The following story was reported by Eric Peterson of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with Utah Stories.
The East Bench Community Council’s November 2020 Zoom meeting was so packed that residents were doubling up on computers to allow others in. In the hot square in the middle was Mark Isaac, a representative of the Thackeray Co., developers of Lamplighter Square, the site of the old liquor store at 1615 South Foothill Drive.
Being on Zoom may have saved him from having tomatoes or rotten cabbages chucked at his head.
Residents were outraged over a proposed five-story, 135-unit multifamily apartment and all that might come with it — traffic, safety risks, trash and noise from renters. Someone pointed out that residents of Skyline Drive might literally lose the skyline views from the windows of their dream homes. One said the developer’s plan to offer a small number of modestly affordable units was a noble idea, just “not in this neighborhood.”
A meeting poll initially showed 73% of the nearly 90 attendees were opposed to the developer’s plan.
“I’ve been in the planning profession for thirty years and I’ve never seen a project that everyone liked, ever,” Isaac said. “But I don’t see many projects proceeding that are 73% opposed.”
But a project will develop and perhaps without following the traditional city zoning process.
Since the developer has partnered with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that will develop a new 12,000 square foot store at the site, the state could bypass regular city zoning to demolish a home and create an access at 1700 South to Lamplighter Square.
Aimee Burrows, chair of the East Bench Community Council, says that would push traffic out of the square and east into neighborhood streets in contradiction of the area’s master plan.
She says when developers bought the old Skyline Motel and a small apartment building years ago, their early plans were much different than the November 2020 plan that would more than triple residential density.
“All of a sudden we’re going from an 18-unit apartment and a 20-unit hotel to a 135-unit, five-story multifamily,” Burrows says. “That’s not even close to the same thing.”
From the boardroom of his Sugar House office, developer John Thackeray can only shake his head at the pushback he’s received, arguing that mixed-income projects bring diverse and vibrant communities.
“Aren’t we better off having these people as neighbors? So that we get to understand and accept their perspectives better?” Thackeray asks.
The proposal is for a small number of units to be set aside for those making 80% of area median income. While not affordable for low-income residents, they would be more accessible for essential workers who might work at the hospital or the University of Utah.
Thackeray says the project is still being fine-tuned, but without enough density, he says it wouldn’t be feasible to offer these more affordable units.
He also says residents have obstinately resisted a new liquor store and just want the space turned into a park.
It’s a complaint he’s readily shared with state partners on the liquor store development.
“We have three community councils involved,” Thackeray stated in a January 21 email to the Division of Construction and Facilities Management, the agency that is developing the liquor store.
He went on to say two councils “are in favor of our project. The third council is the one that does not want the DABC to locate a new store on the site, and they are basically saying they want a park on the property. Since this community has more park space with Red Butte and Bonneville Golf Course than anyplace in the state, it shows how unreasonable they have become.”
None of that is true, according to East bench Community Council Chair Burrows. She says a few residents may have expressed those views, but the council has not sought a park and has long been excited for a new liquor store in their neighborhood.
“We were always big believers in having [the liquor store],” Burrows says. “It’s good for the neighborhood.”
She also says the other east side community councils have not endorsed the Lamplighter Square project.
Thackeray says some residents have expressed a desire for a park and opposition to the liquor store, and that the other councils “in general” support his work, while the East Bench Community Council has only objected.
“If you know what their stance is besides ‘no, no, no,’ I’d be happy to hear it,” he says.
While many residents at the November community council mostly had outrage, others did offer suggestions. The council’s second vice chair Brooke Karrington suggested more commercial use like restaurants, retail and perhaps even a co-working space.
In a January letter to the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office, the council pleaded for more businesses, noting how on the west side of Foothill Drive, Cowboy Grub, Davanza’s Pizza, and a ski shop were previously cannibalized by a Thackeray partner and turned into apartments.
“We would not like to see another (our last!) community asset and gathering place disappear to make room for maximum density in an area it does not fit,” the letter states.
The developer and the state are still engaged in a bit of an awkward dance. An agreement has already been signed to split certain costs for the development of the store, and the state bought the small northeast corner of the property from Thackeray Co. for $4.1 million. But that agreement did not specify access to the property for the state. The parties also signed a development agreement saying the liquor store and development would be completed at roughly the same time and that costs would be split.
The state closed this deal in early 2020, but was surprised when the developers drastically increased the size of their project.
In emails, Thackeray was amenable to covering more of the shared costs, but was all-caps insistent on the state getting behind the matter of gaining access to 1700 South.
“THE OVERRIDING CONCERN FOR US AND THE PROJECT IS TO BE UNITED IN OUR APPROACH TO GETTING THE ACCESS APPROVED,” Thackeray emailed to DCFM in January.
Thackeray’s company bought a house at the south end of the square, but could still sell it to the state, who could demolish it for the road access without going through city rezoning.
DCFM director Jim Russell supports the access, but says the idea has been tabled — for now.
He believes a 1700 South exit from the square could be made a right-turn-only in a way that would keep traffic from going east into the neighborhood. Thackeray says a median could simply be put in the road to accomplish the same purpose.
Russell says the state is renegotiating its development agreement that will clarify access to the site. Right now the state is in a position where if Thackeray’s development is stalled, it could cost the state if they’re forced to cover extra development costs. But much is yet to be determined.
“It really evolves over time,” Russell says. “You have to get to a certain point to decide if you’re going to dance with each other. Marriage comes later.”
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