Small neighborhood takes on big dealershipMar 09, 2023 10:47AM ● By Zak Sonntag
Talia Touboul Walker and Maxwell Walker speak to City Journals about troubles with a nearby car dealership’s plans. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)
In June 2021, after a spate of rejections and outbids, newlyweds Talia Touboul Walker and Maxwell Walker finally purchased their first home, a panel exterior bungalow on an unassuming but neighborly Winslow Avenue in South Salt Lake.
Eagerly, the couple rolled up their sleeves and set about to improve the property—they built a fence to keep the dogs in, put up a greenhouse, eliminated interior walls and redid the floors—much with their own sweat equity.
But just as they’ve begun to feel settled and only 18 months after landing on Winslow, the Walkers find themselves butting heads with their powerful neighbor—Mark Miller Subaru—over a rezone that allows the dealership to expand operations at the State Street location.
“We love the identity and the spirit of Winslow, and we think it’s going to be snuffed out by blacktop,” said Maxwell Walker, who with his wife helped organize the “Save Winslow Ave” community group.
The issue has called attention to a process that some residents have described as unfair, and set in relief the central challenge faced by maturing municipalities: how to strike the proper balance between residential and commercial growth.
“We don’t want to be a city of concrete, we want to be a city of grass and open spaces. Would love for (Mark Miller Subaru) to stay, but there comes a time for us to decide what the future of the city looks like, and I think for State Street that’s less car dealerships,” said Councilmember Natalie Pinkney, during a Jan. 25 public hearing.
The dealership, whose full-sized commercial activity and longtime presence lend political influence, said if the rezone was denied it would be forced to decamp for another city—and take its sizeable tax receipts along with it.
“For Mark Miller to continue to operate in this city, we have to do these things,” said Mark Lane, project manager representing the dealership during a Jan. 19 planning commission hearing.
Lane explained the expansion comes in response to policies handed down from Subaru corporate, which are requiring dealerships to inventory more vehicles.
“We’re not here to cause problems for people, we’re here to do what we can to stay in the city and continue being here. Their other options are to pack up and leave and go build a new dealership,” said Lane. “But they don’t want to do that. They want to stay in South Salt Lake City. It’s a part of their heritage.”
The proposal, filed by subsidiary Katmark Partners, LLC, began as four separate co-related applications to rezone Winslow Avenue and additional parcels on 200 East from Residential Multiple (RM) to Commercial Corridor and vacate a public easement on 200 East that existing developments have rendered unusable as a throughway.
Planning Commission rejection
At a December 2022 planning commission hearing, board members voted unanimously to deny a recommendation, citing worries over business encroachment, the loss of residential real estate, and a practice of “spot zoning.”
“To me this is a classic example of ‘spot-zoning,’” said Planning Commission Board Member for District 1 Jeremy Carter. “It’s like a Pac Man thing: you take one bite, then you take the next bite. As a resident I’ve seen it. I understand that in 10 years you’re going to want two more lots, and three years after that you’re going to want two more lots again.”
On the heels of the commission’s vote, the city council on Jan. 25 voiced its own concern with the proposal, namely the applicant’s methods; they expressed indignation that the dealership purchased homes and let them sit vacant, taking housing stock offline then citing vacancy as a justification for rezone.
“We’ve seen this over and over again, where these dealerships buy these homes, they don’t use them, they get run-down, and then they come back and say if we turn it into a parking lot then at least there is not a run-down home on a property that we let get run-down. It makes no sense to reward them for their bad behavior,” said Shane Siwik, representative of District 5 and the Winslow Avenue neighborhood.
“Yes, we love the sales tax that car dealerships generate…but we can’t let any business strong- arm us into telling us what we’re going to do for them,” Siwik said.
Jeff Miller, general manager and CEO of Mark Miller Subaru, whose grandfather first opened the dealership, took umbrage at the comments and reminded the council of the company’s community credentials.
“At no point have we ever tried to strong-arm South Salt Lake. We’ve been in this location since 1961,” Miller said. “We didn’t buy all these properties to just sit on them. Our company is a huge pillar of this community. We are the only benefit corporation car dealerships in the state. Our corporate culture is to…help our community first and foremost, and profit comes next after that.”
The business community came to Miller’s defense as well.
During the January commission meeting Gary Birdsall, president of the South Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, said, “As far as their character, business acumen, and desire to do good in the community, no one’s better at doing that (than Subaru).”
Birdsall lauded the dealership’s participation in the Love Promise Organization, which donates to SSL through partnerships with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Volunteers of America and Best Friends Animal Society.
Although the more pivotal contributions, perhaps, are those related to the company’s sales tax: city staff confirmed that the dealership is amongst the top five tax contributors in a city where businesses make up close to 60% of the tax base—a fact that bears on the council’s decision.
“We have to remember, we recently all sat here and increased taxes. This business is providing a sales tax to us. If this business should leave we then have to throw it back onto the residents,” said at-large Councilmember Clarissa Williams.
‘Save Winslow Avenue’
To the residents in the Winslow Avenue neighborhood, however, the trade-offs of expanding the dealership are not justified.
“Ultimately, what I want to share is how much this street means to us. And what will happen if this does occur and we tear down homes to put up a parking lot,” said Talia Touboul Walker during a January public hearing.
“Look at how much this street has grown and changed. A lot of us here have put so much time and effort in our homes, literally investing tens of thousands of dollars to make them look better. If you look at the difference in the last two years and what it looks like from then to now, give us two more years and put those houses on the market and see what this will become. We can be one of the neighborhoods that supports downtown,” Talia Touboul Walker said.
Public testimony from Winslow area residents painted a picture of an excited young community diligently investing in their neighborhood—where neighbors barbeque together, share tools and lend helping hands—against a backdrop of car alarms and stadium lights they hope to keep to a minimum.
“You wouldn’t do this in your own neighborhood, right? So please don’t let this happen in ours,” said Matt Olsen, a Winslow resident.
The wider public response, too, stood against the rezone. Comments on the social media site Next Door resoundingly decried the proposal; and a petition against the rezone has accumulated a growing number of signatures.
Following the passionate public hearings, city staff helped broker a compromise and the dealership brought an amended proposal in February that rezoned two parcels rather than four, including the non-conforming property used as a marketing office along with property abutting 200 South where a fourplex was razed.
The council voted unanimously in the decision to rezone the single parcel on Winslow, and six of seven members OK’d the rezone of the property on 200 East, with Siwik voting against.
The decision settles tensions for now and allows the dealership to move forward in a way it hopes will satisfy expectations from corporate.
The dealership still has the ability to apply for rezones in the future, albeit, and with the city’s growth set to continue the issue may be revisited again.
“As a city we have to say at what point does that encroachment stop,” Siwik said.