ST. GEORGE – The owners of Urban Renewal, a popular retailer located in the downtown area of St. George, are worried about the future of their business and arguing for the preservation of the building it occupies in light of a perceived remodel planned by the store’s landlord, Aston Stow Company LLC. In what may be an attempt at a preemptive strike against the landlord, Urban Renewal has brought its arguments to the city, the public and the press.
Here’s what happened
Aston Stow’s manager, Brooks Pace, has presented concept drawings to officials of the City of St. George contemplating a redevelopment of the property that could create a three-story complex, with a parking structure in the back on property owned by the city.
The current tenant, Urban Renewal, started by Jenny Larsen and her mother as a tiny shop alongside other tenants in the building, now occupies the entire building along with Hush Hub Salon.
The building sits at the corner of St. George Boulevard and Main Street where it once housed J. C. Penney. It is a 16,000-square-foot art deco building, built in the early 1930s and recognized as a significant historic building by the city’s Historic Preservation Committee, on which Pace sits as a member.
According to a memorandum of lease recorded against the property, Urban Renewal’s current lease for the space is a 20-year lease beginning November 2012.
“We have a 20-year lease, and for the first five years we have the building free of any interference,” Larsen said. “The only way our lease can be voided is under a demolition clause.”
When Larsen learned of Pace’s redesign plans, she explained to him that she and her employees care about the building and keeping it preserved, she said, and he informed her that he had already taken it to the city who supported his idea.
So, Larsen took her objections directly to the city not withstanding her contract is with her landlord.
“This is an issue between property manager and tenant,” Assistant to the City Manager Marc Mortensen said. “So far all the city has seen is a drawing, given to us by the property owner, no other action has been taken.”
City officials did meet with Pace, Mortensen said. In the meeting, Pace showed them conceptual drawings of the proposed project. He said he felt the meeting was to simply let the city know what Pace was thinking about doing.
Larsen then met with City Manager Gary Esplin and Mortensen. She found that both Esplin and Mortensen praised the project, she said, and told her that the project had been shown to the City Council and the council is trying to find funding for the parking garage.
“A meeting was held with Mrs. Larsen,” Mortensen said. “When she asked what we thought of the project, it was generically mentioned that we liked the concept, if the property owner decided to proceed.”
The concept drawing was presented at the end of an open session of council as part of a report given by the city manager as to what had occurred during the period between council meetings, Mortensen said. No action was or could have been taken as no application, no plans, have been submitted. If such a project were to come to pass, parking would be an issue the city would need to address.
“The city might be in for a fight,” Larsen said in a press release Monday, and: “We would be forced to go out of business if this project were to move forward.”
“These plans are like a cancer,” store manager Armando Valdez said. “We’re lucky we caught it early. Now its time to fight for our lives.”
Urban Renewal started a petition drive and is working to get the word out about what it calls in its press release “the city’s plans.” It is attempting, it said, to “garner enough outcry that the city might relent.”
But the city has not brought forth plans for the privately-owned property. While it could frustrate a proposed project if it denied an owner’s plans, no development plans have been submitted to the city in this instance, only the conceptual drawings in Pace’s meeting with officials.
Larsen’s campaign aims at the city’s authority to disallow a development plan. She argues for preservation of the building as historical, and appeals to the public to help make her voice heard.
“Today we submitted to the city 546 signatures, with more to tally, that have not been submitted,” Larsen said on Thursday. “We are estimating over 700 signatures so far.”
For Larsen, defending her leasehold is about more than just resisting something that might interrupt her flow of business. It’s about her eye for character and history, not unlike her store’s offerings.
Urban Renewal, by Larsen’s description, “defies explanation; think department store meets trendy antique store with vintage clothes and vinyl records to boot.”
It brings together modern and retro, transforming old and used into an assortment of kitsch and shabby chic, with a smattering of new. Larsen is a masterful merchandiser with an eye for design, repurposing the unexpected into feature decor.
And so her eye sees value in a structure where another might just see an old building.
“We are in the business of helping people recognize and appreciate beautiful things,” Larsen said in Monday’s press release. “I think, if given the chance, we can help the city see the value in keeping our building around.”
Referencing what she described as an ill-fated 1987 law designed to stop the destruction of St. George history, Larsen said one needs only to look at pictures of the historic district of downtown St. George from 25 years ago to see many buildings and rows of retailers that have not been protected. Or, she said, walk through the district to see examples of buildings that were allowed to be built even though they are clearly not in keeping with the scale and historic character of the area.
As examples of what Larsen called painful demolitions, she said that prior to 1987, Big Hand Café at the corner of Main Street and St. George Boulevard was torn down. It’s sign with a large hand pointing to the door was nearly the icon of the city, and a stopping point for all. Also lost was the Carnegie Library torn down in 1981, among other old buildings.
Larsen prepared her own “white paper” for preservation of the building for submission to the city, linked here: Urban Renewal’s Recommended Updates to St. George Historic District Protections.
Off-hand, Mortensen couldn’t confirm whether or not the city had received the paper and wasn’t in a position to comment on it. He did observe, though, that the city is proud of its historical district, and has done a lot to maintain it. He said:
The City of St. George is a strong proponent of historic preservation. Since 1987 the city has been actively involved in efforts with private property owners and merchants to maintain a downtown that is healthy and vibrant. Over the past 30 years, city officials have put in place measures to ensure that new development and/or redevelopment is done in such a way to not distract from the characteristics that make the downtown unique from other areas of the community.
As examples of the city’s efforts, Mortensen said the city has invested millions of dollars in the acquisition, restoration and preservation of several historic landmark buildings, like the St. George Opera House, Social Hall, Pioneer Courthouse, Dixie Academy Building and, more recently, the Electric Theater.
“Over the years,” he said, “the city has formed pivotal relationships with other government agencies and private property owners to ensure that new development and redevelopment conforms to the historic look and feel of the downtown environment.”
Urban Renewal has earned a loyal customer base and at least one of those customers does not foresee failure as an option for the business no matter what happens to the building.
“I love Urban Renewal and shop there all the time,” St. George resident Kendal Fixal said. “However, I do believe in progress. I think that the owner of the property, once the lease is up, has the right to do with the building as he pleases. Urban Renewal is an amazing store and could survive anywhere.”
UPDATE June 2: On Monday, Brooks Pace, manager of Aston Stow Company LLC and the landlord of Urban Renewal, reached out to St. George News. Pace said Urban Renewal had a position on their lease and he isn’t going to fight them on that position. Pace also expressed a desire to let the story die down, not wishing to add any further comment.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.
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