In the 10 years since it launched, Salt Lake City’s streetcar has delivered a development boom in portions of Sugar House and South Salt Lake, even as the trolley line remains well below its potential for ridership.
A new study of the S-Line estimates the two-mile stretch of rail service — running east-west at about 2200 South between Fairmont Station in Sugar House’s business district and Central Pointe Station on 200 West in South Salt Lake — appears to have spurred as much as $2 billion in economic growth.
That includes boosted property values and construction of up to 2,000 high-rise apartments and scads of new retail and office spaces since 2011 on land within the half-mile wide transit corridor, say University of Utah experts, who assessed the S-Line’s performance in a study for the state Department of Transportation.
At least another 1,000 apartments and more commercial development are in the pipeline, they found, and their in-person interviews with developers confirm the financial lure of building next to Utah’s first modern streetcar.
“Almost certainly everybody who is developing down there is considering the S-Line as an important amenity,” Dan Lofgren, whose Cowboy Properties firm built the 171-unit Liberty Village Apartments at 2150 S. McClelland St., told researchers. “Everybody recognizes it’s a meaningful thing.”
Fostered by development-favorable zoning on land around the route, the resulting growth is transforming the heart of Sugar House with an influx of new residents and businesses and has led South Salt Lake to stake an entire future downtown district around the S-Line’s western terminus.
But the slow-moving streetcar remains relatively light on passengers even as usage climbs back from a wider COVID-19 pandemic hit to public transit.
The S-Line also doesn’t seem to be significantly reducing traffic along nearby streets such as 2100 South, especially when compared to more heavily used mass transit corridors and bus routes elsewhere on the Wasatch Front.
“It has achieved its goals — almost,” Reid Ewing, a U. professor of city and metropolitan planning, said of the S-Line. “It is a work in progress.
“One thousand to 2,000 riders a day is still a very small number, if you’re thinking of it as a transportation mode,” Ewing said. “The point is, it’s primarily an economic development engine and secondarily, a transportation mode.”
Evidence suggests, though, that S-Line ridership will climb significantly, as proposed extensions add more destinations and the route sees pedestrian-friendly improvements on adjacent streets and better connectivity with other TRAX lines at Central Pointe Station.
The single-track trolley saw some of its highest monthly ridership numbers ever over the summer. “There is a substantial increase,” study co-author Justyna Kaniewska said, “even when we account for the pandemic.”
Image-making vs. people-moving
Constructed jointly by Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake and Utah Transit Authority, the S-Line opened in 2013 and operates along a segment of an old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad freight and passenger line that once tied rail yards in South Salt Lake with commerce through Sugar House and up Emigration Canyon to Park City.
It cost $55 million, with nearly half that covered by federal transportation grants.
The U.’s Ewing, Kaniewska, Dong-ah Choi, Wookjae Yang and Hannah Kalantari note in their paper that streetcars are often seen more as tools for image-making and boosting economic growth and tourism rather than investments in transportation.
The key objective in places such as Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; New Orleans and elsewhere across the country, the U. scholars wrote, has been development and revitalizing underused or blighted urban areas. Research also suggests that maximizing any benefits requires a blend of supportive city policies, available land and the right conditions in real estate markets.
All those factors have fallen into place to some extent for the S-Line.
Utah’s growing economy, nation-leading population gains and high demand for housing since 2013 have all given lift to development across its urban and rural areas, and Sugar House has grown especially fast since the pandemic.
Salt Lake City and South Salt Lake have enacted what’s known as form-based zoning on land around the S-Line, allowing higher densities and mixed uses in neighborhoods that already had sizable swaths of marginal industrial and warehouse property and surface parking more apt to being redeveloped.
The U. study documented 17 sizable residential projects in Salt Lake City’s eastern neck of the corridor — among them, The Vue at Sugar House, Sugarmont Apartments, Dixon Place and the project that recently burned down, Sugar Alley — along with more than a dozen new business developments.
Zoning for a Sugar House business district first won approval in 1995, but major investments didn’t start flowing until the S-Line opened and the city advanced a more form-based approach, according to Nick Norris, city planning director.
“That,” he told U. scholars, “was the turning point.”
Driving force in South Salt Lake’s ‘new downtown’
In South Salt Lake’s case, new zoning followed after the S-Line, in 2016. “We wanted to take a completely different approach and actually create a downtown,” said Alexandra White, its community development director.
The new district between State Street and Interstate 15 from Interstate 80 to 2100 South — “has unlimited density,” White told researchers. “There’s no density cap. There’s also no height limit.”
New offices, a handful of retailers and a recreation facility have come on line along with several multistory residential buildings, many of them emblematic of how surrounding neighborhoods are changing. There’s one in the former Zellerbach paper warehouse at 2255 S. 300 East; another where the old Ritz Classic bowling alley stood at 2265 S. State; as well as the Moda town homes at 2250 S. 400 East.
Yet most of the new apartments and town homes in both cities are unaffordable to those making average Utah incomes, without leaving them pinched on other necessities. Only one complex near the S-Line — Liberty Village — offers subsidized rents on 20% of its dwellings for lower-income families.
Little impact on 2100 South
Research on 400 South and its TRAX Red Line extension from downtown Salt Lake City to the U. as well as rapid bus routes in the Provo-Orem area offers strong evidence that Utah’s mass transit diverts a significant number of automobile trips from heavily trafficked roads over time.
So far, though, the S-Line isn’t having a similar effects for increasingly congested 2100 South through Sugar House, now scheduled for a major overhaul.
Analysis of traffic data from UDOT in conjunction with carefully weighted comparisons with similar segments along 1300 South, 1700 South, 2700 South and 3300 South show average daily traffic counts on 2100 South have gone up since the S-Line opened, alongside streetcar ridership.
Researcher say that, in turn, has been likely been due to the area’s increasing attractiveness to development. It’s also attributable to the nature of a streetcar, which usually means moving at 15 to 25 mph, or roughly bicycle speed.
“Streetcars are slow, which is exactly what you don’t want if your goal is passengers,” Ewing said. “Stops are frequent. The stations are close together. It’s usually one car. So it really isn’t competing with the automobile.”
Housing is also a factor, potentially a big one. Kaniewska, a study co-author, said that a lack of affordable rentals near the S-Line probably meant many new residents in the area were more affluent and less likely to have to rely on transit.
“It’s a hypothesis,” she said, “but usually people who use transit more are people who actually need it.”
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