Despite recession, downtown Salt Lake is rising

Published: Saturday, July 25 2009 12:24 a.m. MDT

At the lead of downtown construction is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' $2 billion City Creek Center, a mix of retail and residential development.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

The yellow and red banners hanging on streetlights and buildings make the claim, but the proof is in the construction crews and cranes, the coming soons and the grand openings.

Downtown is rising.

"It feels different; it feels alive," said Jason Mathis, executive director of the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance. "Something special is happening in Salt Lake that isn't happening in other metropolitan areas."

While a slumping economy has halted projects from New York to Portland, Salt Lake City's downtown is experiencing its biggest boom in decades, officials said.

At the lead is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' $2 billion City Creek Center, a mix of retail and residential development. But downtown's rising is more than just that, Mathis said.

"Clearly (City Creek) is a big part of that, but there is enormous momentum from that helping to fuel other development," he said.

In recent months, roughly two dozen new businesses have opened shop in the central business district. Among them is Del Vance's Beerhive Pub on Main.

Vance, a New York native, remembers an eerie quiet downtown when he first moved to Salt Lake City.

"You could hear the crickets chirping," he said.

But as he opened the doors to his pub this week, Vance said he believes Main Street is finally coming back to life.

"I've always loved downtown, but Main Street has been sort of a roll of the dice the last 20 years," Vance said. "With the (LDS Church) pumping $2 billion into City Creek, I thought it might finally be the time to roll."

Mathis also points to the 22-story office building going up at 222 S. Main, the $7 million renovation planned for the Gallivan Center and an airport TRAX line as signs of progress in the downtown area.

Salt Lake leaders, meanwhile, are working on opening a Broadway-style theater in the old Newspaper Agency building on Main Street.

And this month, the city's Redevelopment Agency agreed to purchase the Utah Theater, which could be the future home of a Salt Lake film center.

"I've never seen downtown this busy and with this much development going on," said Rick Howa, who owned the theater for more than a decade. "When I was on the Planning Commission in the mid-'80s and early '90s, we always hoped we would see that kind of development."

That's good news for restaurateurs like John Speros, owner of Lamb's Grill. Speros' shop has been on Main Street since the 1930s. And while he said he doesn't know if Salt Lake's downtown can return to the heyday of the 1950s, Speros said he believes in its future.

"We're right in the middle of all that," he said. "Within two or three years, people will be clamoring to get space on Main Street. It will be a hub of activity. It will be the place to be."

Speros hopes more restaurants will open downtown. He doesn't see it as competition, but rather options that will keep diners returning to the area.

A number of the downtown projects — the TRAX line, the theater and City Creek — are scheduled to be completed by 2012. In all, Mathis expects to see about $3 billion pumped into downtown over the next five years.

The Downtown Alliance, meanwhile, will keep pushing its vision for downtown beyond 2012. Mathis hopes to strengthen the identity of a number of small downtown districts while making plans for a convention center hotel, a year-round public market near Pioneer Park and a global exchange place that features a World Trade Center Utah.

"There's a sense that this isn't just a promise for the future, but a promise that's being fulfilled now," Mathis said.

e-mail: afalk@desnews.com

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