It would be a stretch to call it a best-of-times, worst-of-times situation for Sugar House, though there's certainly a "Tale of Two Cities" feel to development plans for the heart of the community's business district.
In this case, it's a tale of two developers, both of whom are proposing developments on Sugar House's Granite block. But several residents say only one of those projects reflects the wishes of the community.
More than 250 people have signed an online petition opposing plans by Craig Mecham Investments to knock down the block's eclectic strip of retail buildings that front 2100 South and Highland Drive, calling for the community's unique character to be maintained.
The residents point to the preservation-based project of Red Mountain Retail Group, the other developer on the block, as the type of development that fits well in the village-like community. Red Mountain is proposing to reuse the buildings along McClelland Street, including the old Granite Furniture store, in its mixed-use project of retail and residential.
Residents and petition sponsors Mark St. Andre and Susie Petheram say it's a matter of respecting the Sugar House Community Master Plan, which was adopted by the Salt Lake City Council in 2001 and updated in 2005. One developer is doing that, they say, but the other isn't.
Mecham is proposing to build two seven-story buildings with a mix of retail, office and residential space on the Granite block. The developer plans to use brick and stone architecture on the lower two levels in an effort to recapture the Sugar House feel.
Petheram said that's not enough.
"The Mecham project is essentially erasing 100 years of history to put in two new buildings in place of what historically had been nine smaller buildings," she said. "The scale and the massing (of the proposed project) is very different from what's there now."
Petheram said she and St. Andre, her husband, started the online petition (www.ipetitions.com/petition/savesugarhouse) as a plea to Mecham to "try to find a more creative solution" to development of the Granite block, as well as to draw attention to flaws in city ordinances that the couple say allow developers to disregard master plans.
"If the city and elected officials are going to continue to say that preserving the historic character of unique communities is important, then we really need to take a closer look at the policies and regulations that are in place right now," she said. "Because right now it's pretty contrary to that goal of preserving character."
The problem, Petheram says, is that the city's zoning ordinance does not reflect or implement the goals of the master plan.
That's also been a battle cry from Soren Simonsen, who represents Sugar House on the Salt Lake City Council. In November, Simonsen brought forward a resolution calling for a reaffirmation of the goals, policies and recommendations of the Sugar House Community Master Plan, encouraging the preservation of historic buildings.
The resolution was discussed during a work session Nov. 13, though no action was taken. Simonsen said he hopes the council will revisit the issue soon.
"There are so many inconsistencies between the zoning ordinance and the master plan," he said. "There are very strongly worded goals in the master plan that talk about doing historical surveys, creating a conservation or a historic district, preserving key commercial buildings that are structurally sound. None of those things appear anywhere in the zoning ordinance."
Simonsen's opinion is in the minority among his council peers. Dave Buhler and Jill Remington Love both said they've recently reread the master plan and disagree with Simonsen's assessment.
Buhler said he believes the Mecham group is "following everything both in the zoning ordinance and the master plan."
"Nowhere in the master plan does it say, 'Never tear anything down,'" he said. "To listen to some people, you'd think that was what it says."
"We have both the master plan and the zoning ordinance," Love said, "and I don't see any inconsistency."
The section of the master plan that deals with historic preservation mainly focuses on residential structures, she said. With respect to the business district, it's pointed out in the document that only a handful of buildings are considered to be historically significant or contributing structures, Love said.
Simonsen argues that at least one of the buildings proposed to be demolished should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places but isn't because the property owner, Mecham, didn't accept the nomination.
The building that until last week housed the Blue Boutique twice has been nominated for the National Register, he said, and has been called the most significant commercial building still standing in Sugar House.
Russ Callister of Mecham Investments said the developer has applied for a demolition permit, which the city is obligated by ordinance to issue. Callister declined to respond to residents' allegations that the master plan is being disregarded, saying only that "the scale and massing of those buildings are what they are. The master plan deals with that pretty specifically."Both development projects still must go before the Planning Commission for approval. Mecham Investments has submitted to the city a reuse plan that will allow it to begin demolition as soon as abatement of asbestos and the removal of any other hazardous materials are completed. Construction is expected to take about two years.