Objections to Avenues housing project ignite east side vs. west side spat

Neighbors fiercely oppose planned Ivory Homes development as west-siders fire back that “all the heavy density is happening” to them.

Widespread and passionate neighborhood opposition to a housing project proposed for Salt Lake City’s Avenues is also revealing other tensions.

In a precise, coordinated and all-but-unrelenting barrage of public criticism, dozens of residents urged the City Council on Thursday to reject a rezone that would let Ivory Homes build 19 dwellings on a 3.2-acre patch of open space at the north end of F Street at 13th Avenue — 14 of the units with accessory dwellings already built in.

Homeowners in the sought-after neighborhood carefully assailed Ivory’s plans for Capitol Park Cottages as too dense, failing to produce affordable housing, environmentally destructive, unfriendly or even dangerous to pedestrians and out of character with its mostly low-rise residential surroundings.

Doctors, lawyers, a retired judge and others who live in the immediate area all spoke against the project, with some accusing Ivory, Utah’s largest homebuilder, of pursuing increased density out of greed and at the expense of their quality of life.

“Review Ivory’s plans and take a walk around the Avenues,” urged resident Charlie Cannon as part of carefully assembled testimony from opponents, complete with handouts for council members. “It won’t take you five minutes to realize that this development fits like Cinderella’s glass slipper fits on her ugly sister’s foot.”

Others said the application highlighted disparities in the treatment of housing proposals on the city’s east side compared to its west side — as the region struggles with an ongoing shortage of affordable homes.

“All the heavy density is happening in my district, and not all density should happen in my district,” said first-term council member Alejandro Puy, who represents Poplar Grove, Glendale and other west-side neighborhoods. “Density needs to happen in every district in this city, regardless if it is affordable or not.”

Ivory’s requested zoning change, from FR-3 to SR-1, was endorsed with conditions in June by the city’s planning commission, after a similar torrent of neighborhood objections.

With Thursday’s public airing completed, the City Council has scheduled its final vote on the rezone and related requests for Nov. 22.

Residents fear loss of open space

(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 30 residents lodged testimony in opposition, asking the council to reject reclassifying the open space located near 675 North F Street.

The proposed change would switch the property from “very low density” to a “low density” special development pattern, giving Ivory more leeway on spacing, setbacks, building heights and other project features.

Many comments focused on the challenges and possible hazards of building the cluster of close-knit homes on the site’s sloping grade and highlighted the prospective loss of green space, ample mature trees and wildlife habitat.

The project “requires bulldozing the hillside into large, flat, multibuilding terraces,” complained resident Scott Young. “Ivory’s design obliterates the natural terrain and requires a proliferation of massive retaining walls, with most being 13 to 17 feet high.”

“It doesn’t fit,” resident John Kennedy said. “If it doesn’t fit, you should reject.”

Added Peter Wright, a main organizer of a grassroots coalition called Preserve Our Avenues Zoning, said opponents had demonstrated “myriad” problems.

“These problems,” Wright said, “cannot in good faith be swept under the carpet to gain a few extra units of housing.” He urged that even if the council approved the new zoning, that it impose new conditions to address residents’ fears.

The proposal would also amend the city’s master plan for that area.

Courtney Henley, an anesthesiologist at nearby LDS Hospital, said the existing zoning plan put in place for the foothills neighborhood 35 years ago “is the reason Salt Lake City is so spectacular,” urging that it not be altered. She recounted red-tailed hawks, moose and deer frequenting the area, calling the area’s low density “so inviting to our animal friends.”

“Please,” Henley said, “don’t throw away my life’s work.”

A handful spoke in favor of Ivory’s plans, including Nathan Peters, a downtown resident who said he envisioned one day moving his new family to the Avenues.

“To those among the opposition,” Peters said, “I’d ask you to consider there are people and families who would love to have a home like Ivory is seeking to develop.”

Peter Gamvroulas, project manager for Ivory, pushed back on assertions the hilly area wasn’t walkable and said the additional density made it more sustainable than construction on larger lots. He also responded to remarks that prices on its 14 two-story cottages and five luxury custom-built homes were all likely to push well past $1 million apiece.

By adding overall density to the site, Gamvroulas said, “the fact is, these homes would be cheaper,” and that did not factor in the accessory dwellings, “which [are] our major affordability component.”

East-west ‘economic discrimination’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Stowell, shown at a public meeting in September 2022, questions why higher density housing projects struggle to gain approval anywhere other than the west side.

Esther Stowell, chair of the Poplar Grove Community Council, said the city’s treatment of Ivory’s application offered a sharp contrast with its recent approval of a rezone to create of an 8-acre village of tiny homes for the unsheltered just west of Redwood Road, between Indiana Avenue and 500 South.

“Despite all the pleading, our community was told that this sort of housing is needed and housing in general is needed,” Stowell said. “I ask you, why is increasing housing only acceptable on the west side and not in the Avenues?

“When you codify economic discrimination against others in a similar situation,” Stowell said, “it appears that the motivation is to exclude people from the neighborhood.”

And to Ivory “or any other developer who is looking to put in this much effort on the west side,” she said, “know that you have allies who will happily receive you.”

As Stowell spoke, first-term council member Victoria Petro-Eschler, who represents Rose Park, Jordan Meadows and other west-side areas, smiled and nodded as she looked at opponents in the audience at City Hall.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alejandro Puy, left, and Victoria E. Petro-Eschler are sworn in as new members of the Salt Lake City Council at a ceremony Monday, Jan. 3, 2022.

As Thursday’s hearing drew to a close, council member Chris Wharton, whose district spans the Avenues, echoed residents’ concerns about the project’s retaining walls along Northpoint Drive. Even if the rezoning passes, he said, he requested that city staffers research additional requirements for those structures to be designed and built to optimize safety.

“If this road or these retaining walls were to fail, it would be a road or a brick wall sliding into someone’s home,” said Wharton, who noted a prior retaining wall collapse along nearby Capitol Park Boulevard. “This is not a speculative concern.”

That provoked a telling exchange with council colleague Puy, who questioned Wharton’s motives.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Chris Wharton, shown in March 2022, worries about retaining walls that a proposed Avenues housing development would need.

“I’m struggling to believe this is about safety,” Puy said. “I think what you’re trying to do is make these walls wider so there are less houses in the project. This is a very low density project. It should actually be denser than this.”

Wharton countered: “All of you that serve with me on the council know me, what’s in my heart and how I operate. And I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t have it as a genuine concern.”