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Sugar House construction projects have small businesses struggling to hang on

‘I don’t know how many of us are going to be here when it does finish,’ said the co-owner of The Locker Room.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

Road construction is expected to snarl traffic and affect businesses in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood until fall 2025, and business owners are struggling to dig in and hold on.

For Quarters Arcade Bar, at 1045 E. 2100 South, the construction along 2100 South has “been very on our doorstep the past month, for sure,” said co-owner Katy Willis.

Emily Potts, the owner of Sugar House Coffee at 2011 S. 1100 East, said all the businesses along 1100 East have been suffering since January, when traffic was reduced to one northbound lane. “I will always make it a priority just to support small businesses around construction, because it has been hard,” she said. “I think all small businesses in this area are struggling.”

Tea Zaanti, at 1944 S. 1100 East, has been experiencing dipping numbers on the weekdays, said co-owner Scott Lyttle, when heavy machinery rumbles and scrapes loudly against rocks on 1100 East, right in front of the tea and wine cafe. “I think folks are just avoiding the neighborhood altogether,” he said. However, on weekends, when construction stops, Tea Zaanti’s numbers are “solid.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

LGBTQ sports bar The Locker Room, at 1063 E. 2100 South, is planning on hosting Sugar House Pride on June 28 through 30, but only “if we make it that far,” said co-founder and co-owner Lynn Katoa.

Everyone is hoping that Salt Lake City will be finished with the construction on 1100 East in time for Sugar House Pride, said Potts. But Leah Jaramillo, who is the public engagement manager for the Highland Drive project and is also overseeing the public engagement team for the 2100 South project, said that due to utility delays, crews will be working on the west side of 1100 East at that time. However, the city expects the east side of 1100 East to be completed in mid-June.

“We are working closely with the Sugar House Pride event coordinators to provide safe places for event attendees and pedestrians to get around Sugar House and support these businesses,” Jaramillo said.

But with the combination of construction on 2100 South and 1100 East often making the neighborhood difficult to navigate, some business owners are just feeling hopeless about the situation.

“I get it, it’s going to be beautiful once it’s all done,” Katoa said. “But I don’t know how many of us are going to be here when it does finish.”

The big picture

According to a 2017 audit Salt Lake City performed on its pavement, Sugar House’s had some of the most deteriorated in the city, Jaramillo said.

The primary motivation for both the Highland Drive/1100 East project and the 2100 South project is to replace aging pavement as well as utilities — including water, sewer and storm drains — beneath the road, she said.

When the city spoke with the Sugar House Community Council, residents and business owners before construction began, they emphasized that what they liked about Sugar House is its many small stores and street trees, and that it’s walkable and bikeable, Jaramillo said. But they felt that it could be safer and more comfortable.

In particular, along 2100 South “was a really hot sidewalk, there was not a lot of shade, the sidewalk was really narrow, not up to current standard,” she continued. “People were right next to traffic, there’s no sort of buffer.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

The design includes a multiuse path for pedestrians, cyclists and others on the south side of 2100 South, and another multiuse path on the west side of Highland Drive and 1100 East. When the Highland Drive project is finished, Jaramillo said, there will be bike access all the way from the southern border of the city at about 3300 South, to Highland Drive and 1100 East, to 900 South and the 9 Line Trail.

“The endgame here is really to facilitate comfortable ways for all kinds of travel coming into this really critical business district,” Jaramillo said.

One reason construction has been slow, she said, is that along 1100 East especially, tree roots have grown into water meters and irrigation systems that are currently being replaced. She said crews are using vacuum trucks, rather than large excavation equipment, to excavate around the trees in an effort not to damage their roots. On 2100 South, the contractor has put chain-link fencing around some mature trees close to the construction.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep as many street trees alive as possible, adding more trees where we can, all the way along,” Jaramillo said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Debris lies around tree stumps as crews cut down the trees along East 2100 South in Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 22, 2024.

On Wednesday, crews could be seen cutting down a row of at least four mature trees along 2100 South, in front of the Chevron at 1300 East. When asked about these trees, Jaramillo said, “Trees are a priority in Salt Lake City and both projects are designed to avoid as many existing trees as possible. There are a handful that could not be avoided and have to be removed. New trees will be planted in other locations to offset that loss. Overall, both projects are adding more trees than will be removed.”

Crews are currently working on phase 2 of the Highland Drive/1100 East project, which extends from 2100 South to Logan Avenue. That phase is expected to be finished by November, Jaramillo said.

The 2100 South project specifically focuses on 2100 South between 700 East and 1300 East, and is funded by an $87 million road bond that city residents approved in 2018.

Currently, crews are working from 900 East to 1300 East on the north side, Jaramillo said, and they are scheduled to begin work on the south side from 1300 East to 1200 East and 900 East to 800 East this week. By spring 2025, work will refocus to the area of 2100 South between 700 East and 900 East, The Tribune previously reported.

Officials estimate the project will be completed by November 2025.

Crews are working on both the 1100 East and the 2100 South projects at the same time because the road bond money must be allocated by the end of 2025, Jaramillo said.

Blocked access, no parking, power outages

On a recent Monday, a series of detours took drivers from 2100 South to Douglas Street, then zigzagged them through the neighborhood. The detour, which began near Cafe Rio on 2100 South, forced drivers to completely circumvent the local businesses near Highland Drive and 2100 South and along 1100 East, near the post office.

Potts was frustrated that morning. She had already had several people call and message her, telling her they couldn’t access Sugar House Coffee at all because of the detours. “Every time there is an intersection or entrance closure, it hurts our business so much,” she said.

That Monday, the coffee shop was inaccessible by car for about an hour, as crews worked on the traffic light at the intersection of 2100 South and Highland Drive, said Potts.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

This complete lack of access was rare, though, she said. It’s much more common for customers to be able to get to the coffee shop one way or another. But the temporary inaccessibility is only one example of the inconveniences that business owners and their customers have had to endure due to the construction.

On St. Patrick’s Day, just as cars were beginning to line up to leave The Locker Room’s parking lot, construction crews blocked the bar’s alleyway that leads out of the lot to 2100 South, Katoa said.

Katoa went out and told the crews that the hadn’t been notified of any construction that was going to be happening that day and that they needed to clear the alley. Instead, the crews parked a truck there, and all the cars in The Locker Room’s parking lot had to back out one at a time to leave via another route, Katoa said.

Willis — who owns Quarters along with her husband, Michael Eccleston — said that overall, the construction crews “have been working with us really well.” However, last week they made a “pretty unfortunate misstep” of “ripping up our sidewalk on a day I asked them to not rip up our sidewalk,” she continued. “I had communicated it, but they did apologize for making the mistake.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Quarters Arcade Bar as road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

Farther south, a private apartment development at Ashton Avenue and 1100 East is giving Pib’s Exchange (at 1147 S. Ashton Ave.) and Bruges Belgian Bistro (at 2314 S. Highland Drive) major headaches.

The Atre Sugar House development, at the former 24 Fitness gym site, began in June 2022 as a project by general contractor Makers Line. But after Makers Line went silent in November 2023 and possibly shut down, the development’s fate was uncertain.

Now, construction is up and running again, under the supervision of Alta Terra, a real estate investor and developer based in Park City. The two residential towers are expected to be completed in spring 2025, according to the Sugar House Community Council’s website. Alta Terra did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pib's Exchange and Bruges Waffles & Frites in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

For Pib’s and Bruges, the apartments can’t be completed fast enough. On May 17, Bruges owner Pierre Vandamme sent a Tribune reporter a photo of construction crews working right in front of his business. “Resurfacing the road ... no business because of it,” he said via text. He said a subcontractor was resurfacing the trench they had to dig for the water supply to the new apartment buildings being built on Ashton.

Sarah Snow, owner of Pib’s Exchange, said the construction on Ashton has “definitely affected us pretty, pretty intensely.”

Snow said the buy/sell clothing store, along with Bruges, has had to deal with sporadic road closures plus power outages that have required the store to close. Also, she said, the few parking spaces nearby are often taken up by construction vehicles, forcing Pib’s customers to park far away and walk to the store, often lugging large bins of clothing they wish to sell.

“Our sales are definitely down quite a bit,” Snow said.

Is construction the only problem?

Willis and Eccleston said business has been slow at Quarters Arcade Bar, which opened in Sugar House in July 2022. But they don’t attribute the slump only to people being fatigued with navigating through construction.

“Sugar House isn’t as vibrant as we thought it would be in general,” Eccleston said, and they believe that started during the pandemic.

“I think COVID had a really negative impact on this neighborhood,” Willis said. “And then the construction is making that sort of never-ending.”

Their theory is that with Sugar House being a more affluent area of Salt Lake City, more people were able to work from home during the pandemic. And now, those people have been “slower to reengage with community and gotten very comfortable staying home,” Eccleston said. They also believe that younger people are being priced out of living in the neighborhood.

Jaramillo said she believes people are avoiding the area because there is a perception that Sugar House doesn’t have any available parking, and so people are just “throwing their hands up.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tea Zaanti as road construction continues in Sugar House, Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

“But it’s an actual fact, there’s a lot of parking,” she said, including The Locker Room offering its parking lot for up to two hours to people who are visiting Sugar House businesses. “... Construction is impactful, but we’re doing what we can to maintain traffic and access and clear signage to get people to those businesses.”

In an effort to support local businesses, Salt Lake City has given $3,000 Small Business Construction Mitigation Grants to 182 businesses this fiscal year, for a total of $546,000, said William Wright, a project manager in Salt Lake City’s Department of Economic Development.

But Vandamme, with Bruges, said the city should be doing more for small businesses, including offering “acceptable” financial packages to businesses that have been hurt by construction.

The grants are not meant to “subsidize losses in revenue,” Wright said. Instead, they are meant to be used for marketing, branding and signage that encourage customers to patronize local businesses.

And customers need to come to Sugar House, Wright and Jaramillo said. “One of the things we really want people to know is that there is parking in Sugar House, and the roads are open,” Jaramillo said. “You can get to your favorite businesses and we need you to.”