South Salt Lake • Talia and Max Walker bought their small house on Winslow Avenue in 2021 and almost immediately launched into a burst of home improvements.
It shows, too, in what today is a sleek and modern living space awash in light, with an appealing backyard and greenhouse. The young newlyweds moved to South Salt Lake from San Francisco and seem palpably excited about their new life in Utah and putting down roots in the quiet, tree-canopied neighborhood just off the commercial bustle of State Street.
But they and other homeowners now fear the placid character of where they live might be altered forever as a Mark Miller automotive dealership south of their properties seeks to widen its footprint and take out several adjacent homes in the process.
Since learning of the proposal, the Walkers and others have rallied neighbors, launched a Facebook page and produced leaflets, buttons and yard signs, urging city officials to reject the proposal under the theme of “Save Winslow Avenue: Don’t Encroach!”
“We figured we’d be here at least five years if not more,” Talia Walker said of the couple’s hopes to stay and eventually start a family. “This is definitely putting a damper on those plans.”
Walker said the rezone sought by Mark Miller Subaru Midtown threatens to all but gut the neighborhood for newcomers and longtime residents alike, lower homeowners’ property values and overwhelm that stretch of Winslow Avenue with more concrete and overhead lighting — just as the street is showing signs of rebounding.
First-time homebuyer Jessica Forsdick moved 2½ years ago to Winslow Avenue from Millcreek and said she and her partner, Matt, “have invested a lot of time, money and energy into this house.” She’s also concerned about razing homes that might otherwise help the neighborhood grow.
“It’d be great if we had more families move into those houses,” Forsdick said. “But if they’re torn down, we’re not going to get that option.”
Officials with the longtime South Salt Lake business, meanwhile, say the expansion is vital to the family-owned dealership’s continued presence in the city.
“We just have to have more space,” spokesperson Kyle Lane recently told city officials.
The controversy is scheduled to go before the South Salt Lake City Council on Feb. 8.
‘Nobody wants a parking lot in their backyard’
The existing car lot, located at 3535 S. State St., spans much of the block, and the business has told city officials it needs to expand its parking and display spaces to make way for more vehicles.
A Mark Miller subsidiary, Katmark Partners, bought up three adjacent single-family home lots on Winslow over the past six years, as well as a property to the east that sits vacant after the company demolished a duplex apartment building that stood there for years.
Two of the homes are empty as well while the dealership has converted the third into a marketing office — in apparent violation of city zoning.
Katmark is seeking city permission to rezone the four properties from residential use to commercial in advance of tearing down two of the homes and consolidating all the lots — as well as a strip of city-owned public right of way — into its existing site.
Lane, who works as a contractor for Mark Miller, said Subaru requires all its dealerships to keep more vehicles in stock, and the city lacks viable land for that elsewhere.
“We understand that nobody wants a parking lot in their backyard,” Lane said at a hearing in mid-January.
“But for Mark Miller to continue to operate in this city, we have to do these things,” Lane told the planning commission. “We’re not here to cause problems for people. We’re here to do what we can to stay in the city and continue to be here.”
Its other option, he said, would be to “pack up and go build another dealership.” But the business wants to remain in South Salt Lake, Lane added. “It’s part of their heritage. It’s part of who they are.”
Calling South Salt Lake ‘home’
In a written statement shared Thursday, the company sidestepped the mounting worries of neighbors but noted that during what it says is a 60-year history at the location, the “small family-owned business has invested much to help make our local community a strong, resilient, and vibrant place to call home.”
“The Millers believe in being a good corporate citizen and an even better neighbor,” the company said. “As such, Mark Miller Subaru remains committed to living up to this promise by continuing to engage with elected officials and residents of South Salt Lake to ensure South Salt Lake remains one of the best places in Utah to conduct business and to call home.”
Michael Aguilar, director of marketing, said Mark Miller Subaru was declining for now to elaborate further.
City staffers recently recommended the rezoning be approved, saying it was an appropriate redevelopment under the city’s general plan and would bring the home being used as an office into compliance with city code. The other properties, they said, aren’t currently being used and the rezone would mean they wouldn’t be vacant any longer.
But the planning commission has unanimously rejected the change and recommends that the City Council do so as well. Newly elected commission chair George Pechmann said he objected, in particular, to plans for demolishing the two single-family homes.
“I honestly don’t like that,” said Pechmann, who called them potential starter homes for new families.
Alternative sites aren’t available in South Salt Lake, Lane replied, and the company can’t afford to buy land for a new storage facility “when they can expand in the area that they’re in.”
Planning commissioner Mary Anna Southey said she “recoiled in horror” at the idea of bringing more “sprawl” to the city. Other commissioners voiced similar concerns.
“We have so many car dealerships up and down, all over the place,” Southey said. “And bigger, bigger, bigger lots as opposed to any kind of stuff on a human scale.”