Trolley Square Renovations 

Critics are optimistically cautious about historic Trolley Square's renovations.

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Wally Wright, the original developer of Trolley Square, looks over a pile of bricks—the only remains of the historic Sand House and what most recently served as a Wells Fargo bank branch—and walks Trolley’s remodeled, once maze-like, hallways reminiscing about the antique architectural pieces he salvaged 40 years ago. Many are now gone, lost primarily to the massive renovations that will make the unique shopping mall safer, greener and more modern. But renovations may also make Trolley Square just another mall.

While historical elements such as trolley cars or the Sand House have disappeared, so have flourishes that, if not historically tied to the mall, helped provide its eclectic character. They include a tupelo tree from a South Temple mansion, located on the mall’s second floor; a stained glass dome from Long Beach First Methodist, located over the mall’s west entryway; and pergolas rescued from the old Hotel Utah, located over the old parking garage that were thrown out during the construction of a new parking garage on the west end of Trolley.

Wright, still a part-time developer at the age of 75, remembers the elbow grease needed to turn the yellow-painted, bus storage barns into the charming structures seen today. “I didn’t know better and got to sandblasting off the yellow paint on the brick. It’s not really an approved way to do that but it held up quite well—not too bad of a decision.”

The mall opened in 1971, and was soon designated an historic site by the state of Utah and, in the 1990s, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mall has also passed through several owners’ hands, with the current owners ScanlanKemperBard Cos., based in Portland, Ore. In 2007, SKB began renovations including seismic upgrades and electrical work. But its city-approved renovations, including the demolition of the historic Sand House building, located on the northeast side of Trolley where a new Whole Foods building is planned, continues to draw skepticism about the site’s historic preservation.

Many of Wright’s additions were not protected because they were not part of the original Trolley Square, even if they were part of the charm of Trolley Square, the mall.

“I would have liked to seen more saved, but I don’t own it anymore,” Wright says. “The new owners don’t [seem to] have the feelings the [previous] ones did. It has evolved to be more contemporary.”

Any renovation of an historic site or building has to be overseen with scrupulous attention by the Landmarks Commission, the body that approves or denies changes in Salt Lake City, and the Salt Lake City Planning Commission. After initial hearings for SKB’s proposals, a subcommittee was formed to oversee the forecasted $60 million renovation project.

The 2007 renovations were structurally necessary and overdue. “They made seismic and electrical upgrades, which were on the verge of complete failure—they weren’t counting on that—and a fire suppression system,” says Nick Norris, senior planner at Salt Lake City Corporation.

In 2008, the commission began to evaluate plans for new buildings. This includes the 40,000-plus square foot Whole Foods building, with adjoining 18,000 square feet for small retailers, topped by a two-level parking garage. Additionally, three buildings totaling more than 30,000 square feet will be built on Trolley’s west side. All construction is expected to be finished this summer, with grand openings in February 2011.

“Most of [the discussions] had to do with the scale of the Whole Foods building, because building a building would block views [and] whether that was appropriate or not,” Norris says.

After the plans for the new buildings were approved, demolition and reconstruction began in 2008. This included removal of the dilapidated three-level parking garage on the west side for a two-level below-grade garage, with retail space over it. The new parking garage was finished in November 2008.

Demolition of the Sand House building was approved because the Landmarks and Planning commissions felt that the building had already been altered drastically to put in the green atrium and drive-through teller windows. The north and south facades will retain the building’s character, and the handful of remaining usable bricks, lying in wait for construction, will be rebuilt onto the outer skin of a new Sand House, which will be located on the west side of Trolley.

“The best preservation would have been to build around it, but the question was: Did the building have enough historical value left?” Norris says.

Removed from the planning process but bent on architectural history, Alan Barnett, lead reference archivist at the Utah state archives, is saddened by Trolley’s aesthetic rearrangement. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s one more thing that sort of erodes our com munity.

I’ve had the sense that since the [Sand House] is gone, there’s really something missing in its historic fabric,” Barnett says.

Barnett fears Trolley Square will fall victim to the national trend of homogenous shopping centers. The new buildings will be constructed with precast bricks, standing in stark contrast to the hand-laid bricks used for the original buildings.

“People have a special place in their heart for Trolley Square. I think it’s unfortunate if the current owners don’t value that. You can’t get back what’s lost. You can’t get back the community identity. It’s rare to find a developer that isn’t just doing the same thing that they have done somewhere else. It takes a certain kind of vision,” Barnett says.

Over the years, SKB has worked on several other historic projects, but Trolley Square is its most comprehensive. “We were attracted to it in the first place because we thought the historic nature of the property was of great value. We’ve worked very closely with both groups [Landmark and Planning commissions] and their input was constructive and helpful,” says Tom Bard, a principal for SKB.

Jay Fetherston, senior vice president with SKB, says that each improvement has been carefully considered. For example, the height on the new buildings has been kept at or below existing buildings with comparable architecture. SKB is also trying to make Trolley more sustainable, including an on-site stormwater-management system, native plants that require less irrigation, and additional scooter and bike parking.

Renovation has been difficult for many of the stores and restaurants, but the improvements will ideally make Trolley a viable competitor for downtown business. That is especially important because of the planned 2012 opening of the City Creek Center.

“Everyone is concerned because Trolley Square is a unique property, but it’s hard to stay viable if it’s limited by its historic nature,” says Mark Murphy, general manager of Desert Edge Brewery.

“They had to do something different to maximize the profitability.”

Another element that may be lost is the trolley car housing Trolley Wing Company, which will have to move in March. Dawn Katter, property manager for Trolley Square Association, says that they are trying to find another place in the mall for the trolley car.

Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott, who lives one block away from Trolley, is keeping his fingers crossed, although he has some reservations. While the second story of retail shops is being placed on top of the garage this month, he sees the steel beams poking skyward and worries that views are going to be compromised.

“I’m optimistically cautious,” Garrott says. “I don’t think we are going to know until the last brick is on the facade.”

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