has not changed, the city’s planning and housing goals have, he said, “and they recognize that density is not something to fear, and when it can be minimally and rationally increased, it’s a good thing.”

From ‘very low density’ to ‘low density’

According to city documents, the zoning change would effectively change the site from “very low density” to “low density.” With roughly 10 dwellings per acre, the property would be more densely built than surrounding blocks in the upper Avenues, but in keeping with or below per-acre densities on many of the neighborhood’s blocks south of Seventh Avenue, judging from city maps.

Yet few housing projects in recent years have drawn the organized opposition this one has.

Neighbors worry about additional traffic and street safety, parking problems, loss of green space, air pollution, wildfire dangers, compressed setbacks from surrounding homes and the notion that the project would be incompatible with the prevailing character of the Avenues, one of the city’s oldest and more affluent neighborhoods.

(Image courtesy of Ivory Homes, via Salt Lake City) An initial open space design for Capitol Park Cottages, a new housing development proposed by Ivory Homes at about 675 North F Street in Salt Lake City's Avenues neighborhood.

Nearly 60 residents testified Wednesday on the proposal, with only a handful in favor. Two organized community groups have also weighed in against Ivory’s plans.

“We understand the city’s housing shortage and are prepared to accept a reasonable increase in density on this lot,” said Peter Wright, with Preserve Our Avenues Zoning Coalition, which has sprung up to battle the rezone.

“However, what Ivory has proposed is not reasonable,” Wright said. “It’s not even close to reasonable.

“These are large, tall, two-story houses with four or five bedrooms and three-car garages,” he complained, saying the dwellings would be “not remotely typical” of the neighborhood’s predominantly older, smaller, single-story homes built at less than half the size of what Ivory describes as “cottages.”

‘Not affordable housing’

Wright and others pointed to two communitywide polls held by the Greater Avenues Community Council and a signature drive that drew thousands of participants, all with results overwhelmingly against the project. Several others noted that prices for the homes are likely to exceed $1 million apiece, and the ADUs will be rented at market rates.

“This is not affordable housing,” said nearby resident Sara DeLong. “This feels like a for-profit corporation profiting at the cost of local residents, the safety of our kids, and potentially the property values of our home from increased traffic congestion.”

Gamvroulas countered that the Capitol Park Cottages project, which still faces a design approval process from the city, was meant to expand housing opportunities in an elite area of the city “with good access to jobs, schools, parks and services, and generally a good location for additional families.”

Katherine Kennedy, Avenues resident and member of Salt Lake City School Board, reiterated safety concerns for students over the prospect of adding cars to the Avenues’ steep streets, often lacking sidewalks. Another resident, Gary Crittenden, warned of worsening wildfire dangers, pointing to a blaze that menaced the city’s Marmalade neighborhood a year ago.

“The high density of the Ivory plan would both impede firefighting and put life and properties at risk,” said Crittenden, among others who feared the added density of homes could some day hamper emergency evacuation.

Views from the planning commission

Andres Paredes, the lone commission member to vote against recommending the rezone, said he agreed with comments about the Avenues’ unique character and that “maybe the density is in the wrong place.”

“I feel it does adversely affect the neighborhood,” Paredes said, “so I’m still trying to grapple with what’s proposed.”

Commission member Andra Ghent, who is also a professor of finance at the University of Utah and holds the U.’s Ivory-Boyer Chair in Real Estate — a position endowed in part through Ivory’s philanthropic giving — did not participate in Wednesday’s meeting.

After public testimony, commissioner Brenda Scheer said many comments against the project “seem a little over the top” for what amounts to adding 11 more housing units over what could be built under current zoning.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is a disaster, that it’s character-destroying, that it is a very high risk, that it’s endangering children, that it’s worsening Salt Lake Valley’s air pollution, or that it’s turning a diamond into a lump of coal,” Scheer said. “Families will be very happy to have the opportunity to live in a new house in the Avenues.”

But Scheer backed other concerns raised by residents about putting denser development in a neighborhood that is not especially walkable and lacks access to mass transit, as well as worries over losing wildlife habitat and the mechanics of building new homes on sloping ground.

Commissioner Adrienne Bell, an Avenues resident, said she did not believe the number of housing units proposed under the special development zoning was “outrageous, nor that it will create the impacts we heard about tonight.”

“I’m a big believer in infill,” Bell said, “and that every neighborhood in the city should be finding opportunities to create density and alternative housing products.”

Commissioner Aimee Burrows praised residents for their involvement, calling the opposition well-organized, thoughtful and on point. “It’s a good neighborhood,” Burrows said. “However many families move onto this lot, they’ll be lucky to have you as neighbors.”