Wandering the West
March 20, 2012
Mix two billion dollars with water and you get City Creek, the newest effort to make downtown Salt Lake City a compelling place to visit and spend money.
When Brigham Young laid out his "Plat of Zion," his vision of how Salt Lake would be developed out of sagebrush desert, he planned huge 10-acre blocks. He made the streets wide enough so you could turn around a freight wagon, and he diverted City Creek into the farm fields that would surround what is now downtown. That visionary plan meant that later on there would be room on Main Street for both cars and the light-rail system and you could pack a lot of development into one city block without having to cross the street.
Tomorrow, the City Creek shopping, housing and office center opens with what will be great fanfare. It covers the two square blocks closest to Temple Square, just across the street from the temple and the next block east, which houses church office buildings, Brother Brigham’s original house and the like. It’s amazing what you can do with a pile of cash and a new vision for Brigham’s plat.
The new outdoor mall brings a manufactured City Creek to a new manufactured creek bed that will wind through the two square blocks, tumbling over manufactured waterfalls. It will be nice to hear flowing water again. While the mall is outdoors, retractable roofs can pull over the streets at the hint of rain or snow. It’s all pretty cool.
And then there’s the shopping 90 upscale stores, including a new Macy’s, the return of a flagship Nordstrom store, and luxury brands never in Utah before, like Tiffany, Coach and Godiva. With the Mormon Church owning the ground, you won’t find any bars or nightclubs here you’ll have to go farther down the street but a couple of new restaurants will have liquor licenses. In a major concession to the landlord, the stores will not be open on Sundays.
I’m beginning to feel rather old because I remember when downtown died the first time, in the ’70s, when Utahns flocked to new suburban malls closer to their new homes in places like Sandy and South Jordan. The solution then was to flatten these same two ten-acre blocks and build downtown shopping malls. First, the ZCMI Center rose from the dust of historic buildings sacrificed to progress. Then, across the street, Crossroads Mall tried to outdo ZCMI, flattening more of old downtown in the process. As a meager concession, both downtown malls saved some façades of torn-down buildings and glued them on to new ugly white brick exteriors. It was pretty lame.
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Initially, shoppers came. They could park under the hollowed-out streets in new buried garages, and life was good again. But suburban malls grew and upgraded to keep pace, and before long the malls fell on hard times, and storefront after storefront stood vacant.
Then city fathers got another great downtown revitalization idea. They took the old train yard four blocks west, got some federal environmental cleanup money, and while the original downtown struggled, the city enticed developers to come to the Gateway and build another new downtown mall.
The new mall finished off the old malls that had been new a dozen years earlier, and eventually the Mormon Church came up with its current vision to tear down the new "old" ZCMI and Crossroads malls and start up again with another new vision. Five years later, City Creek, the only shopping mall in the country to open in 2012, is ready to show itself off.
The newest new mall has attracted some of the tenants from the old new mall at The Gateway. Let’s hope it’s not a trend or the wrecking balls will be moving west. It has been an amazing span of 30 years. Old downtown gets torn down. New downtown rises. Another new downtown rises four blocks west. New old downtown gets torn down again. Now the new, new downtown rises. My head is spinning.
I must say it has been good for those in the businesses of building demolition and construction. At the recent pace of "downtown revitalizations" you’ve got about 15 years to visit City Creek and/or The Gateway before its time to revitalize them again.
Insider tip: Try the new Harmon’s grocery store at City Creek at the corner of State and First South. It has its own free parking garage, a fabulous deli for lunch, and take-home prepared dinners, plus coffee, gelato and sushi bars. You can even take cooking classes there, and it’s open on Sundays.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.