Troy Baldwin, owner and performer at the Tavernacle Social Club, was minutes away from scooting his piano bench up to the ivory keys to play for the Friday night crowd, when a constable appeared at the door.
“I love this place,” Baldwin recalls the process server saying. “I’ve celebrated so many birthday parties here. You’re funny as crap ... and I hate to do this, but I have to give you this.”
It was a notice from the property owner: Comply by clearing up a construction site or vacate the premises within three days.
The terse message was a gut punch for Baldwin, who made his way to the stage for the May 3 show with questions swirling in his mind.
What would he do? He and his business partners had just invested $250,000 renovating the dueling piano bar at 201 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City and building out a new adjoining restaurant. The project was lagging a bit behind schedule as Baldwin and his contractor waited for the city to sign off on each step. Now, the vacate notice was trapping him between two bad alternatives — he could either flout the city’s rules or further anger his property owners and face eviction.
As he surveyed the crowd of patrons looking to get their Friday night party started, all he could think was, "I am so not your guy right now."
The complications in the Tavernacle case sprang from a miscommunication between a public utilities official and Baldwin’s contractor and were eventually resolved to the satisfaction of all sides, a city spokesman said.
But Baldwin’s experience is relatable to other Salt Lake City business owners, who say contradictory directives and communication fumbles from the city have caused them headaches and cost them precious time and money.
Scott Evans, founder of Pago Restaurant Group, says a 9th & 9th restaurant project that should’ve taken three to six months has stretched on for about 18 months because of all the back-and-forth between him and various government agencies.
In another case, a Salt Lake City restaurateur says her project got bogged down because various city officials couldn’t agree about where to plant a single tree.
Overall, the city has been speeding up its processes, spokesman Matthew Rojas said. Within the past several years, he said, it has actually added planning review staff and cut by half the time it takes to get through permitting and licensing.
Evans, who has opened Pago, East Liberty Tap House and other eateries around the area, said he’s largely had positive interactions with the city when he’s building from the ground up. But things have been rockier when he’s tried to remodel and convert existing buildings.
“They don’t really have a great way to adapt old buildings and turn them into restaurant space,” he said.
Right now, Evans is working to rehab a building as a restaurant called the Birdhouse, envisioned as a quick-serve chicken restaurant that will offer a combo of fried food and lighter sandwiches and salads. But the project at 854 E. 900 South has run into one complication after another, Evans said.
For example, there was the issue of building a connection with the establishment next door, East Liberty Tap House. One safety-minded city agency insisted that a handrail should run along the set of steps between the two buildings, while another said Evans needed to install a fire door that would drop down to separate the two spaces during a blaze. Evans pointed out that these instructions were in conflict: The handrail would interrupt the fire door’s fall and hold it ajar, defeating the purpose of the partition.
After a bunch of go-rounds, the city and Evans resolved the dilemma by adding fire sprinklers to both buildings.
“It’s a logical change," he said, “but it took a lot of senior people in the city to get people to agree on that.”
Another downtown business owner, who requested anonymity because of fears criticism could complicate future interactions with city officials, said an argument over a tree mired one of her commercial projects.
A forestry requirement meant she had to plant a tree someplace on the property, but no one could figure out where. One set of officials said she couldn’t put the sapling too close to the water meter, while others insisted it had to be set back a certain distance from the property frontage and the public right of way.
“So we were like, ‘Where should the tree go?’” she said.
Ultimately, it went nowhere; officials couldn’t find a location that wouldn’t violate city code, so they nixed the tree.
Rojas said the city does coordinate its project plan reviews, summoning various agencies to the table with the goal of nipping conflicts in the bud. In 2016, the city also hired a business ombudsman who can act as a liaison between entrepreneurs and officials and help smooth approval processes.
But Rojas agreed with Evans that rehabs can present special hurdles for city inspectors and property owners.
“Remodels of older buildings ... are generally more difficult because those are built to a different code, and they need to be brought up to the code today,” he said. “So those do present some challenges, and the city does try to work with the businesses on them.”
In the Tavernacle’s case, there was a holdup over the installation of a fire line to pipe water into the establishment’s new sprinkler system. As part of this work, Baldwin’s contractor had to dig a trench through a shared parking lot, and workers weren’t able to refill the ditch for weeks because they were waiting for the city to sign off. (The fire inspector and public utilities officials sent mixed messages about the proper matrix to lay around the pipe, Baldwin said.)
The lingering hole in the ground apparently irked other tenants in the building and the property manager, who slapped Tavernacle with the comply-or-vacate notice, Baldwin said.
“Anything that could go wrong has, probably,” Baldwin said of his effort to renovate the piano bar and build a next-door restaurant called the Steyk Center.
The Steyk Center and the Tavernacle — twin puns about Utah’s predominant faith — will be physically linked and will share a kitchen, Baldwin said. The restaurant’s speciality dish will be “steyk,” an old Norse word that refers to steak on a stick.
Rojas said the situation with the Tavernacle’s fire line was complicated because public utilities was in charge of checking the piping nearer the street, while the fire marshal was reviewing the sections nearer the building. The fire marshal at one point had to correct a misunderstanding between the contractor and public utilities officials, which caused some delay, Rojas said.
The business finally secured the city’s approval and has poured concrete to restore the parking lot to normal condition. Baldwin said he hopes to have his new restaurant open in a few weeks.