North Temple: Rehab Boulevard | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

April 06, 2011 News » Cover Story

North Temple: Rehab Boulevard 

North Temple’s overhaul may crush some dreams and inspire new ones.

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In the 1930s, North Temple was “the primary road into town,” Gray says. Lined with small motels for visitors coming into Salt Lake City or heading out to the desert and Reno, the opening of interstates 80 and 15 “diminished North Temple as an entryway to the city. Since the early 1950s, it was sliding downhill.” For the past few decades, it has languished under a dusty pall, part of a west side that residents argue was long forgotten by city planners and budget directors.

Along with the vacant lots, a plasma center, auto-parts stores, a trailer park and small Mexican and Central American restaurants, the many blocks of government offices, the 65-acre Utah State Fairpark and the red-brick walls of Rocky Mountain Power’s offices only add to the urban cloud of desolation that hovers over North Temple’s six lanes. While there are bright cultural spots such as the Mestizo Coffee House and art center, much of the street’s downtrodden personality and reputation for crime stems from the shady, ramshackle motels that dot its length. A number of them are all too frequently awash in the red-and-blue lights of a police car, an ambulance responding to an overdose or reports of a wanted felon holed-up in a room.

In the spring of 2000, Howard’s journey back to North Temple began when, still limping from his life-saving operation, he took a job as a flagger at Stacy and Witbeck, working on the 400 South light-rail TRAX construction project. “It was the first real job in my life,” he says. He switched his addiction from drugs to work. His passionate loyalty 10 years later to Stacy and Witbeck stems, he says, from knowing, “what they did for me.”

In July 2001, Howard was promoted to traffic-control supervisor. From there, Stacy and Witbeck sent him first to San Diego, then Arizona, where he was assistant superintendent of a light-rail construction project. In 2008, Stacy and Witbeck offered him several projects in Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City. Howard chose North Temple because it would bring him close to his family and, he admits, “I was intrigued to work on a project where I used to have other interests on this street.”

Bill Coker learned that Howard and his crews were closing down North Temple just 18 months after he and his wife, Lucy Cardenas, had bought Salt Lake City’s most famous “hole in the wall” Mexican eatery, the 40-year-old Red Iguana, from Cardenas’ father. Coker describes the restaurant as “four little rabbit-warren dining rooms which feed 700 people a day.” When he got a mailer about the new airport line, he realized he faced three years of construction outside his front door. He decided to “embrace it, shape it, make it successful, and help mitigate the impact of the project on this business.” Part of Coker’s mitigation was to open Red Iguana 2 a few blocks away, to “create a revenue stream to sustain itself if things got really difficult,” while also investing in a neighborhood where he and Cardenas had recently bought a house.

One example Coker offers that North Temple’s revitalization is already in the works is Pipa, a narrow cocktail bar-cum-tapas restaurant run by David Tran. He’s the son of the owners of East Sea, a mom & pop Asian restaurant next door to Pipa, whose kitchen he shares. Coker admires Tran’s boldness in employing a hip, urban décor and Asian-fusion tapas menu, contrasting Pipa’s appeal to international sophisticates to Red Iguana’s commitment to authentic Mexican cuisine.

While house music plays in the background and embedded lights in the walls slowly change color, 27-year-old Tran expresses his excitement for what “the new North Temple can be. Hopefully with the redevelopment of the area, it will clean up and be an extension of what downtown is. We are definitely banking on TRAX blowing up the area [economically].”

Tran wasn’t overly enthusiastic about his new neighbor, Viva. The Hispanic grocery market has a 60-foot-long butcher counter and a third of its space dedicated to fresh produce. “It’s an effort to recapture the small scale, community-involved business,” Coker says. But Tran and others in the neighborhood had hoped for a Whole Foods or a Sunflower Farmers Market. “I wasn’t thrilled by the grand opening” of Viva in February, he says. “Latin music was blasting, the parking lot was filled, but we were hoping to try to attract more of a diverse crowd than just Latinos.” His parents’ restaurant next door, however, he adds, “got a big boost. I didn’t see any of it.”

On the opposite end of North Temple, Lofte Daoua and Jim Tsoufakis lack Coker and Tran's optimism. Six years after Daoua had opened a successful sports bar in 2001 at the airport end of North Temple, he then opened Lofte’s Pizzeria & Coffee in an adjacent, renovated garage. Now he wants to sell the languishing pizzeria, but can’t find a buyer. While he can’t wait for the light-rail to be completed, “the problem is how you suffer those four years. It’s a matter of survival.” With corporations’ travel expenses cut to the bone by the recession and construction sealing off access to his street for days at a time, Daoua is faced with something he has never had to deal with before. “This is the most failure I have in my life,” he says.

Daoua knows the only hand-up he can expect is the promise of a bright future several years down the line from TRAX advocates. “Someone here is starving and they say you will eat filet mignon in a few years,” he says. “But I want burger now, something to fill my stomach.”

Daoua’s neighbor, Encore Grill’s Tsoufakis, looks gloomily around the booths of his empty diner. “You can see for yourself,” he says about the impact on his business of construction. Admittedly, he says, business was bad at the beginning of the North TRAX project. After 9/11, lunchtime customers, especially airport employees, stopped coming because of security issues. Then, when the state switched to four-day work weeks with half-hour lunches, business from the local state offices vanished. While the city offered a five-year, $20,000 mitigation loan to North Temple businesses, “I’d just be digging a deeper hole to survive,” he says.

Muriel Wilson argues it’s Salt Lake City that is hammering the last nail into the coffin of west-side businesses on North Temple. She grew up on North Temple and for many years ran That Sandwich Shop, just beyond Redwood Road, before selling it six years ago. She retained the property and an adjacent building for her and her husband’s retirement. When she attended a Salt Lake City Council meeting in spring 2010, “I just about died,” after learning the city wanted her to pay $43,000 in taxes for her frontage portion of the street’s upgrade.

David Tran is also skeptical. “The city wants to have a grand entrance into downtown,” he says. “It’s more about what the city wants and asking us to pay for it.”

Wilson, a feisty 63-year-old, amassed signatures from 61 percent of property owners opposed to the new tax assessment. But the city, following a closed hearing that she believes was illegal, cut out many dissenters by going with a tax district that would stretch from 600 West to Redwood Road only.

“Some property owners out there, especially beyond Redwood Road, believe they shouldn’t have to invest anything, but reap all the benefits,” says Salt Lake City’s development chief Gray. So the city will not make landscaping and lighting improvements beyond Redwood. “From there on out, they will just get backfilled with dirt and keep the older street lighting,” he says.

Some of the smaller businesses in the new district, supported by North Temple businesses beyond Redwood, joined together to sue Salt Lake City. “Plaintiffs feared that, as a result of the size of this [tax] assessment, they would be forced out of business or lose their properties and sustain unacceptable loses,” attorney David Irvine, representing the owners, wrote in his initial complaint, filed on Oct. 10, 2010. The lawsuit accuses the city “of violating owners’ due process, government statutes and acting either illegally or unconstitutionally in imposing “a project of substantial cost on property owners,” without “reliable cost estimates, without an opportunity to protest the revised area boundaries and without a public hearing.”

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