Sandee Oliver at Two Dancing Cats received a surprise visit from Mayor Ralph Becker on April 21st. He made a rare public visit with a single business owner to try to sell Oliver on the streetcar proposal. We were there to catch the action:
“This will kill me. I have no doubt in my mind. If you decide to do this it will put me out of business.” Sandee’s views echoed many other business owners—that the streetcar construction would steer motorists and customers away from the historic “heart of Sugar House” full of local businesses and kill them during the eighteen-month construction process. Becker and Knowles proceeded to offer mostly platitudinous retortions on the incredible benefits of the streetcar that 1100 East residents will receive once it’s completed. Becker and Knowles preference is to build the first spur of the street car on 1100 East. This opinion contrasts with City Council Member Soren Simonson. He represents Sugar House and supports 2100 South construction.
Sterling Furniture is located on 1100 East along with Central Book Exchange, Sugar House Coffee, The Pub in Sugar House, Boxing is for Girls, Piper’s Quilts, Fiddler’s Elbow, Image Eyes, Soup Kitchen, Smith Crown Vacuum and many more locally owned successful businesses. Nearly all of these businesses are in historic buildings. Business owners fears are justified. Downtown Salt Lake City’s Main Street lost many long-time local businesses which were killed off by a series of blunderous beautification projects culminating in light-rail construction.
The Trax record you could say is improving, but long-time locally owned businesses should not be the guinea pig for an unproven idea that doesn’t sit well with area residents and business owners.
On April 24th, the city council held a public forum discussing the streetcar proposed routes. From the four-hour meeting it became clear that residents prefered a spur, heading up 2100 South to Sugar House Park.
Sugar House Community Council members said they favored this route two to one. JD Smith heads up the 21st and 21st business district and he encourages the city to build the line up to his area. Dodo owner Bryan O’Mera said he does not favor the 2100 South line. Ronaldo Hunt, developer of the newly completed condominium units at 21st south, directly across the street from Sugar House Park, favored the 2100 South route. “Wouldn’t it be great to make a trip with the kids to Sugar House Park without driving a car?”
Enabling residents to make more trips to more places without a car, using rail or buses, would be the obvious benefit of the streetcar proposal. Alleviating traffic congestion and curbing pollution by helping people to get more places using public transit is a fine goal.
It was clear from the meeting that younger students and residents were much more in favor of the street car concept than most older residents. One woman who is a 2100 South resident was in tears, fearing her neighborhood would be destroyed by the streetcar. Another elderly man full of vitriol was told when his speaking time was up, and that he could proceed out the door and listen. “Nobody’s listening!” he shouted at the mayor and city council.
It’s clear that the city council has a lot to mull over and residents want to see a much broader plan and a much more clear understanding. They don’t want any firm decisions to be made until the concept is further studied. In a nutshell residents and business owners aren’t sold.
Several of the pro-1100 east folks made trips to Portland, Oregon. They witnessed an area very similar to Sugar House that was served by a streetcar. If the mayor’s office really wants to sell this idea, he needs to make a YouTube video. The cultural, historic and economic value of Sugar House is far too much to gamble on “form-based” city planning. We Utahns still love our cars. The majority of Utahns fit in the category of folks who “love the idea of transit, but for everyone else.” Residents need to be sold on the idea that families and affluent individuals would actually use transit.
The New Street Car Corridor
September will see the first “streetcar” line completed. Quotes must be used around this term because neither a streetcar will be used in the final project, nor will the car operate on a street. An accurate description would be a slow moving single Trax car, operating on an abandoned rail line. UTA wanted to use the slow moving car to make it more “neighborhood friendly.” Current plans include funding ($56 million, half federal, half city) to turn the corridor into a “green-space” If the plans are similar to the renderings, Sugar House could gain a beautiful promenade bonus, which might make many on a nice day choose to walk or run along the pathway alongside the train.
If someone were to ask me my general sentiment of a “street car” in Sugar House prior to the April 23rd meeting, I would have characterized the project and goals as confused. But indeed the well-publicized meeting was effective. I learned that the terminus of the “streetcar” is the Trax station at 2100 South 300 West. This will enable those traveling to Sugar House to ride any Trax line to come and visit Sugar House without a car—a great bonus because Sugar House’s parking scarcity is becoming a problem. Conversely, Sugar House residents will be able to connect with the main Trax line without driving their cars, and reach the airport or downtown with just a short walk to the streetcar.
I won’t blame Mayor Becker or Councilman Simonson for the confusion over the project, it’s just that most residents are uninformed by local news. The confusion certainly has residents riled up. It was great to see so much involvement on display in a government office. This meeting was well attended by many business owners and presented some nice made-for-TV moments. Eliza James and Lori Layton own Boxing Is For Girls. Eliza came out swinging, declaring emphatically, “We are local, we are sexy, we don’t need a street car to be sexy. We are the real change you are looking for, we are already building Sugar House and we will continue to build it.”
Two hours into the meeting and only halfway through the comments, Jill Remington-Love inquired, “Do we want to take a break?” No response was heard from the council and the mayor who appeared clearly exhausted from the onslaught. There was no break.
Now the clock is ticking and yet another incredibly important decision that will affect the heart of local Utah will come on May 8th, when the final decision is made.
Residents and business owners clearly don’t want the council to rush into making this decision. The timeliness of the decision is critical because the council needs to submit their recommended route soon to potentially receive federal matching grant funds. One might infer however, that federal funding could be in jeopardy if sequestration measures continue.
David Gaul said it best regarding the incentive for half of the project to be covered by federal matching funds, “We are not on the dole, this money isn’t really free, we will be paying for it one day. We should stop abusing tax dollars.” It seems most would agree: the city doesn’t need to rush into a project we don’t fully understand, and if the area proves to be in dire need of a street car, we can afford to fund it without sinking our $14 trillion dollar federal debt ever further. §