On Feb. 21, 2012, Richard Wirick was crossing 400 South by the Salt Lake City Main Library when he was hit by a UTA bus. Wirick died of his injuries hours later in hospital at the age of 82.
Several weeks later, a purple wreath still adorns the door of Wirick’s Oxford shoe store on 100 South. The death of “Mr. Downtown,” as he was officially crowned in 2006 by local businesses, could not have been more poignant. No one spoke more passionately and with greater optimism than Wirick about the opening, across the street from his store, of the City Creek shopping center on March 22, 2012.
“He sadly missed it by a few weeks,” says Pam O’Mara, owner of Utah Artist Hands gallery, Wirick’s 100 South neighbor. “It was heartbreaking. He died a downtown death, going to a chamber [of commerce] meeting.”
Wirick’s boundless optimism, however, is not reflected in all quarters. Indeed, fear, if not loathing, may be closer to the mark.
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ $1.5 billion mixed-use development, in partnership with real-estate investment trust Taubman Centers Inc., has injected new life into downtown, some see the 700,000 square feet of new retail space in Salt Lake City as a threat to neighboring shopping districts Gateway and Trolley Square.
“There’s just not enough demand nor fashion retailers to fill all the square footage that’s available in the downtown area,” argues Geoff Kaessner of GSK Realty Services. “All three cannot be national fashion retail shopping centers.” Nick Egelanian, president and founder of Site Work Retail Services, a national consultant that specializes in retailing, knows the Salt Lake City retail market well. “There’s no question in my mind this market cannot support all three,” he says.
Both malls have had ample opportunity to prepare for City Creek’s debut as it got ever closer. Trolley’s owner pumped $80 million into purchasing and reconstructing the 1908 building.
Gateway, by contrast, seems to have stayed much the same, down to the instrumental 2002 Olympic Winter Games theme song and LeAnn Rimes cover of “God Bless America” that play as the backdrop to the “dancing waters” of the fountain in Olympic Legacy Plaza, which parents and children turn into an urban water park during summer.
Gateway marketing director Heather Nash might as well speak for both malls when she acknowledges that in the face of City Creek’s arrival, Gateway “has to become more defined.” She talks about Gateway being more entertainment-driven, especially given the proximity of the EnergySolutions Arena, a venue for Utah Jazz games and nationally touring concerts. Trolley’s eclectic selection of quirky local stores and national chains such as Pottery Barn, combined with its long history, reflects why it continues to be highly regarded as much as a community asset as a shopping destination.
Utah is littered with malls that have gone out of style, strip malls long since abandoned by tenants seeking more foot traffic. With City Creek, the LDS Church has presumably erected something that’s meant to stand the test of time. Yet behind the polished veneer of Taubman’s marketing machine, the current seismic shifts in the downtown retail market seem to some more like an old-fashioned shell game. Raffi J. Daghlian, who owns Daghlian Oriental Rugs in Trolley Square, sees retail development in downtown Salt Lake City as “a vicious game.” First the LDS Church-owned ZCMI and Crossroads Plaza malls on Main Street killed downtown, he says, “then Gateway killed ZCMI and Crossroads, and now City Creek is killing Gateway. They are stealing each other’s customers, putting them from one pocket to another.”
If there is theft, it doesn’t come cheaply. Taubman has invested $76 million in City Creek and owns and manages the retail and restaurant properties. “It’s not really comparable to any other retail center in the world,” says general manager Linda Wardell. “It’s much more than a suburban mall plopped into downtown Salt Lake City.” The financial might of the LDS Church, which has invested an estimated $1 billion-plus into the 23 acres smack in front of Temple Square and its global headquarters, has meant that while other American retail development projects languished in the downturned economy, City Creek pushed on, becoming the only mall set to open in the United States in 2012.
The stakes are high for the LDS Church that City Creek succeeds. “They have many more reasons to make this mall a success than perhaps other owners,” Egelanian says. “Pilgrimage, tourism, cross-promoting [with Temple Square], cross-marketing—those dynamics give them many more reasons to invest more deeply” than owners who do not have quite the same relationship with the city the mall is based in. Wardell expects 30 to 40 percent of visitors to be tourists, with some arguing this may create a City Creek spillover, with tourists from Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada not only patronizing the Mormon mall, but also the other shopping districts.
The LDS Church’s investment is evident wherever you look in City Creek, whether in the retractable roofing, which pampers shoppers in a way that visitors to Gateway’s wind-tunnel-like street can but dream of in the winter; the fountains—designed by the same company that created Las Vegas’ Bellagio fountain and also Gateway’s fountain—that do hourly shows mixing water, light, sound and fire; or the aquatic plants transplanted from the real City Creek to the fake one that meanders through the 92 percent leased, two-part shopping center. Spend and they will come, seems to be the philosophy, which begs the question, Kaessner says, of whether the LDS Church and Taubman can “put this development in top position in the marketplace just by sheer quality of building something so fine everybody has to go?”
Macy’s and Nordstrom may anchor the development, but the real anchor is the Mormon church. Flanked by Temple Square on the north, visitors to City Creek who stand in the outdoor food patio can almost feel the watchful eyes of law firm Kirton McConkie, as well as its key client, the administrative headquarters of the LDS Church—housed in the Church Office Building, the second-tallest structure in the city—looking down upon them.
City Creek is a truly conspicuous celebration of wealth at the tail end of a devastating recession, providing Gentiles and Mormons with a dollar-driven meeting point between South Temple and 100 South. For a faith dedicated to establishing God’s kingdom on Earth, City Creek is a curious coalescing of financial and religious imperatives, arguably reflecting, as Stan Albrecht wrote in Great Basin Kingdom Revisited, that “the individual attainment of economic success is viewed by some [Mormons] as the best indicator of righteousness and a useful surrogate measure of the assurance of one’s eternal exultation.”
The Happiness Factor
A remodeled trolley-car barn, Trolley Square opened in 1972 and has long held a special place in Salt Lake City, argues Steve Farr, owner of Payne Anthony Creative Jewelers. “Even if a corporation has ownership, it feels like it belongs to the community.” Walking Trolley’s cobbled corridor from the same parking spot he’s had for 30 years, “to me it’s almost stepping back in time.”
Cathy Kirkpatrick fell in love with Trolley when she and her daughter-in-law wanted to do a children’s clothing store based around the classic English novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “It didn’t seem like an everyday mall. We loved the charm, the uniqueness of it,” she says. They opened The Secret Garden in 1998. The mall “was fully occupied and thriving then,” she says.
In 2006, owners Simon Properties sold the 320,000-square-foot mall for $38.6 million to Portland, Ore.-based ScanlanKemperBard [SKB], which took on a building with severe maintenance issues and a parking garage so dilapidated a car had partially fallen through the flooring. SKB “got rid of a lot of the tenants in there,” Kirkpatrick says, as they pursued an extensive, almost $40 million project to free up more leasing space. Just as SKB was about to break ground on site improvements in May 2007, a shooting claimed five lives in the mall.
Accounts differ as to the impact of the shooting on Trolley. Some tenants recall overwhelming concern and increased foot traffic from customers wanting to support the mall and its shopowners, while others speculate that a pall still hangs over the shopping district.
What is not in dispute, however, is that construction put an end to many of the businesses. The Secret Garden had to move several times, and Kirkpatrick says her business never recovered. “I loved working there,” she says. “I kept thinking it was temporary; I hung on for four years, kept waiting for it to turn around. I finally had to bite the bullet and move,” she says sadly. The Secret Garden closed in July 2011. “You put your heart and soul into something like that, it’s very difficult to let go. It took me a long time to get over it.” Kirkpatrick moved to Greenbrae, Calif., and re-opened The Secret Garden in a family-owned mall.