Sugar House Now Sugar Hole?
September 22nd, 2008
In-depth report and video on how the Sugar House Grantie Block may remain a gaping hole for some time to come.
By Rebecca Edwards
The ever-more fabled Granite Block project in Sugarhouse, currently evidenced by a pile of fenced-in, landscaped rubble, seems to be just another casualty of the uncertain economic climes plaguing the American economy. Each day that passes without the start of construction adds more fuel to the fears and questions already in play since the project's inception.
The project, which would bring new business and additional housing to the pedestrian shopping district near Sugarhouse Park, has inspired strong feelings for many months. While primary complaints have been about preservation of the unique culture and history represented by the majority of merchants, most of which are locally-owned businesses, concerns have recently turned to speculation about the viability of the project moving forward in the aftermath of financers pulling out.
Craig Mecham, the project's developer, cites the turns in America's banking system and pressure from the city, as contributors to the troubles that the project is facing.
"We had a number of financial institutions contact us and indicate a real interest in financing this project," Mecham said. "On August 13th, I approached those institutions and at that time they said, 'There's been dramatic changes," and they didn't want to pursue it at that time.'
In addition to needing to find alternate funding sources, Mecham was given a directive by the city to landscape the demolition area and fill in the hole. Mecham agreed to landscape the area, spending upwards of $50,000 to do so. The next step, which would be filling in the hole is estimated to cost an additional $80,000. Mecham has not moved forward to fill the hole for a variety of reasons.
"It seems futile to me to fill up that hole and then dig it back out. That's just added expenses, it hinders the project and it certainly isn't beneficial to the merchants." Mecham continued, "It's not even beneficial to the city. The taxes will remain the same."
Local residents and merchants seem to have mixed feelings about the continued presence of the hole. Many have expressed fears about what an indefinite delay would do to the neighborhood, yet many feel that the possibility for recovery is strong. Other eclectic, small-business neighborhoods come to mind such as 9th & 9th, which also went through major renovation and has come back strong.
However, skepticism remains in the wake of the stalled financing, resurrecting concerns about the loss of small, local businesses in the area being edged out by large conglomerates.
"Frankly, right now, the only people who can make a difference in this situation are big business," LaRiesse Dimmick, long-time Sugarhouse resident and patron of the shopping district, said. "The big 700 billion bailout didn't come to me or small business owners, it went to big business."
Dimmick goes on to say that her impression all along has been that the planners and developers of this project haven't had any vested interest in the people or community of Sugarhouse.
"It doesn't seem like there was any forethought about what could go wrong. And now this is a gaping expression of what big business does to the middle class," Dimmick said.
Others echo the same concerns about the integrity of the shopping district being preserved by the continued inclusion of locally owned, small businesses. Omar Abou-Ismail, owner of Raw Foods, hopes that small businesses are still able to afford to do business in the area, and remains confident that the ultimate outcome will be beneficial.
and first-floor retail
"I must say the building was too old, and I feel good that it was demolished. The fact is that it has renewed the energy in Sugarhouse, and now there is a sense of peace and quiet; something is getting ready to be born," says Abou-Ismail.
Mecham confirms that the buildings were unsafe and the neighborhood and surrounding businesses are better off now that those buildings have come down. He brought in structural engineers to evaluate the integrity of the buildings prior to demolition.
"The buildings were seismically and structurally unsafe," Mecham shared. "They were not very desirable in any way, shape, or form."
Last name's business has fared better than some due to the niche market that he serves. Raw Foods has never had to rely too much on foot traffic, but Abou-Ismail acknowledges that other businesses around him are "really struggling because they were successful due to foot traffic."
While speculation, rumors, and righteous indignation seem to constantly surround this project, the fact remains that it must be dealt with. City Councilman Soren Simonsen is confident that the project will proceed and that moving forward the local community will be better represented. Simonsen, who serves on the planning and small business sub-committee, is dedicated to keeping local business and property owners informed as the project continues to develop.
"I have heard a lot of concern about the lack of involvement of the business community in regard to decisions that directly affect the business community," Simonsen said. "When I raised concerns I was told that we had to consider the economic impact on the developers, but the economic impact on local businesses was not considered."
Kristina Robb, a small business and property owner, shares her experience with zoning changes as a small business owner, "My initial reaction was to how uninvolved the merchants were in the initial proposals and zoning issues. I first got involved working in Hidden Hollow," Robb says, "I don't know if I feel gypped or if I just missed something, but I feel like I'm pretty educated and I had no idea that it was happening."
However, Robb does not place blame squarely on the city council. She admits that while it is easy to criticize the government, as a small business owner, she has always made sure to know what is going on and to be involved in zoning issues and proposals.
Simonsen said that there is no policy to notify businesses of changes or proposals affecting developments such as this, but he hopes to put notification requirements in place for the future.
"Sometimes a business would read about a decision in the paper the day after it happened," Simonsen said. "It is kind of a lesson learned. There were some missteps along the way and if we don't learn from it we will do the same thing again."
Making sure that committees and council members think through the impact of the timing and planning of such an endeavor on the retailers and ensuring that they are able to give their input is the core of what Simonsen hopes to see change in the future to avoid the fallout that has been non-stop on this project.
Regarding the financing, Simonsen admits that it could be more tricky than expected, "I suspect that financing will be challenging given the current conditions and the availability of conventional vs. non-conventional options."
Mecham asserts that the project will move forward, although he cannot provide a timeframe for the beginning of construction.
"I have no idea of the timing to start construction," Mecham said. "Things are starting to loosen up. We do have a lot of interested parties who thing it's a great project. I'm sure it's just a matter of time and we will have financing."
According to Mecham, the pressure from the city to have the hole filled seems to be adding to the project's ability to get financing. The additional costs incurred by landscaping and filling the hole will need to be added to the amount of financing needed, as they are drawing on the existing available capital.
Mecham expresses frustration at the demand to fill the hole, citing a similar parcel of land within one block of the demolition zone that was purchased and demolished by the city over a decade ago.
"The ironic thing is that the city has a piece of ground about the same size that they bought 10 to 15 years ago. It had old buildings on it and they tore them down. That land has stood vacant for the past 10 to 15 years and they haven't so much as planted a tulip," Mecham said. "It seems a little hypocritical that they have that property a block away and require me to landscape and fill in the hole just to tear it up again. It doesn't seem to be quite a level playing field."
While Mecham continues to work on financing and locals wait to see what will become of their prized neighborhood, the recent economic challenges only add to the raw feelings and strong opinions that this project seems to invoke. Much local sentiment can be summed up in these strong words from Dimmick, "This is so typical of what happens with entities that are solely invested in profit, profit, profit instead of people, people, people.: they kill them off, let them rot, and then walk away."
Note: While the Granite Block may be off limits for some time, Sugar House business district is still full of many great local merchants, restaurants and shops. Be sure to patronize those who remain.
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