A Main Street Revival or the Next ‘Vatican City’?

How the LDS Church is re-staking its claim in downtown Salt Lake City culture and retail power


How the LDS Church is re-staking its claim in downtown Salt Lake City culture and retail power

by Richard Markosian

The Mormons are building the next Vatican City; they will own and control not just the streets, but also retail sales, free speech and alcohol trade in downtown Salt Lake City.

With two write-ups in The New York Times and a deluge of blogger opinions, the gist of the opposition to the LDS Church’s planned $2 billion City Creek Center is the Mormons are taking over the galaxy. Critics are changing their tune toward acceptance after witnessing the progress of steel beams erecting extravagant high-rise condos—all while the construction is providing jobs and hope for better things on the horizon.

mall warsMaybe a “Vatican City” in Salt Lake will be a nice addition.

The project is an unprecedented church funded undertaking. The City Creek Center will provide mixed use retail and high-end luxury condominiums with views of the Salt Lake City Temple from residents’ living room windows. Those who have the means to purchase the $200,000 to $2.5 million condominiums will likely be members of the LDS church and will certainly infuse a new residential element to the urban revival of Salt Lake City. In contrast to the current urban revival of Salt Lake City the prior revival was spear-headed by liberal bohemians and artists.

In the eighties, Stephan Goldsmith chose to locate his art studio in a former warehouse, calling his project Artspace. This grass-roots rehabilitation of drug-infested buildings in Salt Lake City’s west side defined the nature of the west-side revival in the late eighties and early nineties.

According to Goldsmith, the City Creek project was initiated by the LDS Church when the former malls on Salt Lake City’s Main Street were nearing foreclosure, and Nordstrom began indicating that they would also move to Gateway the situation became dire. Goldsmith and then Mayor Rocky Anderson began closed-door meetings with Bishop Burton, who was the business operations manager of Zion Securities’ ZCMI Center. These seemingly opposed groups joined together to brainstorm how to revitalize Main Street.

Temple Square receives 5 million annual visitors and is considered the epicenter of the fastest growing church in America. So how would shopping not thrive in any area that receives 5 million visitors?

Rendering of a Richard’s Court apartment. Nearly all luxury apartments with views of the Temple have already sold.

Main Street’s decline in vitality began with the completion of The Gateway Center, an outdoor mixed-use mall built in anticipation of the 2002 winter Olympics. Gateway was built five blocks west of downtown’s Main Street in a former train yard. Weeds, red clay and artists warehouses were all that defined the area prior to the huge Boyer Company investment in Gateway.

Since the Olympics, Gateway has only grown in popularity and support. Suburbanites seeking upscale dining and mostly chain store retail options gravitated to what became, in effect, the new center for Salt Lake City. “It

essentially shifted Main Street five blocks to the west,” said Lamb’s restaurant owner John Speros. Lamb’s has been located on Main Street for the past 70 years. Some of Lamb’s customers were gone after The Salt Lake Tribune relocated their headquarters from Main Street to Gateway. In addition to local investment and support, significant national corporate investment into Gateway was realized when Fidelity Investments and the Hyatt Hotel both built new buildings in the Gateway district.

City Creek Center
Rendering of the City Creek Center, looking East.

Last year the commuter rail hub was completed three blocks to the south of Gateway, providing more access to the shopping district. More investment has gone into refurbishing former warehouses into urban living and office spaces to create a new “warehouse district,” which has all further emphasized a Gateway-centric Salt Lake City. This is certainly not what Brigham Young intended when he established the plot for Salt Lake City. The historic center of the city— Temple Square and Main Street— was no longer the cultural or economic center of the city, drawing the focus away from the church and historic Salt Lake City.

Plans for the massive City Creek Center were announced adopting much of Goldsmith’s vision for “redevelopment of those blocks more along the lines of the original vision of Salt Lake City.” Retail giant Nordstrom, who had previously announced they would move to Gateway, instead decided to stay on Main and anchor City Creek. This was a huge victory for the LDS Church and Zion Securities.

Some critics say that the City Creekcenter is just an upscale copy of Gateway. But with a retractable roof over the retail area and fountains designed by WET Designs of Bellagio fame, Gateway’s mostly stucco façade and children’s Olympic Legacy fountain will pale in comparison to City Creek’s features.

Five restaurants and bars have already opened on Main Street in anticipation of City Creek’s completion.

Initiation of City Creek Center

The City Creek Center development is a joint effort between Zion Securities (the for-profit arm of the LDS Church) and the national mall development company, Taubman Centers Inc. The ZCMI Center, Crossroads Mall and Key Bank tower— all on Main Street, were razed for City Creek. The new shopping center will be supported by two massive underground parking areas as well as an existing light rail line. One additional TRAX stop will be added below a bridge which supports the retail thoroughfare. Renderings depict outdoor sidewalk restaurants as well as a second level of retail supported by a sky bridge over Main Street.

city creek center
The Gateway Olympic Legacy Fountain has become a huge hit with kids who want to cool off from the summer heat. The City Creek Center will have even more elaborate fountains than Gateway and were designed by famed Bellagio Fountain designer WET designs.

The sky bridge component of the project caused concern for several reasons. Critics claimed the bridge would monopolize the buying public into church owned property by directing pedestrian traffic away from the existing locally owned business on Main Street. Taubman demonstrated the necessity of the bridge before the Salt Lake City Planning Commission with 3D fly-thru animations demonstrating how the bridge connects the first and second levels of retail. Despite the concerns of former Mayor Rocky Anderson, Stephen Goldsmith and many Salt Lake urban developers City Creek, with the sky bridge, eventually received the green light from the Planning Commission. Goldsmith said he regrets that the church chose to partner with Taubman rather than work with a local developer that “would have maintained authenticity and character of the existing street.”

Mixed Use Mania

The “mixed use: live, work, play” development mantra caught on big in Salt Lake City once Gateway proved to be a hit. Salt Lake developers, riding a wave of huge increases in property values before the mortgage collapse, ought to copy-cat the success of Gateway in Salt Lake’s suburban areas.

Auerbach's circa 1940

Aftermath of the previous mall wars: After the completion of the Crossroads Mall in 1978, the North end of Main Street dominated retail for downtown shoppers. Salt Lake City’s original Auerbach’s department store couldn’t compete with the parking, retail space and variety that the new malls offered. Just three years after the Crossroads was completed, Auerbach’s closed its doors. Auerbach’s was started by Hubert Auerbach in 1887 and was in business for over 110 years. The malls were devastating to other local merchants: The Paris Company, Wolf’s Sporting Goods, Keith O’Brien and Broadway Music also closed soon after. (photo of Auerbach’s circa 1940.)

Built in 1963, The Cottonwood Mall was the oldest indoor shopping mall west of the Mississippi. This and other indoor malls began to suffer once the much cooler Gateway lured away shoppers. Developers, General Growth Properties (NSDQ: GGP), initiated plans that mimicked a European-style outdoor shopping and luxury condominium center to replace the Cottonwood Mall. After the entire 25 acres of the Cottonwood Mall was demolished, GGP declared bankruptcy due to financial loss amid the onset of the recession. Today the huge expanse of fallow land in both the former Cottonwood Mall area and the former SugarHouse Granite Block shopping areas—both former viable retail areas—have left residents with a sour taste for developers’ promises for “mixed use”.

However, the progress realized in reviving Main Street in Salt Lake through City Creek Center has been the silver lining among big development woes. The City Creek Center is scheduled to be completed in Spring 2012. Taubman Centers also says that some restaurants will be serving alcohol. Maybe it won’t be exactly a Vatican City after all, but we can count on the Mormon Church to make it pretty.

Join our newsletter.
Stay informed.

Related Articles