Courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune (hat tip to the BCC newsfeed), the following opinion about the Church’s involvement in redeveloping downtown Salt Lake City expresses some points worth careful consideration:

Uninspired architecture
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Launched: 06/29/2007 12:00:00 AM MDT

A friend of mine frequently says Utahns are quick to “settle.”
  We settle for over-salted chain restaurant food, common chain store fashions and, with few exceptions, we settle for uninspiring architecture.
  No case demonstrates the latter more than the City Creek Center development. Certainly the LDS Church has the right to develop its property as their leaders see fit, and yes, it will be nice to get something developed downtown, but you would think a religion that professes to be divinely inspired would choose a more inspired design.
  San Antonio has the Riverwalk, we’ll have a fake City Creek. Portland has a large, thriving downtown, and we’re about to repeat the mistake we made 30 years ago and limit ours to a few city blocks. Lehi gets Frank Gehry and Salt Lake gets Taubman partners.
  If we’re going to make Salt Lake a chain store theme park, let’s not settle again. We should at least get a roller coaster to go with our Futureland sky bridge.

Gary B. Howard
  Salt Lake City

Ignoring the obligatory jabs at Utah (“Utahns are quick to ‘settle’” — which, by the way, seems a virtue not a vice) that are mandatory in the Salt Lake Tribune, this opinion expresses valid frustration held by many about the redevelopment of downtown Salt Lake City.

Mormon / non-Mormon divide

As an expat from Salt Lake City (well, actually from Dallas but having lived most recently in Salt Lake City), I can observe that many non-Mormons in Salt Lake City are unhappy with the level of public involvement that the Church takes in the life of the City. I think it is fair to say that many residents of Salt Lake City were upset or at least annoyed that the Church decided to revitalize its property by tearing down one shopping mall (and numerous other buildings, including one of SLC’s primary “skyscrapers”, the Key Bank Tower) in order to build another shopping mall in its place (and numerous other buildings, including new office space and hundreds of new apartments and condominiums).

My perspective as a resident of Salt Lake City at the time the decision was taken and at the time that much of the drama was unfolding was that there was a pretty clear Mormon / non-Mormon divide on the issue in which most Latter-day Saints were either enthusiastic about the project — trusting the Church to do a good or even excellent job (I heard this many times from numerous members) — or at least indifferent, taking it as self-evident that the Church would redevelop its property how it sees fit and that the Church would have an interest in an updated, clean, and nice downtown area surrounding Temple Square. Many non-Mormons I knew or spoke with were not excited about the new malls (the new mall will be connected to a refurbished version of the old ZCMI mall across Main Street with a sky bridge), some were actively suspicious of the Church’s intentions with the redevelopment and some were very critical of the Church’s allocation of resources to city redevelopment (citing the approx. $ 1 billion price tag), arguing that the money should be spent on other poverty-related charitable causes.

Divisive Sky Bridge

The main sticking point in the issue seems to be the Church’s insistence on installing a sky bridge spanning Main Street that connects the new mall on the West side of the street to the old, refurbished ZCMI mall on the East side of Main Street. This has occupied the pages of Utah’s newspapers for many months now, with Salt Lake City mayor and vocal opponent of the Church Rocky Anderson vowing that he would do everything that he could to block the sky bridge, including refusing to sell the Church air rights if necessary. The Salt Lake City Council, on the other hand, has already approved these plans for the sky bridge.

An alternative plan, the one supported by Rocky Anderson, has been to eliminate the sky bridge from the plan. The hope behind this plan — which its supporters claim has evidentiary support from other Cities’ redevelopment projects — is to keep people out on the street (specifically Main Street) rather than allowing them to go between the two malls through the sky bridge, which will take people off of Main Street. A sky bridge, therefore, will dampen the life of the Main Street area and will keep people off Main Street, causing continued difficulty for the shops that line Main Street. One difficulty with this plan, however, is that Salt Lake City’s light rail system Trax already divides Main Street. If Trax could be diverted down State Street, one block to the East, then Main Street could become a true pedestrian zone, cut off from auto traffic as well as unencumbered by Trax running down the center, as found in numerous European cities. That would be wonderful indeed.

Another suggestion was to expose the City Creek that runs underneath downtown in the Main Street/State Street area and divert it to run down Main Street. Of course, this idea is rather outlandish and certainly defeats the pedestrian Main Street option, at least with regard to the viability of shops lining either side of Main Street.

Let’s Go Pedestrian

I echo Mr. Howard’s frustration with the current plan. Although I certainly share other Latter-day Saints’ trust that the Church will make sure that a good job is done on this project, my preference would be not to have a sky bridge. I am persuaded by the arguments that an open Main Street would be more vibrant and attractive to the whole face of downtown Salt Lake City. Also, I agree that although a redevelopment of its property in downtown Salt Lake City, whatever the price tag (the price is in a sense simply the cost of owning and maintaining that property as productively and beneficially as possible), is entirely within the rights of the Church, it would have been much more satisfying to see the money spent directly combatting poverty or, as I have observed one critic of the Church put it, setting up clinics all over Latin America or vaccinating children in Africa.

I look forward to the new downtown and will enjoy many future General Conferences there but I can’t help but feel the opportunity cost will be before my eyes. Luckily, I am confident in the Church’s constant and future efforts and expenditures in support of such humanitarian causes. Perhaps the redevelopment project will create revenues that can be spent on such causes that in the long run dwarf the effect that spending the redevelopment money on directly combatting poverty or its widespread effects would have had right now.