Such a large and catastrophic fire in the heart of any other humming business district might portend a big change in direction.
But this is Sugar House, traditionally Salt Lake City’s funky commercial haven and second downtown that has lately become an epicenter of an apartment building boom as residents pour in and the region clamors for housing.
Its latest growth trajectory is unlikely to be thrown off by the devastating blaze last week that burned the nearly completed luxury living and retail complex called The Residences at Sugar Alley. Although the nearly completed building was gutted, developers vow to rebuild, so this won’t be another “Sugar Hole,” where previous grand plans stalled for years at almost the identical location during the Great Recession.
New development seems to sprout daily on properties along Sugar House’s major arterials and transit lines, leaving icons such as Snelgrove’s ice cream cone sign standing alone on 2100 South, awaiting construction around it. These days, community supporters say, the neighborhood faces much deeper challenges than the fire, many of which will sound familiar to other Utah communities as the state’s population balloons.
Is growth moving too fast for Sugar House’s old character to keep up? How does a popular suburban enclave hold onto some of its quirky and distinct charm and the homegrown businesses that make it unique amid all the new high-rise construction?
“Everything is exploding,” warned Judi Short, a member of the community council for almost 34 years, “and the old Sugar House is nearly gone.”
Was that area too dense? Firefighters say no.
The decimated Sugar Alley complex was being folded into what has been a steadily expanding cluster of residential towers behind the corner apartments known as The Vue and spreading south with increasing height from the intersection of 2100 South and Highland Drive as well as eastward toward Sugar House Park.
The rare five-alarm fire at Sugar Alley swiftly wrecked its two six-story wings and ground-floor foundation at 2188 S. Highland Drive, taking with it 189 new luxury dwellings and on-street public spaces set to open in early 2023. The blaze also displaced residents at the nearby Sugarmont Apartments and The Vue and menaced those structures.
That has provoked questions from community members over whether the density, height and configuration of new construction on that block made the fire harder to fight.
And the answer, according to the city’s fire authorities, is no.
Tony Allred, who heads the Salt Lake City Fire Department’s fire prevention division, said the 33-foot-tall Sugar Alley building met city code on adjacent roads — including Wilmington Avenue, which runs midblock — all being wide enough to allow for at least two locations where firefighters could pour water on the blaze from above.
“The footprint isn’t bad,” Allred told the Sugar House Community Council, noting the department deploys special dual-driver trucks “specifically because of all the density in Salt Lake.”
Less than 24 hours after most of the flames were out, meanwhile, financial backers for its Salt Lake City developers, Lowe Property Group, vowed they would rebuild Sugar Alley “as planned.” Some are seeing that as a sign of just how much sheer momentum is behind Sugar House’s housing-fed growth spurt.
‘They’ll start building the next day’
Sugar Alley was considered another definitive piece of more than 1,200 living units that have been built in phases in the wider proximity of that central crossroads, Sugar House Park, Interstate 80 and the nearby S-Line streetcar route that ties in at Fairmont Park.
“It’s really, really upsetting,” longtime resident Ben Raskin said of losing the building. “They were literally putting the final touches on it.”
Raskin and others are predicting at least an 18-month setback, by which time a major road reconstruction project along 1100 East and Highland is set to get underway.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he said, “for three years.”
Landon Clark, head of the Sugar House Community Council, said there’s some initial talk of redesigning setbacks on the building replacing Sugar Alley in light of damage to nearby structures, but there’s no indication that anyone was pausing on big ambitions for that or other pockets of the community.
“They’ll scrap this thing,” Clark predicted of the burnt hulk at Sugar Alley, “and they’ll start building the next day. I don’t think they’re going to hesitate at all.”
That particular morning, Landon said, he and other community council members were fielding initial entreaties from another round of developers on entirely new plans on yet more high-profile corners and pieces of property in Sugar House, this time along 2100 South.
Or, put another way, just another Tuesday in fast-growing Sugar House.
“These people reach out to us long before they even start submitting stuff to the city, to see what the community feel would be,” Clark said of developers. But, even with the advance dialogue, “there’s some people that are going to be angry regardless.”
What is Sugar House, actually?
Sugar House’s neighborhoods of single-family brick bungalows, ample green spaces, parks and tree canopies, proximity to downtown and a pedestrian-friendly layout have made it an attractive destination in the city. Hidden Hollow Natural Area, a piece of reclaimed green space tucked right in the middle of the business district, recently won an award for its contributions to urban design.
Sugar House also remains overwhelmingly residential but with homes relatively close to the community’s business hubs, as evidenced by clumps of ash from the Sugar Alley fire landing in nearby backyards.
With Sugar House’s commercial roots, its main identity is closely wrapped up in many small and eclectic businesses, restaurants, breweries and other retail and service spots frequented by patrons from across the Salt Lake Valley — and that is where the community is bleeding.
“One of our biggest fears,” said Brandon Hill, co-chair of the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce and an area resident for 20 years, “is the loss of independently owned small businesses in Sugar House.”
Hill said community leaders regularly barter with incoming developers about including more affordable leasing spaces in their projects to provide places for these small retailers — with limited success. Otherwise, he said, such shops can’t afford new rents and are vulnerable to getting squeezed out by more lucrative chain stores.
“This isn’t necessarily an anti-development statement,” Hill said, “but a lot of times when these developments come in, it pushes out the local community.” Veteran Sugar House shop owners, who might live 10 minutes away in Millcreek, he said, “we see them getting replaced with the Buffalo Wild Wings of the world.”
The gas station proposed next to Sugar House Park
Anger and concern have flared widely across Sugar House and the city over plans to build a new Kum & Go convenience store and gas station at the high-profile corner at 1300 East and 2100 South, on the edge of popular Sugar House Park.
Though the privately owned parcel, currently the site of a vacated Sizzler restaurant, is zoned for “community business” uses, residents have chafed over the new outlet’s potential for worsening traffic, its environmental impacts and what they see as negative effects from its proximity to the park.
Kum & Go’s request to the city for a conditional use permit is still pending as agents for the Iowa-based company refine their plans based on heavy public input.
But a deeper theme in many of the public comments opposing the gas station before the city’s planning commission has been a perceived mismatch between the two-story fueling site and the placid and relatively green community surrounding it. Leaders such as Clark and Short say much of that also represents wider anxiety over the speedy pace of change.
More of it is coming — and that’s drawing the notion of preserving Sugar House’s old look and feel into sharper focus.
Since it was sold earlier this year into private hands, the former Well Fargo building at the high-profile northwest corner of 1100 East and 2100 South is thought a likely site for another high-rise, Clark said.
Several sources said the property’s new owner is also seeking to buy the adjacent Fidler’s Elbow restaurant, at 1063 E. 2100 South, as part of assembling more land for a larger future project, probably multifamily residential.
Another set of developers is approaching the community council with ideas for the location of the newly sold Midas muffler auto repair shop at 875 E. 2100 South, across from a Walgreens. Short confirmed it’s not fully clear yet what will go on that spot, but existing buildings there are set to be torn down.
The former Snelgrove property at about 850 E. 2100 South — now scraped clear save for its ice cream cone sign — is slated for a 319-unit apartment complex to be called Sugar Town. Fishers Cyclery, at 2175 S. 900 East, is closed, fenced off and poised for a 45-unit development near the S-Line.
Lowe Property Group finished another Sugar House apartment building last year, a 59-unit complex called Dixon Place. Farther south along Highland Drive from Sugar Alley, a project called Alta Terra envisions 346 new apartments in two tall buildings at the site of a former 24 Hour Fitness center, across from a Sugar House liquor store at 1154 S. Ashton Ave.
Its north building will be 10 stories with a fourth-floor pool and deck, and the structure to the south will be eight stories with rooftop amenities.
The community council’s online construction page currently lists a dozen active projects, including several road reconstructions.
Short said community leaders keep waiting for development to ease up, “but that doesn’t seem to be happening.” Sugar Alley, Hill and others said, was designed to add character and complement the neighborhood, in contrast to other projects that may seem out of place.
That’s all made holding onto Sugar House’s community identity and a sense of cohesion more difficult and, according to some, more vital than ever.
Keeping that old character
The Sugar House business district of 30 years ago or more featured a series of idiosyncratic neon signs — Nu-Crisp Popcorn, Salt Lake Costume, Stark Steering and the spinning Granite Furniture sign with a pointy “Sputnik” on top, to name a few. Amid ensuing waves of redevelopment, community leaders have earned awards for a campaign to save some of that visual character.
“People say we’re losing the old Sugar House, so that’s part of what we’re trying to do,” Short said. “You know, there is so much here but people don’t know how to get to it.”
Added Clark: “We think now’s the time for placemaking to make sense.”
The community council has endorsed a new request lodged at City Hall for $190,000 to fund a community map and sign-restoration program, aimed partly at replacing nearly 14 wayfinding signs spread around Sugar House in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Those familiar blue and tan signs are now sun-bleached, dated and often defaced with graffiti, according to Raskin, who is shepherding the request.
If granted, the funds would pay to “clean, fix and repaint each sign to reflect Sugar House’s growing value in Salt Lake City,” according to the capital improvement request.
“The idea is to take a moment to identify what is Sugar House,” Raskin said. “What’s this neighborhood going to look like with potentially another 3,700 new high-density homes in the area?”
“The changes,” he said of recent growth, “are absolutely stunning and dramatic.”
And again, the effort will play to Sugar House’s business strengths, with each revamped wayfinding sign featuring a QR code linking to the latest roster of merchants and their locations and another half-dozen map signs to be created and installed “to highlight historic landmarks, parks and places of interest.”
“This is a city inside of the city,” Raskin said. “That’s one of the charms and possibly the challenges that Sugar House faces. We do have almost big-city problems in a small town.”
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