City Creek Center: Three for the Money 

As City Creek opens, Gateway & Trolley Square scramble to compete for shoppers

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Rules of Conduct
Whether part of this energy will include City Creek shoppers seeking entertainment options at Gateway remains to be seen. Another uncertain factor is whether City Creek’s ownership will impact the shopping appetite of locals and tourists. A recent QSaltLake blog suggested that the gay and lesbian dollar may stay away from a development owned by the Prop 8-supporting LDS Church, even if the retail space is owned by a different organization.

“The LDS Church has a very unique relationship with this community,” says Downtown Alliance’s Mathis. While they are interested in investing in downtown, it’s not only about business, he says, “but also being a long-term community steward. They feel a sense of ownership and interest in what happens in Salt Lake City.” That sense of ownership arguably can also divide local opinion. “Looking back at the history of Salt Lake City, there has always been these two sorts of differentiated pushes, one encapsulated with Exchange Place, the secular, non-LDS side of downtown, and the other Temple Square,” Mathis says. He acknowledges it will continue. “I think it’s really a tragedy there is this discord in our community.” That said, “certainly there are people of good will on both sides who want to work closely together to build a great community.”

City Creek’s Wardell echoes LDS Presiding Bishop David H. Burton’s statement at a recent press conference that all are welcome at City Creek. Unlike an incident two years ago when two men who kissed on church-owned Main Street Plaza were detained by church security, expressions of affection will be welcome, Wardell says, albeit within the “rules of conduct” that all Taubman’s 26 family-oriented shopping centers are governed by. City Creek is the only one that will close on Sunday, although its two restaurants, Texas de Brazil Churrascaria and the Cheesecake Factory, have the option to open. They both have liquor licenses, thanks to a miraculous—and short-lived—loosening of the license-granting rules by the Utah Legislature that benefited the Mormon mall’s restaurant tenants, although not to the point that they escaped the Zion curtain and other curious Utah restrictions on alcohol serving.

Kaessner predicts City Creek “will have a record-breaking opening, then settle down and have to build from there.” City Creek’s Wardell expects 150,000 in the first three days, with the LDS General Conference weekend on March 31-April 1 also set to bring in large crowds.

Squeaky Wheel
Retail in Salt Lake City has come full circle. Main Street boasts new stores and, says gallery owner Pam O’Mara, as she sweeps into the gutter blueberries from the Virginia creeper above her artists’ gallery, “people are walking around the city. That’s why Dick [Wirick] was so excited by City Creek. He knew it would bring people here.” She says in the past few weeks, she’s seen an uptick in business for her gallery and café from people who are going to, or work at, City Creek. Best news of all, she adds, is that its 5,000 parking spaces will be affordable—free the first hour, then $1 an hour after that. “When I heard that, I just wanted to kick up my heels.”

City Creek, unlike the malls it replaces, will have stores whose shopfronts face Main Street, says Jeff Barnard, owner of clothing boutiques JMR and Lolabella. He’s a veteran of the mall scene, having had stores in the Cottonwood Mall, which was torn down, and Trolley, which he left for Crossroads, only to then move to Gateway. Now he has two stores in Gateway, where rents average $40 per square foot. “Sometimes I think City Creek will crush Gateway, sometimes not,” he says. Either way, the key for a retailer, is to be “real careful you sign a lease with mobility so you don’t get trapped in a shopping center in decline.”

Barnard was in negotiations with City Creek for years. Taubman offered a leasing deal of $82 per square foot, which would incrementally rise to $125 over 10 years. Barnard didn’t necessarily balk at how expensive it was. “The way I look at it, you’re paying for more volume.” Nevertheless, he couldn’t afford it, and came up with an ingenious way of being part of City Creek and the seeming Main Street revolution without paying the exorbitant rent.

On Aug. 1, he will open a 5,500-square-foot store in the Crandall building, on the corner of Main and 100 South, called Chalk Garden Co-op, the title a nod to 1959, when his parents opened the Chalk Garden clothing store.

As downtown goes through a rebirth, those who gritted their teeth and stuck it out finally stand to benefit. After years and years of construction downtown, O’Mara says at times she thought she wouldn’t make it to the day when tourists would stop asking her why there was no one downtown. Now, with City Creek finally opening, Wirick’s optimism that downtown would burst into bloom after so many years of hibernation is already proving warranted. And, it seems, Wirick will be in on the act, in spirit at least. One of his relatives, she says, is planning to reopen the store when City Creek debuts.

Wherever Wirick is, she says, “I think he’s probably smiling.”

Whether Gateway is as cheerful is a more nuanced question. National retail consultant Nick Egelanian argues that Gateway is “probably the most vulnerable.” Trolley Square, he says, “has a pretty good future as a hybrid,” with its mix of high-end grocery store in Whole Foods and specialty boutiques like Williams-Sonoma. “My personal read of the market will be that City Creek and Gateway’s success or failure will depend on how tourists view them. The one that will have the most unique positioning is City Creek. Many of its retailers are one-of-a-kind [in Utah], and its physical features are not duplicated elsewhere. The formula that wins will be unique retailers and special place.”

Priskos argues that a third downtown mall is good news. “I do think there’s room for everyone. We’re not over-retailed. The question is where we will be five years from now.”

Gateway needs a major facelift, argue some. “I think the flavor of Gateway may change a little bit,” says Mathis, “younger, hipper, a little bit more of a niche market.” Kaessner agrees. “They need to become everything that City Creek can’t be,” he says. “They need more edgy retailers, wild restaurants, things that City Creek would never let happen.”

Payne Anthony’s Farr remains upbeat about Trolley. “I’ve been here long enough to continue to trust it will be full and beautiful as it has been in the past.” New Trolley arrival Tony Weller, of Weller Book Works, hopes similar local retail stars like his bookstore will be attracted to what drew him to the mall—its quality of architecture and personality.

But rug merchant Raffi Daghlian is more skeptical. Trolley, he argues, is caught in a catch-22. To get more people in, it has to have more stores leased, but to get more stores it has to have more foot traffic to attract them. “We don’t have the grease,” he says, to stop the proverbial wheel from squeaking.

SKB, meanwhile, has put the mall up for sale. “We’re trying to determine if it’s right for us to sell it or continue to own and operate it,” Fetherston says. Either way, he expects Trolley to survive another 100 years, unlike regional malls that quickly pass from fashion. “I don’t think it ever was [a regional mall], I don’t think it ever will be.”

In this constant recycling of retail space, of games played by powerful financial forces, it seems the winner is whoever has “the deepest pockets and the longest Rolodex list,” Kaessner says. Go up against the kind of financial clout that Taubman and the LDS Church are wielding, “and you’re going to lose.”Â

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