There was a time when the affordable housing project at 255 S. State St. in Salt Lake City appeared permanently stuck as a rusty, unproductive and graffiti-pocked eyesore.
The 1.1-acre property languished empty and disused for years starting in 2015 after a prior partner to the city’s Redevelopment Agency hit so many snags — debts, lawsuits, dodgy steel girders and more — the developer withdrew, and work on refurbishing the city-owned parcel fell dormant.
At one point in the saga, RDA Director Danny Walz was forced to buy the seemingly cursed wreck out of hock in a public foreclosure auction at the courthouse.
So Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting for two new buildings with 190 apartments at the same locale — collectively renamed as The Aster — represented a collective sigh of relief for city officials. There was also palpable sense of joy at the public-private partnership finally delivering more affordable living options and a healthy addition of new ground-level retail spaces to the heart of downtown.
“I have become a better version of myself,” said Stephanie Ramirez, a young single mother who recently moved into one of The Aster’s apartments with her 4-year-old son, James. “I’m stronger mentally, physically and in every aspect since I got here.”
Between the 13-story tower at 245 S. State and the nine-story structure at 265 S. State, Illinois-based Brinshore Development also has created a spacious paseo — fulfilling one of the project’s original promise of a plaza over a decade ago — and connected State Street with Floral Street via a midblock walkway.
The wide walkway ties the open-air paseo — which Mayor Erin Mendenhall likened Tuesday to “a canyon of affordability and beauty” — to a third building in the project, the newly renovated version of Cramer House, a historic structure on Floral built in 1890.
The old brick two-story reportedly will be home to a new bar operated by the owners of Water Witch, located at 163 W. 900 South in Salt Lake City.
“This is what affordable housing can look like,” the mayor told about 100 people gathered for the opening. “This is gorgeous. ... We need to do more and more of this.”
Twenty-two apartments in The Aster will be rented at market rates, with the other 168 units ranging from studios to four-bedroom dwellings to be rent-subsidized. Of those, 95 will be financially accessible to residents making between 20% and 50% of the area’s median income and the other 73 apartments to those earning from 51% to 80% of that wage threshold.
A property manager said units in the two towers — located across State Street from the Gallivan Center and about a block from the nearest TRAX light rail station — were already roughly 85% leased.
Amenities for residents include ample and well-appointed common areas on multiple floors, a 71-stall underground parking, a gym, bicycle sharing with on-site storage, pet-care and wellness rooms and event venues for cultural, arts and educational programming.
City Council member Alejandro Puy, who currently heads the RDA board, said The Aster represented the city’s firm commitment to build more affordable housing, especially catering to families, with walkable access to downtown amenities and mass transit.
The Aster’s affordability also reflects wrinkles in getting it over Tuesday’s finish line. Brinshore drew heavily on public bonds, tax vouchers and loans from nearly a dozen separate government and nonprofit agencies to complete construction — including $14.5 million from the RDA.
Like other major building work during the pandemic, this one was bedeviled by delays, supply issues and a ragged ride with fluctuating interest rates. David Brint, a principal with Brinshore Development, called the construction phase during COVID-19 “a crazy disaster.”
Traditional lenders also seemed to shy away, said Brint, who cited an especially important $40 million equity contribution from financial services giant American Express — made possible, he added, through The Richman Group, a national investor in residential apartments.
“Thank you, all,” Brint told Tuesday’s crowd, “for trusting us with such an important project.”
Walz was briefly overcome with emotion as he credited a host of colleagues, advisers and partners with helping the agency make 255 S. State a success.
He also received a commemorative child’s lunchbox and wore customized Vans sneakers given to him by RDA staffers that feature images of the more colorful graffiti that once adorned the site in its disrepair.
Walz turned to Brint as he closed his remarks and thanked Brinshore as well “for sharing our vision on this, being crazy enough to say yes to everything and bringing it to life. It really is amazing.”