‘It’s a direct hit’: 9th and 9th businesses worry about loss of parking spaces in an area where they’re already scarce

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves along a sea of orange as plans to repurpose 29 parking spaces between 950 East and 1300 East on 900 South in Salt Lake City causes some frustration from business owners and residents in the area.

As Salt Lake City breaks ground on a reconstruction project at 900 South, business owners in the eclectic 9th and 9th neighborhood are raising concerns that a resulting reduction of parking could also reduce their bottom lines.

The project is meant to improve mobility and access to the area, as well as “to prolong the life span of the roadway” with the creation of a five-leg roundabout at the intersection of 900 South and 1100 East, improved bike lanes, a dropped lane of traffic and better bus services, according to city documents.

The area will lose a net total of 20 parking spots from about 950 East to 1300 East as a result, including to upgraded bus stops to meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, to the roundabout, to a new 9-Line Trail and to improved crosswalks.

In a community that has already struggled with parking — with the East Liberty Park Community Organization going so far as to sue a developer a few years ago due to a lack of parking for a proposed development — business owners say that’s a problem.

“It’s a direct hit to the success of our business district,” said Sheridan Mordue, owner of the women’s lifestyle store Hip & Humble. “I think there’s a misconception that the people that shop and frequent 9th and 9th are neighbors. And they might be our biggest fans, but they aren’t personally my best customers. My best customers are on the upper east side or they’re in Sandy or in Millcreek, and they’re getting to my store by car and they have to have a place to park.”

City documents recognize a need to weigh “the needs and desires of businesses and residents in the area” but state that the reconstruction will better serve a variety of visitors.

"This section of 900 South will now be more accessible to those that choose not to drive with improved bus service and bike-trail connections,” documents state. “This will free other parking spots for those that still want or need to drive.”

Overall, the reconstruction represents a $3 million investment from several funding sources, including impact fees and a Salt Lake County active-transportation grant.

The city has conducted an extensive public engagement process on the project, which started in 2016 with stakeholder interviews and online and on-street surveys. Transportation officials also conducted short-term street design trials called “pop-ups” to test various options at the intersection on 900 South and 1100 East before settling on the roundabout.

Parking concerns have sprung up in just the past few weeks after outreach on the final plan that left many feeling blindsided.

“There was a missed opportunity in the engagement and the city recognizes that and transportation sort of acknowledged that in the last meeting we had,” Matthew Rojas, a spokesman with the Salt Lake City mayor’s office, acknowledged in a recent interview. “The conversation around parking didn’t occur because while transportation knew that there would be some lost parking spots, they didn’t know how many in that time period when we were doing the engagement.”

After establishing the number of eliminated spaces, the city conducted property-by-property engagement rather than having communitywide conversations, since the loss was mostly concentrated at a single intersection.

Mordue said she didn’t find out about the parking issues until sometime in late March or early April and noted that she and many other business owners believe the city was not transparent about the losses.

“We didn’t really know until really late in the game, and that was really hard for us to then start to lobby for our business district when they’ve already hired a contractor to come in and do the work,” she said. “It puts us in a really bad position.”

Since hearing from upset business owners, the city has made some changes to the project. While the reconstruction would initially have resulted in a loss of 29 spaces, the project team has since reduced that number to 20 with “minor changes to design elements.”

And Rojas said it’s possible there could be more amendments.

“There’s two locations where some businesses have said, 'What if you [put more parking] here?’” he said. “We’ll look at those. We don’t expect them to yield a lot of parking, to be quite honest. But the mayor still wants to look at the cost-benefit analysis that comes from both public utilities and engineering.”

Dave Iltis, editor and publisher of “Cycling Utah” and a biking advocate, has spoken in support of the 900 South reconstruction and told The Salt Lake Tribune that the project will be positive not only for cyclists and pedestrians but also for businesses.

“From my point of view as a cyclist, I travel to 9th and 9th quite a bit, and if there are safe ways to get there and safe ways to ride there, it’s more likely that cyclists are going to ride there and patronize those businesses,” he said. “I think overall that this project is going to be a really good thing for the area. It’s going to ultimately be really good for the businesses, and it’s going to make Salt Lake a more comfortable place to move about in.”

Around 140 people showed up at YouthCity in Liberty Park for a recent discussion about 9th and 9th parking and the reconstruction project — a larger crowd than organizers expected. There, Jason Stevenson, co-chairman of the East Liberty Park Community Organization, said residents and business owners engaged in a wide-ranging discussion that reflected the complexity of the project and its impacts.

But what they all have in common, Stevenson said, is that “everyone is interested in preserving 9th and 9th as a low scale (in other words, not a very tall) commercial district that is easily accessible, eclectic, fun, not cookie cutter and is a place that doesn’t have a lot of chain shops but more homegrown established businesses and new ones coming in.”

“How we get there, I think, is where the differences arise,” he said.

Salt Lake City has committed to conducting a parking survey in the 900 South area once reconstruction is completed later this year in an effort to see if there are any changes that can be made to address future parking concerns.