LDS plan downtown remains an enigma

Not wanting to be viewed as controlling downtown Salt Lake City, a top LDS Church official said church leaders want to limit their ownership to land surrounding the Salt Lake Temple. Indeed, they have had “almost a firm line” against buying up property south of 100 South.

Turns out, “almost” is big enough to fit a building.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said this week it bought the Old Navy building, south of 100 South on Main Street. It is on its way to buying all of the Triad Center at South Temple and 300 West.

And — as it usually goes in the city that houses the church’s world headquarters but where a slight majority of residents are not LDS — the church’s activities are heightening the religious divide.

“It’s a curiosity of, ‘Oh, they’re buying more property, and what is it for?’ ” says City Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love. “It would just be helpful to know. There’s a concern by non-Mormons that downtown remain interesting and vibrant” and reflect more than the church.

As the landowner with the most downtown property, the church will largely guide how it is revitalized. The church might not allow alcohol to be sold on its property. If it adds church houses or parks, those uses would affect, for example, the ability of other landowners to obtain alcohol licenses.

Some residents want the City Council, most of whom are practicing Mormons, and Mayor Rocky Anderson to demand more information, more accountability.

Love — who says residents shouldn’t worry because she believes the church wants to develop projects for the masses, not just Mormons — nevertheless intends to again ask church officials to meet with the council in public and share their plans. If not specific details, at least an overview.

That was supposed to happen in April. Instead, the church met privately with Love and another council member.

The church announced in October it would overhaul its Crossroads and ZCMI Center malls with new high-fashion tenants and add housing to the blocks. It also plans to transform a parking lot on South Temple into an education campus for Brigham Young University Salt Lake Center and LDS Business College. While it was clear the redevelopment would take years, LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton told The Salt Lake Tribune in January he wanted to be able to announce “something concrete” by May.

The city is still waiting.

In discussing downtown’s makeover, Burton also said that, “we just don’t want to own anything south of First South” and that the church tries to confine its land purchases to properties surrounding its headquarters. “That has been our interest not only today but it was our interest five years ago, it was our interest 10 years ago and our interest 50 years ago. It’ll be our interest 50 years, 100 years from now.”

This week, the church declined to comment specifically on whether it has abandoned that policy. In a written statement, a spokesman said: “The church’s emphasis remains the same. The Old Navy building will provide space for tenants displaced by the mall redevelopment.”

Meantime, some details have leaked out. The church is closing The Inn at Temple Square, which sits on the Crossroads block, presumably to turn the hotel into housing units. Leases for some mall tenants have not been renewed, while new tenants are unknown. If bought by the church, the Triad Center block would be a part of the redevelopment, but its function is unclear.

“Because of who they are, they need to be extra sensitive and maybe bend over backwards to try to be public when they can with their plans so the community isn’t feeling left behind in the process,” Love says.

But when the council had leverage to demand details from the church, it didn’t. To clear the way for the church to buy the Triad Center, the council agreed this week to allow the church to take over the lease for the state-owned Devereaux House, which sits on the Triad block. Love and Councilman Dale Lambert both expressed concern that they didn’t know the church’s plans. But the council unanimously agreed to the lease.

Councilman Van Turner said he wasn’t worried because it was the church seeking the lease.

Attorney Stephen Clark can’t help but be reminded of another downtown purchase by the LDS Church: Main Street between South Temple and North Temple. In 1999, church and city leaders told the public not to worry, the church would turn the street into a public park. In reality, the Main Street Plaza is a seamless part of the church’s religious campus.

Many agree that there might have been less controversy — and public uproar — if the church and city had been more upfront about plans for the plaza.

Clark, who was the staff attorney for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union when it first sued the city over the plaza’s church-imposed speech restrictions, wonders if the church’s latest development plans mirror its goals for the plaza.

After hiring a national retail consultant and engaging a national mall developer, Burton said the redevelopment is a public endeavor, not an ecclesiastical one. But will that be the case once the malls and education campuses are complete?

“It would be nice if the city administration would take a more active and critical approach to what now appears to be a fairly aggressive expansion scheme and find out what the plan is so that people know whether downtown is going to continue to be open and accessible to everybody or whether it’s going to become yet another private religious enclave,” Clark says.

“If downtown Salt Lake City is to become one big religious shrine, then so be it. It ought to happen with the knowledge and the awareness and the choice, to the extent that’s possible, of all the people that would be affected.”

Church spokesman Michael Purdy ended rumors that it was buying the Zions Bank property at 100 South and Main Street.

Other property on Main Street soon will be on the market. The Newspaper Agency Corp. (NAC), which produces, distributes and sells advertising for The Tribune and the church-owned Deseret Morning News, is moving from its plant south of 100 South to West Valley City next year. In addition, the Tribune Building, 143 S. Main, also will be for sale since the newspaper is moving to a yet-to-be determined building downtown.

While there are rumors the church wants to buy the Tribune Building, Dean Singleton, Tribune publisher and CEO of MediaNews Group Inc. of Denver, says he has had one inquiry: from Michael Kearns.

“We are interested in that building,” says Kearns, a magazine publisher. “I always think of what Denver did with their downtown. We have a real opportunity to do that here.”

Still, rumors of the church eyeing more property are rampant. “They typically buy things right next to property they already own,” says Bill Martin of commercial brokerage Colliers Commerce CRG.

“It looks as if the church is working on a grand plan but they just haven’t announced it yet,” says Bruce Bingham of Hamilton Partners, which plans to build an office tower on Main near 200 South.

He is pleased with the church’s expanding scope.

“It’s a good thing. They are responsible landlords. They maintain their buildings. And they would come up with uses [for their properties] that ultimately would be appropriate for this community.”

Burton said earlier this year that the church has a duty to protect the land surrounding the temple.

It owns most of the property between 200 East and 300 West and from 200 North to 100 South. Burton wants the blocks vibrant, safe and in line with church doctrine, he said.

He acknowledged there are exceptions. The church has owned some property south of 100 South for decades.

But as the church develops its existing holdings and buys even more, “that protective-bubble justification expands along with it,” Clark says, “to the point people intending to enjoy a vibrant downtown all of a sudden confront instead a . . . line of religious police who enforce one particular code of conduct.”

The church is trying to scrub clean Arrow Press Square on the corner of 100 South and West Temple by fighting in court to eliminate a tenant’s sexually oriented business license. City officials don’t want the Crazy Goat Saloon to feature semi-nude strippers, either.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Salt Lake Tribune, UK
June 12, 2004
Heather May and Lesley Mitchell

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday June 12, 2004.
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