Although they are unlikely to ever take a public bow, those involved in the initial vision and development of Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center, especially its downtown shopping center, deserve a round of applause.
Five years after its completion, the urbane, mixed-use and environmentally minded mall is now something of a how-to guide for revitalizing a decaying downtown.
According to a roundtable of experts assembled by CBC Advisors on Tuesday, the impact has not only been economic and architectural but also something more — indeed, for anyone who visits the area and its environs, it doesn’t take long to see that the space has become a community convener, attracting people from across cultures and cliques.
Economically speaking, the mall makes its own case. It consistently generates hundreds of millions in taxable sales, serves as a draw for tourists and, with its location across from the Salt Palace Convention Center, it’s also a major attraction for out-of-state convention planners. It provides local jobs and sparks economic multipliers throughout the state.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper, funded the project amidst the nadir of the Great Recession. While most cities were shuttering storefronts, the infusion of investment for what amounted to the largest private development project in the country kept cranes and construction adorning Salt Lake City’s skyline until its completion in 2012.
Yet equally important, behind all the dollars and cents is the impact on people — residents of downtown now mix with out-of-state visitors and university students; suburbanites come and mingle with urbanites and vice versa. The richly designed space catalyzes a kind of downtown life that cuts across communities, breaking down barriers and engendering a collective cache of social empathy.
The chairman of city and metro planning at the University of Utah, Reid Ewing, conducted a study on pedestrian traffic in Salt Lake City. The results are striking; foot traffic is higher in the blocks surrounding City Creek Center than anywhere else. The traffic also creates spill-over beyond the mall’s spaces.
After nearly 100 hours of foot traffic counting, Ewing observed a strong correlation between pedestrians and atmospheric richness, architectural complexity and factors such as street windows, inviting entrances and so-called outdoor enclosures with furniture and trees.
Unsurprisingly, these features make City Creek a space to which people are drawn to mingle and shop; although, in the modern retail world, the latter seems to be increasingly an afterthought. It’s the ambiance and experience that people care about.
An early gadfly of the project and local restaurant owner, Daniel Darger, observed quite presciently in a PBS-produced profile of the project, “There’s no question in my mind that it’s going to fundamentally change the nature and the whole culture of that part of downtown.”
Darger’s comment appeared to express apprehension that the LDS Church would “gain control of the atmosphere of the whole downtown” and impact it negatively.
While the project has by no means satisfied everyone, a few wish it attracted less traffic or provided affordable housing, five years later, the result has not only been an economic resuscitation of the downtown, but also the creation of a new community space that brings people from disparate backgrounds into greater contact, reaffirming the city as a place that people from all walks of life can share.