The architect of the LDS Church's multimillion-dollar downtown mall renovation said Tuesday planners are paying attention to the downtown streetscape and don't want to replicate a suburban mall in the heart of Utah's capital.

The comments by Ron Pastore, of Boston-based AEW Capital Management, were designed to alleviate concerns that the new project will be another enclosed mall segregating people from urban downtown rather than creating more vibrancy.

"Why would you want to put a big box over there," Pastore said, referring to the two blocks that currently house the box-like Crossroads Plaza and ZCMI Center malls. "We want to make sure this is as open as possible."

But some were still skeptical, including Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who called on the LDS Church and its private mall developers to be more open about their plans and shy away from anything that resembles an enclosed mall.

"An enclosed mall trying to segregate people by keeping them inside the malls on these massive blocks are not what we're seeing in urban areas," Anderson said, adding that "this is a very pivotal time in our city's history."

Anderson, Pastore and several downtown revitalization experts gathered Tuesday on the 23rd floor of the Wells Fargo Center for "The Vibrant Downtown" symposium, sponsored by the University of Utah, among others.

Much of the symposium focused on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' new project, a planned multimillion-dollar transformation of the malls into a mixed-use project that will include a new retail shopping center, some 900 units of housing and office space.

The symposium drew a large crowd of downtown movers and shakers, students, academics and public officials all keen on knowing what can be done to help Salt Lake City's core.

An urban feel

As part of the new mixed-use development that will replace Crossroads and the ZCMI Center, Pastore said walkways will cut through the new shopping centers to make it easier for people to traverse the big blocks.

However, these walkways, which Pastore likened to alleys, are not to be open-air thoroughfares. Instead, they would be roofed over, likely by large ceilings of glass, giving people views of the Wasatch Front mountainscape.

Besides adding the walkways, Pastore said the new mall will have stores that face out to the abutting streets. So, mall stores abutting Main Street, South Temple or West Temple will have doors and storefronts that face those streets.

Such a design will create a more vibrant, walkable and urban feel, bringing more people downtown, Pastore said.

While Anderson remained leery, others were heartened by Pastore's comments and left feeling less concerned that the project will resemble a suburban mall.

"We're all fairly encouraged by that talk. I am, anyway," said the University of Utah's dean of the College of Architecture, Brenda Case Scheer, who helped organize the symposium.

Pastore and the LDS Church's development team were also backed by several others who said property owners, who invest big dollars, should ultimately be able to develop what they want, as long as it conforms to city zoning rules. Calls for public scrutiny at this stage are unfair, they said.

"We want to get it right before we unveil it," said Bruce Bingham, whose Hamilton Partners is developing a new $100 million office building on Main near 200 South. "Quite frankly, it's my money. As a result of it being my money, I'm going to take the risk. We appreciate comments, but when it comes right down to it, I'm the guy who has to say this is right."

And in the end, the LDS Church should be able to build what it wants on its properties: While it may hear some input at public symposiums, decisions are ultimately up to property owners, Bingham said.

Public participation

Pastore and Mark Gibbons, who heads up PRI — the church's real estate development company — echoed Bingham's comments, saying they will unveil their designs once they have concrete plans. Those designs have changed for the better since the church made its last conceptual unveiling in 2003, Pastore said. Planners are currently consulting — in private — top engineers and retail designers to develop the best plan for the property, Pastore said.

Once more concrete designs are known, then it will be a better time for public critique, Pastore and Gibbons said.

But Anderson challenged the private nature of the planning process, maintaining downtown development is critical to many citizens, and it's in the public interest to make sure it is done right.

"The time is way past where this community should be involved in a very public process," Anderson said. "This community deserves to know at least where we're headed."

The mayor cited several city plans that call for downtown to be more pedestrian friendly and rely less on enclosed mall-like spaces.

The mayor once again criticized a potential sky bridge connecting the Crossroads and ZCMI blocks across Main Street. Pastore said there have been no decisions on whether such a sky bridge will be sought.

Anderson was buoyed by a story related by one of the symposium's downtown experts.

In 1996, the Taubman Co. — the same retail group that plans to own part of the church's new mixed-use project — was pressing for a new downtown mall in Norfolk, Va.

As public debate raged, Taubman pointed a newspaper reporter to Columbus, Ohio, where Taubman owned a fairly new downtown mall called City Centre. The impressed reporter wrote a story calling the mall "a jewel."

The article helped turn public sentiment in favor of Norfolk's downtown mall, said Alex Marshal, the former journalist who wrote the story on the Columbus mall and one of the symposium's participants.

A few years later, Taubman's jewel in Columbus headed downhill and the company sold it. By 2002, two of the mall's three anchor tenants had left, and today the mall is listed at www.deadmalls.com.

In Norfolk, where public officials approved Taubman's downtown mall in part based on the success of the Columbus mall, the MacArthur Center mall is similarly facing some struggles just six years after it opened, Marshal said.

Public settings are key to making downtowns work, Marshal added.

"A private shopping mall is not the same thing" as a public downtown setting, he said.

Creating vibrancy

Countering criticism of downtown malls, Pastore said the Columbus mall failed because city leaders worked to undermine it. While they initially supported the mall, Columbus leaders declined to introduce improvements to the neighborhoods surrounding the mall, which were blighted and crime ridden, Pastore said.

Also, local governments in Columbus gave subsidies to help build two suburban malls within 10 miles of the downtown City Centre mall.

Salt Lake City can learn from mistakes made in Columbus, Pastore said.

In Salt Lake City, he said, city leaders should be focused less on what is going to happen on the LDS Church's two blocks and more on how the city can work to spur development, enhance public safety and increase housing density in the area around those two blocks.

While much of Tuesday's symposium focused on the church's mall redevelopment plan, experts also focused on creating vibrant downtowns in general.

To a person, the experts — Pastore, Marshal, Daniel Rosenfeld of Urban Partners, LLC, and Pamela Hamilton, senior vice president of San Diego's Centre City Development Corp. — said downtown housing was the key.

People create vibrancy, they said. No matter how well designed and planned a downtown is, if there are no people it will fail. Many noted they were encouraged that the church's redevelopment plan calls for 900 housing units.

The experts, to a person, also labeled surface-level parking lots as vibrancy killers — and noted Salt Lake City seems to have an abundance of such parking lots. Hamilton said some cities have actually banned surface-level parking lots, and in San Diego the city mandated that all development in the city's core include housing — zoning rules that helped revitalize downtown San Diego.


E-mail: bsnyder@desnews.com