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Despite hopes raised in March by the building's new owners, a once-popular enclave on downtown Salt Lake City's Pierpont Avenue has seen an exodus of artisans and shopkeepers who rented space there for years.
Most of the ground-level shop spaces in the century-old Eccles Browning Warehouse north of Pioneer Park were vacant Tuesday as leases expired at year's end. Several departing tenants said a series of rent and fee hikes after the site changed hands made staying too expensive.
"Whatever community was here before is gone and won't be coming back," said Mike Green, proprietor of Green Glass Art, as he moved out of 347 W. Pierpont Ave.
A resident and tenant in the cluster of downtown art outlets and gallery spaces for 21 years, Green was hurriedly loading remnants of his store into a pickup truck in frigid weather after missing his Dec. 31 deadline for vacating the premises.
"I'm trying to stay positive," the white-bearded Green said as he decided what to transport for storage and what to toss, "but it's over with and it's time to move on."
Known to longtime residents for its gallery strolls held by former leaseholder Artspace, the blond-bricked building on Pierpoint Avenue was purchased a year ago by Timberlane Partners, Seattle-based developer of multifamily residential projects.
Timberlane's portfolio includes several upscale apartment complexes and mixed-use properties in western Washington and eastern Los Angeles. It also owns The Mercer, a newly built, 73-unit apartment project at 556 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City, a few blocks from Trolley Square mall.
Company co-founder and principal John Chaffetz said Tuesday the company has tried to strike a balance between retaining tenants and raising rates enough to pay for crucial property improvements, including making the aged building accessible for the disabled.
"We're attempting to move the rents to a level to where we can actually provide a safe, well-maintained workspace for a number of the folks who were there when we bought it," Chaffetz said. "Our sense is that we've done a good job of retaining a fair number of people."
Leasing manager J.R. Howa with InterNet Properties in Salt Lake City said he still was finalizing newly signed leases and that a tally wasn't available on how many of the building's 30 or so spaces remained empty.
"They may be vacant now, but I'm super optimistic that it is going to fill up pretty quickly," Howa said. "It's an up-and-coming area, and we're seeing a lot of interest from people who want to be down there."
For many former tenants, however, rent hikes, new utility payments and fees charged for upkeep of common areas in and around the building were too much for their small businesses to afford, forcing them out.
"Most of us got burned," said Sid Colton, an oil painter who had a 720-square-foot studio at Pierpont for 15 years. He's moved to Sugar House on a month-to-month lease while he seeks a permanent locale.
Teresa Spas, owner of Tissú Fine Fabrics and Design Gallery, said she weighed extending her shop's hours to meet the added costs, but the building's lack of parking and its proximity to homeless shelters prompted her to seek digs elsewhere. Her store landed at 1779 S. 1100 East.
"I can understand why they did it," Spas said of the rent bumps. "But it was just way out of my price range."
Key high-profile Pierpont tenants are staying for now, such as SLUG Magazine and MJSA Architects. And while other former tenants moved, some simply closed down.
"It was hard to imagine Elemente anywhere else after 27 years," said Kate Bullen, who shuttered her vintage furnishings shop, formerly at 353 W. Pierpont Ave. "I loved the place. To watch it be dismantled was an incredible experience."
Several of those leaving said it was an example of gentrification, where development makes urban areas increasingly unaffordable to those with low or middle incomes. But an advocate for downtown Salt Lake City said he was upbeat that much-needed renovations to the Eccles Browning building would benefit the overall area.
"Change is painful, but it is also a necessary and important part of any evolving urban center," said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. "In many cases, new owners bring additional investments and help to create a safer, more dynamic community."
But Spas and other Pierpont refugees sense a loss of community in that neighborhood.
"I really didn't enjoy going down there and scraping my sign off the window," Spas said. "The whole mood down there has changed."
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