HOLLADAY — Nobody looks out at the former Cottonwood Mall site, with its 57 acres of dirt and asphalt, and thinks this land is achieving its fullest potential. It even blights the satellite view — a great brown spot amid tree-lined residential streets, 5 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
Clark Ivory drives by daily, imagining how satisfying it will feel to finally tear down the old Macy’s and signal the arrival of something new.
“This will be a celebration,” said Ivory from the shade beneath the boarded-up department store.
Ivory is both a Holladay resident and CEO of Utah’s largest homebuilder, and he envisions a model development for growth along the Wasatch Front, where the housing market can no longer meet demand by simply sprawling outward.
His “Holladay Quarter” — a joint venture between Ivory Homes and commercial developer Woodbury Corporation — would fill the old mall’s dusty footprint with 775 high-rise apartments, more than 200 homes at a wide range of price points, and dozens of shops and restaurants.
There’s talk of a state-of-the-art office for an outdoor equipment manufacturer, complete with climbing walls and bike ramps that an employee could ride to the top floor. The whole development would be ringed by a multimillion-dollar trail that would separate it from neighboring single-family houses.
“This is going to be the coolest mixed-use development that’s ever been done in the state of Utah,” Ivory said.
But his fellow Holladay residents may never give him the chance.
An hour earlier, “Quarter” referendum organizer Paul Baker stopped on the public sidewalk at the edge of the Macy’s lot, afraid to step onto the property ever since Ivory’s lawyers issued him a cease-and-desist letter in June.
He’s just as eager to see change, Baker said — “We’re very much for something” — but wants it more on the order of the “European village” that the city approved in 2007, before the recession hit and the developer went bankrupt. That plan called for 600 more residences, not 1,000.
Baker figures about three people per household, meaning the “Quarter” would equal about 3,000 new residents. That’s 10 percent of the city’s population, and it would make the “Quarter” five times as dense as wider Holladay.
Growth is already causing cars to cut through residential side streets so they can avoid busier Highland Drive and Murray Holladay Road, said Baker, who owns a nearby house adjacent to his wife’s childhood home.
“Should our referendum get on the ballot, we have a lot of confidence that people will vote this down,” he said.
A district court judge ruled Sept. 7 that the referendum belongs on the ballot. Ivory Homes and partner Woodbury Corporation have appealed to the state’s high court, with oral arguments preliminarily set for Friday.
The “Quarter” situation is one of a half-dozen like it in recent years, and coming during Utah’s creeping housing crisis, some officials fear the not-in-my-backyard resistance is awakening to the extent of their referendum powers at the worst possible moment.
The state’s population, roughly 3.2 million now, is estimated to hit 5 million by 2050. According to the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, Utah has gained 160,000 new households, or families, since 2011. Over the same time, it has created just 110,000 new housing units. Housing prices, meanwhile, are climbing 10 times faster than wages.
If the courts don’t side with them, developers and pro-growth policymakers may be left with two options. They can try to change the state law around referendums. Or they can do it the hard way: by winning over their future neighbors.
Cottonwood became Utah’s first indoor shopping mall when it opened in 1962, and in 1999, the city of Holladay incorporated to capture its sales tax revenue.
It has now sat dormant for more than 10 years, a testament to the lost promise of brick-and-mortar retail.
After the “European Village” fell through, there was little reported interest until last fall, when Ivory and Woodbury pitched a mixed-use development that included 1,100 apartments and a 136-foot-high office tower. Opponents turned out in droves, and the Planning Commission voted against recommending the plan, 5-1.
This spring, the developers returned with a new proposal. Fewer apartments. A maximum building height of 90 feet. The trail. Many residents still protested, but City Council members praised developers’ willingness to compromise and gave a unanimous blessing, 6-0.
Opponents wanted to put the questions directly to the people. No. 1, did they approve of the plan? And No. 2, did they approve of a development agreement that would allow the developers to collect nearly $22 million in tax increment?
The referendum effort, Unite for Holladay, was buoyed by $60,000 in donations from three wealthy Holladay residents. About 140 volunteers chipped in to help gather nearly 8,000 signatures over 45 days, and Salt Lake County certified about 6,500 signatures, well over the threshold to make the ballot.
But the city’s legal team had meanwhile determined that the council’s actions were administrative, not legislative. Signatures or no, the questions wouldn’t go on the ballot. So the residents sued, including co-plaintiff Baker.
The law offers judges few clear guidelines. In the case of the “Quarter,” District Court Judge Richard McKelvie ruled that the approval of the plan — strictly speaking, an amendment to 2007 legislation that allowed the “European Village” — involved the type of broad policy considerations that are the hallmark of new legislation. He did throw out the tax increment question, but he wrote that it was a “close call,” and Baker’s side has appealed.
McKelvie noted in his ruling that the developers had argued that “allowing the public to vote on this type of action will result in an existential crisis that ‘will grind development in this state to a halt’ by causing costs to skyrocket and developers to ‘think long and hard about any future project.’”
That wasn’t relevant, McKelvie said, to “the exercise of the people’s constitutional authority.”
Just this year, Orem residents gathered more than 9,000 signatures to oppose a 1,600-unit student housing complex, and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams vetoed an 8,800-unit development on unincorporated land near Herriman under the threat of a countywide referendum.
The tide of anti-development sentiment even swept over six-term Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan last November, when he was beaten by Kurt Bradburn, who found his calling by participating in a 2014 protest against high-density housing.
As senior vice president of Woodbury Corporation, Jeff Woodbury said he believes a public process has improved many of his projects. But once elected officials have signed off, it seems unfair to Woodbury that self-concerned residents can then — as he sees it — raise money, hire a third-party signature-gatherer, spread untruths and sink a development.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he said. Even if the developers prevail, the delays and uncertainty will have taken a toll on their bottom line. Ivory and Woodbury say they’ve spent nearly $1 million on the “Quarter,” much of it to combat what they characterize as a misinformation campaign.
It’s “Trump-style politics,” Ivory said, accusing Unite for Holladay signature-gatherers of saying things like “Sign this, or else your property taxes are gonna go up,” or “They’re gonna build the largest apartment complex in the country.”
A loss before the Supreme Court might have a silver lining, Ivory said, if it makes people realize the lost opportunity with the “Quarter” and what he sees as the outsize power of the referendum laws.
“Maybe there needs to be some revision,” he said.
Although developers have been around since Julius Caesar’s time, they receive scant mention in history classes.
William Baer, a retired planning professor at Southern California who is writing a book about early developers, said they tend to be painted in an unflattering light.
Many people, Baer thinks, have an intrinsic bias against somebody who stands to profit from changing their environment. Change is personal, and almost every property, no matter how blighted or underutilized, is the scene of some comfort or fond memories.
The first NIMBY might have been Queen Elizabeth I, who set growth controls in 16th-century London to protect greenery that was being replaced by housing. Developers largely ignored the new controls, Baer said, risking jail to meet the demand.
Generally, he said, developers “do whatever it takes to get the building up fast, and as a society, I think we’re sort of horrified by that.”
“I don’t think people appreciate the good things that developers do because they’re concentrating too much on the bad things that they do. Yes, developers take shortcuts. They’re not always the most admirable people. But they get the housing units up.”
In the classic NIMBY clash, single-family homeowners oppose multifamily housing, which has long been associated with higher traffic, property taxes and service costs. But a recent survey shows there might be another factor: Many people simply do not wish developers well.
In July 2017, two UCLA researchers asked 1,300 Los Angeles County residents whether they would support hypothetical developments on their block. They’d have “tasteful contemporary architecture and ecologically sensitive housing,” and it was important because “Los Angeles badly needs more housing.”
There was a twist: Residents were then told a “framing” question about a concern attached to the development. It could be the character of the neighborhood, or traffic and parking. But the most negative response came when residents were told that developers had received a special permit to build at higher densities, and stood to make a tidy profit.
“A lot of the concern is not with what’s going to happen to a neighborhood,” said Paavo Monkkonen, one of the co-authors of the UCLA report. “It’s some visceral thing about somebody making money out of it, and them being a jerk.”
Ivory and Woodbury said they cut no corners with the Cottonwood Mall project, making every effort to respond to comments over seven months of hearings. Contrary to accusations, Woodbury said, he didn’t buy off any officials. It’s just a good plan, he said.
Of course, he added, “we expect to make money.”
Added Ivory: “If we didn’t have that concern, if we weren’t careful about doing a project that would be economically feasible, then the viability of the project would be in question.”
A May analysis of Ivory Homes 2007-2017 building costs found that the cost of developing raw land rose 40 percent in that time, due in large part to increased construction costs and fees.
Sympathy is in short supply, though.
One musically inclined Holladay resident uploaded three full-length parody songs, including an easy-listening number featuring the chorus: “Woodbury, and I-vor-y … want to build a high-rise monstrosity.”
“They say, ‘We have to have smart growth. We have to have sustainable growth.’ And they all nod their head, nod their head,” Ivory said. “But then it's funny, as soon as it's in their backyard, right over the fence, they lose all proportion and perspective.”
The popular crowd
The so-called NIMBYs make for easy targets, too.
Baker said Unite for Holladay has been portrayed as a group that arose out of nowhere, spurred by mysterious big money to buy signature-gathering mercenaries and slander the “Quarter.”
The reality, he said, is that he hasn’t taken a penny from anyone. Baker has a business providing agricultural water treatment for blueberry and nut growers, and volunteered during some downtime, he said.
He and his wife went door-to-door on summer date nights, each taking two children, and Baker’s boys would play soccer on the sidewalk while he rattled off facts about the “Quarter.” Three hours might yield seven signatures. On a good night, 20.
Baker said most who knew about the “Quarter” were already opposed, and required no prodding. To those who had liked what they heard about the “Quarter,” he’d ask, “So what do you love about this plan?”
They might say something like, “the shops.” To which he’d respond, “What do you think about the 775 apartment units?”
“And they’d look at you like you were crazy,” Baker said.
Yes, Baker said, Unite for Holladay has been 80 percent funded by three Holladay residents who met with Ivory and Woodbury and felt the compromise didn’t go far enough.
Two of them, Ken Woolley ($25,000) and Spencer Kirk ($10,000) are also developers, and founders of a nationwide self-storage company (though nobody the Deseret News spoke to thought they had any designs on the mall site themselves). Woolley, Kirk and Jay Brasher ($25,000) didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
And yes, Baker said, Unite for Holladay hired signature-gatherers. Without them, the effort would have fallen short — but only just. Baker said the paid workers underperformed compared to volunteers, who gathered more than 70 percent of the total.
But he resents being accused of spreading false information, or perpetuating, as Ivory and Woodbury refer to it, “a decade of dirt.”
“What happened a decade ago? 2007, we all lost our lunch,” he said. “Developers across the country lost fortunes because there was the biggest housing crisis in the history of our country.”
Now, Baker said, “there are new apartments all over,” he said. “It makes sense to build now.”
Baker doesn’t think constituents should forgo their constitutional rights to a referendum, or that city officials should place blind faith in the first developer to come along with a plan for a blighted area.
Holladay Mayor Rob Dahle has a less rosy view of the mall’s alternatives. If the “Quarter” falls through, he worries, other potential developers may be scared off.
“The growth is going to happen,” Dahle said. “We can either try to get together as communities and accept that reality, and decide how we’re going to do it in a smart way. Or we can, every time something comes forward, we can have a referendum and stall the project and fight.”
This is a time when “we should be able to get some things done,” said Natalie Gochnour, director of the Gardner Institute and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.
Utah has had a strong growth rate since about mid-2011, Gochnour said. Now, it’s late in the economic cycle, with risks that trade wars, rising interest rates and labor shortages will curtail future development.
Part of the challenge, she said, is reframing the conversation so that instead of invoking a kind of claustrophobic response with the word “density,” they focus on having walkable and vibrant communities, shared amenities, clean air and mass transit. Density is a natural outgrowth of all that, she said.
The Chamber has gotten the ball rolling with its Housing Gap Coalition, while the Utah League of Cities and Towns is surveying residents to pinpoint the root causes of anxiety around growth.
Hearts and minds can be won. It happened in the “Quarter” debate, when Tim Schimandle, president of the Holladay Citizens for Responsible Development — a precursor to Unite for Holladay — broke with other opponents and endorsed the spring compromise.
“I don’t believe a plan much better than what we have now will be viable on the site, and the current developers have shown a commitment to work with the public on compromises,” Schimandle said in a text message to the Deseret News. “If there is a better plan that is viable, (Unite for Holladay) should share it with the public so that it can be evaluated and people can make an actual choice.”41 comments on this story
If the plan survives the referendum challenge, Woodbury said, the “Quarter” is looking even better than advertised for Holladay, with more commercial space than they felt comfortable promising, and fewer apartments, as a result.
And if the Supreme Court sends them back to the drawing board altogether, he said, “We’re going to keep trying to get it done.”
Correction: An earlier version misspelled the surname of the UCLA assistant professor of urban planning. He is Paavo Monkkonen, not Monkeonen. In addition, a caption misidentified Jeff Woodbury as Mack Woodbury. Mack is Jeff's son.