Divining Downtown | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Divining Downtown 

We know the LDS Church has plans for downtown SLC, we just haven’t seen them.

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If you’re a true urbanite, you know that nothing beats a walk through a pulsing city street.

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In a true downtown, your feet can take you almost anywhere. Walk into a store and shop a while. Grab lunch. Take a detour through the park and onto another street. Listen to the changing tune of street musicians like scanning the radio dial, or take in the rants of someone handing out political or religious tracts. It’s all there'right in front of your eyes. The sights. The people. The noise and the grit.

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There are reasons increasing numbers of people want to live in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. And there are reasons why property values in cities like Detroit sit on the lower scale. One of those reasons is city planning.

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If you’ve lived in Salt Lake City as long as I have, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come. Critics resisted light rail as some sort of satanic plot. Now we can’t get enough of it. Today, the warehouse district boasts condo developments that have sold, and continue to sell, units at hundreds of dollars per square foot. Downtown Salt Lake City is suddenly it, or a portion of it at least.

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The rest of downtown Salt Lake City, or what we formerly called Temple Square and its surrounding blocks, remains the state’s most popular tourist attraction. On the other hand, ever since the LDS Church completed its purchase of Crossroads Mall in the summer of 2003, this portion of downtown has become home to the city’s biggest mystery. That is to say, almost no one knows what it will look like. During a meeting of civic and business leaders for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce’s “Downtown Rising” initiative last week, LDS Church leaders were conspicuously absent.

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Details have floated in and out of City Council meetings, and even in closed-door meetings between Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton and other council members. We know the church plans a mixed-use project with office space, retail space, and 900 or so units of housing. We know the church plans on 1,500 or so students attending the new LDS Business College and Brigham Young University satellite campus at the Triad Center. We know about residential towers at Main Street and 100 South and the corner of South Temple and West Temple. The church said it has no interest in creating its very own “Mormon mall,” but Burton also talks about how the church would make its property holding compatible with, you guessed it, church doctrine. We read about a sky bridge connecting the old ZCMI and Crossroads Malls. The universe hangs in the balance as we hope against hope that the church will make this an open development, and not another enclosed mall.

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For those of us who remember the city’s sale of Main Street to the LDS Church from years past'and who doesn’t'all this has the familiar ring of déjà vu: Make all your plans away from the public eye, get all your ducks in a row, then unveil it all to an adoring public. Remember how well that went down? After all the lawsuits and hard feelings were said and done, the church insisted everything was done aboveboard and in the best interests of the community. Problem was, it didn’t feel like it.

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This time around, there thankfully isn’t a parcel of public land for purchase in sight. So it’s with utmost confidence that I make this simple suggestion: Please, Brother Burton. Pretty please with sugar on top. Show us the church’s plans.

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We know the standard response to this polite request. It’s the church’s land, and they can do whatever they damned well please. One billion dollars in development doesn’t come cheap. How dare anyone be so rude as to demand what the church is up to? In addition, construction costs keep mounting, so showing your cards before you make your bet is only foolish. Aggressive stands against gay rights aside, the church is allergic to controversy. So, of course, it’s not going to show the public even the smallest corner of its blueprint, right?

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Of course. We know the church won’t stray from its current course. But this time there are plenty of good reasons the church should try a different strategy. First, the church seems acutely aware of the fact that it’s about to rearrange downtown on an unprecedented scale. It also seems acutely aware of the fact that whether or not it, or some other entity, owns the land, downtown remains public space in the strongest sense of the term. Second, like it or not, Salt Lake City is becoming more and more “gentile” all the time. Fifteen hundred or so BYU students may well tip the scale enough to prevent the likes of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson from ever holding power again, but it won’t salve hard feelings should the church’s eventual plans prove ham-handed or unpopular. Does anyone want to risk that sort of divisiveness in our community again? No one’s asking that public opinion drive this project or its design. It would just be nice to get the feeling that the church cares about sharing its special vision with the rest of us, that’s all. When there’s nothing to see, people assume you’ve got a lot to hide.

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The LDS Church announced its grand plans for downtown so long ago most of us can’t remember how many years have passed since. Has it really been three years? Please, Brother Burton. Pretty please with sugar on top. Show us the plans.

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