Frustration welled up Wednesday evening from desperate Salt Lake City renters opposed to plans for a boardinghouse-style development along 700 East.
In impassioned testimony at City Hall, dozens of residents with a group called Wasatch Tenants United said the micro-units with shared kitchens proposed for Bueno Avenue Apartments, 129 S. 700 East, threatened to lower the city’s living standards while pushing the area’s already exorbitant rents even higher.
“We are in a housing crisis,” one group member named “Tears” said, adding that city approval for Bueno Avenue, would “absolutely tip the scales in favor of the crisis being utterly exacerbated.”
Another warned the city was sending “antagonistic” signals to its working-class residents in serving the interests of short-term profit for developers.
“We’re the people who deliver your Amazon packages, make your coffee in the morning and your pizzas late at night,” said Wasatch Tenants United member Jin Lee. “These are the people who are going to be pushed into substandard living.”
They and about 20 other residents urged the planning commission to block the project. The panel instead split 5-3 in approving requests for it to proceed as a planned urban development with a conditional land use permit for that part of Central City.
The meeting room was suffused with tension during the testimony and a Wasatch Tenants United member complained at one point about an armed guard stationed a few feet behind speakers at the podium.
“It’s a little bit intimidating,” organizer David Newlin told the commission. “It’s kind of bad form. Not exactly like a welcoming public atmosphere.”
Disruptive protests broke out at City Hall in December after the Salt Lake City Council bucked the planning commission and approved a controversial rezone for the site.
Debate over smaller living spaces
The Bueno Avenue project would demolish a six-unit apartment building and seven single-family homes just off busy 700 East, all of them reportedly in run-down condition, according to city documents.
Colorado-based Four Square Holdings intends to construct a four-story building on the site with 65 units of what the city defines as shared housing: suites of between one and four bedrooms leased individually, each with a private bathroom along with shared kitchens and living rooms.
The nearly 192 individual living spaces would be as small as 250 square feet. Plans also call for an additional building with amenities for future tenants, fronting 700 East.
The project has been the subject of several contentious hearings since June 2021 in a debate complicated by varying views on how to calculate its density in terms of dwelling units per acre. The conditional use permit designates it as a rooming house, which is allowed with conditions under the site’s current RMF-45 zoning.
The East Central Community Council weighed in Wednesday against the proposal in written testimony, calling it “invalid and unlawful” to have that kind of density, which it estimated at 129 units per acre — far exceeding, it said, even other dormitory-style settings in the city.
Wednesday’s debate also reflects deepening concerns for some over a growing trend toward smaller dwellings and a surge in multifamily residential construction centered on studios and one-bedroom apartments in a city and state dominated for generations by single-family homes.
[Read more about the pros and cons of tinier homes.]
The Bueno Avenue project’s backers said they had “developed thousands and thousands” of similar units in other cities with the same shared-living model.
“It’s a proven concept that works,” said Kevin Perry, representing the property owner. “It’s enough space.”
Others have touted the dormitory approach as a potential solution to the city’s worsening affordability crunch by lowering land and construction costs per unit with shared amenities.
Opponents, in contrast, called Bueno Avenue’s proposed living spaces and shared kitchens substandard, undignified and “sad.” Worse, they said, the concept threatens to raise prices further and diminish quality of life, while allowing developers to profit by drawing more rent per square foot with smaller spaces.
The debate surfaces as the city is about to take up an overhaul of its approach to shared housing, which it previously called “single-resident occupancy,” or SROs. The changes, set for review by the City Council this fall, could allow similar dorm-style projects in pockets across the city without the same kind of detailed site review.
Boxed in, by state law
The planning commission voted in March to table the Bueno Avenue project’s initial requests for planned urban development status and a conditional use permit, asking for changes in its approach to parking and building access, the look of one building facing 700 East, and consideration for saving several mature trees on the parcel.
Commission Chair Amy Barry said that while panel members remained sympathetic to Wednesday’s passionate testimony and concerns about housing affordability, they were boxed in by state law and review standards and could not consider wider issues beyond the project’s specifics.
“We don’t disagree with a lot of it. We’re just not in a legal position to have carte blanche to make decisions based on how we feel or our gut,” Barry told the audience. “So if you do truly believe that the standards aren’t working for you, you have a City Council member that you should really start getting to know.”
Commissioners Richard Tuttle, Jon Lee and Levi de Oliveira voted against approval. Lee, an architect, sought unsuccessfully to persuade colleagues to consider the project’s “intensity” and include the size of its living spaces, saying he would never design spaces that small.