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Holladay Journal

Cotton Bottom Inn on the verge of refurbishment

Jan 02, 2020 11:24AM ● By Zak Sonntag

The historic, no-frills tavern to have new owners. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

Editor’s note: this is part one in a two-part series about the Cotton Bottom Inn. 

The City of Holladay is getting out of the bar business and selling the Cotton Bottom Inn, the historic tavern it purchased in 2014. Strange that it would find itself in the business to begin with. Odd, too, that it was sold for less than what the city originally paid, despite property values having increased drastically.

But sometimes the bargain is between the lines. 

“We wanted to get the right type of development there, something that was right for our community. And when this proposal came along we decided it would provide a lot of added benefit and help us maintain qualities we want to foster in Holladay,” said outgoing Councilmember Steven Gunn.

The new owners, the Bar X Group, who own the local restaurants the Eating Establishment, Beer Bar and Bar X, intend to build a restaurant on the property while continuing to operate the iconic Cotton Bottom Inn, which opened its doors in 1966. 

“To me it’s smart to keep a historic place like that because once it’s gone it’s gone forever. I like it better than a brand new restaurant,” said Jeff Barnard, co-owner of the project. “We don’t want to trample on that history, but the business needs to evolve and move forward. We’re going to have a new facility that will focus on selling more food, a 3,000-square-foot restaurant that can accommodate 150 people. But we wanted to keep the existing Cotton Bottom there because people love the garlic burgers.”

The sale has stirred concern among some residents who worry transferring the land to private owners could result in unwanted future development in an area adored for its open space and scenic riverside beauty.

“I’m concerned with what this might mean for the wildlife in this area. We’ve got beautiful ducks, rabbits, birds — it’s like natural geographic right there on the river. If this new restaurant wants to put a patio on the river that means the trees will be gone and this neighborhood will no longer be quiet,” said Jill Paton, a neighbor speaking at the public hearing.

City officials explained the project was cautiously chosen, and told residents the Bar X proposal offered the city the best option to offload the property in a way that helped keep the aesthetic of the Knudsen Park area.

“In a perfect world we’d have unlimited resources. We’d have as much open space as we’d like. But I think we’ve been pretty thoughtful about that issue in our process,” Councilmember Brett Graham said.

Community members also expressed worry over the parcels new zone designation, “limited use” or LU, an ambiguous zone not often seen.

“The LU is a really, really rare bird. If you look carefully at the LU ordinance, it allows ‘a certain use,’ unlike a traditional zone. No one has any clear memory of using this zone. It’s not a cookie cutter,” said Dan Gibbons, councilmember-elect and resident of District 5, where the restaurant is located.

Although rare, it’s not unprecedented. Tuscany Restaurant, directly east of the Cotton Bottom, is also zoned LU. Planning Commissioner Alyssa Lloyd made this point during a commission meeting earlier in the process: “We’re trying to make the parcel consistent with surrounding areas like the Tuscany. We’re just cleaning up the zoning so when we sell a developer can’t build townhomes and condos,” said Lloyd. 

From the city’s standpoint, the LU zone is the safest way to encourage the type of development it would most like to see.

“When this particular parcel went to market, we were concerned about the fact that it was an RM zone. We had a fear of its own zone, so we tendered an offer and they took it,” said Mayor Rob Dahle, speaking at the public hearing.

One of motivating factors in the city’s initial 2014 purchase was their concern that the Cotton Bottom’s residential multiuse (RM) zone, which permits high-density projects and could encourage ambitious developers to buy the parcel and throw up a hotel or an office building, would put prospects out of touch with the layout the city envisions for the area.

“We took control of it with a purchase of city funds, but we didn’t do it so we could profit. It was done with the intention that we would eventually put it back to the market when the right project came along,” Dahle said.  

City officials knew what it didn’t want on the parcel, but had less certainty about what it did want. 

In drafting the sale agreement, city officials were careful to include caveats. The purchase and sale agreement leaves the city the “right to re-purchase the property should the Real Property cease to be used for restaurant purposes at any time for six consecutive months,” according to the language of the agreement. However, that right is only guaranteed “within three years of Closing,” which is slated for March of 2020, meaning something other than a restaurant could be built on the property after 2023. The termination of the city’s buyback guarantee makes some residents leery.

The agreement has been in the works for some time, according to the city, but residents living in the area felt the process was rushed. 

“I didn’t hear about this until yesterday. I don’t know if you haven’t notified us? I don’t know what’s going on. I need the information before I can say I’m for or against,” said Joan Wild, who lives on nearby Bancott Road.

In order to sell the parcel, the city first declared it “surplus property,” then voted for a rezone, decisions that happened just weeks apart, creating the perception of hastiness. The city, however, insists the process has been open and lengthy. 

“This process has been going on for months. This is the second public hearing,” countered Sabrina Petersen, representative from District 1.

The new owners envision an establishment that’s fully integrated with the park. The restaurant will develop a riverside walkway which will be deeded back to the city for public use.

“We want to make the restaurant an extension of the park. With trees and natural features, so it will keep the feeling of the park. It won’t be noisy at 2 a.m.,” Barnard assured the council.

The city purchased the 0.84 acre parcel for 875,000 in 2014. The new owners will acquire the property for $850,000, even as home prices, which correlate to overall property value increases, have grown by leaps across Holladay during this period, according the real-estate data firm Zillow.