LDS General Conference visitors who don't otherwise frequent downtown Salt Lake City will see a dramatic change in the cityscape north of Temple Square this weekend.

A flock of construction cranes surrounds concrete structures that are rising out of the hole created by the excavation of a half million cubic yards of dirt and rock. The new church assembly hall taking shape will have a 21,000-seat auditorium large enough that the historic tabernacle across the street could fit comfortably inside it.But despite the project's size, the church is determined the new assembly hall will not overpower the Salt Lake Temple across the street. The temple, said project manager Thomas Hanson, is to remain the crown jewel of the church's downtown campus.

That is one reason the auditorium is being pushed into the ground and will have trees and a meadow on its roof instead of standing tall with an imposing street profile like the comparably sized Delta Center several blocks away.

The building doesn't yet have a name; and the builders don't yet know exactly what the interior will look like. August will arrive before final interior drawings in the design-build project will be complete, Hanson said.

The leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants a quality project without the building having a lavish appearance, he said. The church wants worshipers and other visitors to the assembly hall to feel at home but has yet to decide just how reminiscent the inside will be to the pioneer-era Tabernacle it will replace as a church General Conference venue.

Several proposals for the pipe organ, for example, play on the design theme of the Tabernacle's trademark organ - much like the church's Washington, D.C., Temple plays on the theme of the Salt Lake Temple. Columns in the Tabernacle were hand-painted by pioneers to look like oak; real wood veneers will decorate the new assembly hall's interior, though the type hasn't been chosen.

"We're shopping for the best materials at the best price," Hanson said.

City Creek, long piped underground, will resurface along the block as one of several water features on the assembly hall's south side. The height of steps along the creek are being designed to enhance the sound of the water as it falls along the 25-foot slope between the block's east and west ends.

The church plans to remove granite for the building's exterior from the same quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon that rock for the Salt Lake Temple was taken from a century ago. Announcement of that plan came as a surprise to rock climbers and residents near the quarry site, some of whom opposed the idea when the church sought permission from Salt Lake County to remove granite boulders. The county granted the permit March 24 but the decision is now under appeal.

Hanson said he doesn't expect any other design components will attract the attention or controversy the rock quarrying plan has seen.

The main hall in the assembly building will seat 21,000 people. A separate theater will seat 900 and will have a pageant-sized 150-foot-wide by 100-foot-deep stage.

Plans for the theater were a welcome announcement from the church, which closed its historic Promised Valley Playhouse several blocks away in January 1997 because the aging structure is unsafe.

Plans for the new meeting hall were announced in April 1996 by church President Gordon B. Hinckley. Ground was broken last July 24 and Hanson hopes to have the building enclosed before winter. Completion is scheduled in 2000.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Conference schedule

Saturday

Morning session 10 a.m.

Afternoon session 2 p.m.

Priesthood session 6 p.m.

Sunday

Morning session 10 a.m.

Afternoon session 2 p.m.

Daylight-saving time begins at 2 a.m. Sunday. Move clocks ahead one hour.

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Free parking sites listed for LDS conference

The LDS Church has made arrangements for free parking at several downtown lots for people attending Saturday and Sunday sessions of the church's 163rd annual General Conference on Temple Square.

Beginning at 7 a.m. both days, free parking will be available at 128 N. Main, 61 E. North Temple, 30 N. 200 West, 37 N. 200 West, 48 N. 200 West, 85 N. 200 West, 68 N. 300 West and 240 W. South Temple. On Sunday only, free parking will be available in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building parking plaza, 29 E. South Temple.

Church officials hope the arrangements will reduce on-street parking in front of homes in downtown residential areas.