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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Bill Williams, right, CCRI director of engineering and architecture, addresses Salt Lake Planning Commission. At his side are Alan Sullivan, left, CCRI legal counsel; and Mark Gibbons, CCRI president.

The future of downtown can begin taking shape — at least underground.

The Salt Lake City Planning Commission granted preliminary approval Wednesday night for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to begin subsurface work on one downtown block of its 25-acre, mixed-use development, City Creek Center.

The unanimous vote of the Planning Commission sets in place the location of three residential towers on the downtown block bordered by Main Street, 100 South, West Temple and South Temple, the former site of the former Crossroads Plaza mall. Developers also received approval for the planned residential tower at approximately 50 E. 100 South, on the north side of the street, to exceed the 100-foot height limit for midblock buildings. The tower will be 265 feet tall.

It was a partial victory for City Creek Reserve Inc., a development arm of the LDS Church. The developers had sought planned-development approval for the overall site plan — including a skybridge across Main Street to connect the second levels of the outdoor shopping mall, as well as the conveyance of air rights above Main Street.

It was determined prior to Wednesday's meeting that those elements of the project will be tackled at the Planning Commission's next meeting, on Jan. 23.

The skybridge remains a sticking point for some members of the commission, who either aren't convinced of its necessity to the project or don't like CCRI's plans for an enclosed bridge.

Alan Sullivan, legal counsel for CCRI, reminded commission members that the Salt Lake City Council already has approved an amendment to the city's master plan to accommodate the skybridge. The Planning Commission's decision on the skybridge should be determined by whether the plans meet the requirements set by the City Council, he said.

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners were treated to a virtual walking tour of City Creek Center, as envisioned by CCRI, through a five-minute video using graphic artists' renderings of the project.

The tour offered the first peek at a proposed retractable roof over a portion of the open-air mall, expected to be utilized during extreme weather. The elongated dome over one portion of the project's galleria space divides at its center and retracts out of view.

Bill Williams, CCRI's director of architecture and engineering, said the retractable roof is being designed by the engineers behind the mechanized roof at Safeco Field in Seattle, home of Major League Baseball's Mariners.

CCRI officials have said the roof will add a "huge cost" to the project, which is now estimated at $1.5 billion. Dale Bills, spokesman for CCRI, declined to reveal the exact cost of the retractable roof or the estimated price tag for the entire project, saying the LDS Church and its affiliated organizations do not disclose financial information.

City Creek Center is a private venture of the LDS Church, meaning no taxpayer money is being used. Tithing dollars from LDS Church members also will not be used, officials have said. The project is being developed with funding from other real-estate projects of the LDS Church.

Other virtual tour highlights included a look at the new City Creek flowing throughout the project, showcasing waterfalls, fountains, ponds with live fish and an interactive fountain in which children can play.

The indoor portion of the project's spacious food court shown in the video featured a massive skylight and a glass wall that allows patrons to observe the project's largest waterfall.

"It will feel more like an elegant restaurant than a food court," said Ron Loch, vice president of design for project partner Taubman Co. "That's our goal."

An enclosed children's play area also is planned for a separate area of the food court. An outdoor area of the food court will seat roughly 120 people, Loch said.

City Creek Center will include about 675 residential units, 1.4 million square feet of office space, 850,000 square feet of retail space and about 5,000 underground parking stalls. It is scheduled to be completed in mid-2011.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com