It’s been one year since the last residents of a small Salt Lake City community known as “Hobbitville” left behind their eclectic neighborhood, which faced an uncertain future after the death of its owner and landlord.
In the months since, nearby Sugar House residents have watched guardedly to see what would come next for Allen Park, located across the street from Westminster College on 1300 East in a prime location for real estate development.
On Jan. 13, they got their first taste of the possible changes to come at a community input meeting with the team that’s expected to develop the approximately 7-acre site. But amid concerns about traffic, insufficient parking and the loss of mature trees, neighbors aren’t yet sold on the proposal, which calls for approximately 60 single and multifamily units.
“Many of us are questioning what your plan is,” Salt Lake City resident Anne Cannon told developers during a two-hour meeting hosted by the Sugar House Community Council, during which nearly every resident who spoke raised dissent. Once the buildings are constructed “in this very precious corridor within the city,” she said, it will “never be restored.”
The proposed dwellings equate to about 7.5 units per acre overall and would range in size from 1,000 square feet to about 2,500 square feet, the development team said. The site’s zoning allows for even greater density than that, but developer Rinaldo Hunt said the team wants to build for the “missing middle,” referring to a spectrum of multidwelling or clustered housing types that are usually aimed at meeting demand for a more pedestrian-oriented style of city living.
“We feel that this specific rendition … is appropriate to keep the feel, the look and the overall flair of what Allen Park is today,” he told neighbors at the meeting.
The developer declined to talk to The Salt Lake Tribune about the proposal he presented Jan. 13, noting that he would have more details in a few weeks. The meeting with residents, he said, was simply an effort to receive feedback and get the community involved in the process.
At the meeting, he and other members of the development team stressed that their plans are preliminary and noted that the property hasn’t officially sold — though he said they expect to close the deal in a “relatively short amount of time.”
Allen Park was established as a bird sanctuary in the 1930s by George Allen, a surgeon who served as president of the Sugar House Businessmen’s League and the Salt Lake Zoological Society. He also was instrumental in the development of Hogle Zoo and Tracy Aviary.
Until recently, the area served as a private refuge for residents from a growing city — though they often had to contend with groups of high school and college students who would drive through on the weekends, honking their horns and occasionally damaging property as they looked for the dwarfs rumored to live in the area that gave the community its nickname.
Last January, the tenants were ordered to leave after it became a cost and liability to continue housing them, given the neighborhood’s crumbling state and expenses to fix it that far outpaced rental revenue.
As the development team prepares to give the site a new life, it faces several challenges in construction — including a riparian corridor that takes up approximately half the developable land area, steep hills on the east end of the property and neighbors who are exhausted by the rapid addition of high-density development in their community.
The developer also has historic preservation to consider. The site contains 30 examples of artwork, including mosaic tiles and decorative concrete elements; 16 buildings, some dating back to the 1930s; multiple fountains and a family swimming pool; 18 pillars, some with mosaic panels, others that offer directions and some that have their own lighting systems; and 14 structures, including bird cages and an arch, according to preservation project consultant Kirk Huffaker, former executive director of Preservation Utah.
The development team was hesitant to make any promises at the meeting about what could be preserved with new construction but said it would save as much as possible and noted opportunities to renovate some of the existing elements into livable units.
There’s a particular interest, Huffaker said, in saving the main log cabin house, which is in decent condition but would likely still need a “complete renovation from the ground up.”
But as they face the loss of a substantial amount of green space that for years has existed virtually in their backyards, some residents said that didn’t feel like enough.
“You talked a little about Dr. Allen and [saving] the structures but that was never Dr. Allen’s legacy,” said Sugar House resident Jen Greyson, who lives on nearby Downington Avenue. “He was the zoo. He was the aviary. He was nature. And you’re talking about placating us by keeping three structures? That wasn’t Dr. Allen’s legacy. His legacy was the nature that’s in there.”
Residents also voiced concerns about increased traffic as a result of the development and inadequate parking within the site plans. They already often fight with students from Westminster College for parking near their homes and worry the addition of 60 units with one-car garages each would make that even worse.
The development team said it planned to conduct a traffic study and would ensure adequate guest parking as part of the proposal. It also promised to take into consideration concerns about the loss of mature trees and bird habitat as well as public access to Emigration Creek, which runs through the property.
“Fifty percent of the entire site will more or less be a community asset, an avian type point of interest or sanctuary, in keeping with the original spirit and beauty of what Allen Park was in 1931 and what that original vision was based on,” Hunt told neighbors, referring to the nondevelopable riparian area. “So just keep that in mind as you’re talking about parts of the whole.”
In that spirit, Hunt noted that he’s in talks with Tracy Aviary to conduct a bird survey at the site and with Salt Lake City to possibly connect Allen Park to a broader walking trail.
Tim Brown, president and CEO of Tracy Aviary, said the organization doesn’t have a formal relationship or agreement with the developer but confirmed those discussions have taken place.
Ideally, he said, Allen Park would be preserved as open space. But “if it’s going to get developed, the next best option is that it gets developed in a way that preserves as much habitat as possible,” he said.
“The developer, I think, has an opportunity to do something truly unique by preserving that in a bird refuge kind of way and taking action that would support that,” Brown continued. “So we’ll see, but we’re optimistic.”