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Keith Johnson, Deseret News
City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake is seen from atop the Key Bank Building.

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Mormon Church recently purchased 13 acres near 400 South and Main Street in Salt Lake City, some wondered if the church was "expanding" its traditional buffer around Temple Square.

Church leaders, however, didn't see it that way.

"Someday, the south end of Salt Lake City is going to be an important part of the economic development of this city. We want it preserved so somebody can come in and really maximize what can be done to bless the city, Main Street and its environs," Bishop H. David Burton told the Deseret News last week. "The church stepped in to make sure it was available when it was time economically for something to happen in that part of the city."

In a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News, Bishop Burton, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discussed the church's philosophy about real estate.

In many ways, that purchase is representative of the ways in which the LDS Church, one of the city's largest property owners, and the city have worked hand in hand for more than a century to transform what some dismissed as an arid wasteland into one of the most vibrant cities in the West.

"It is in our DNA," says Bishop Burton. For Bishop Burton, every project the city has taken on in Salt Lake has been part of Brigham Young's vision to "make the desert bloom."

"We are committed to do our part to make this a safe, beautiful and enjoyable community where people can enjoy one another, can enjoy the blessings of living in the tops of the mountains and can have safety and education for their families," Burton said. "That's what we're about, in part — to help with community enhancement."

He says that legacy stretches from 1869, when the church helped build the railroads, to today's City Creek project, which city leaders acknowledge never would have come about without the church's involvement. The Salt Palace, Abravanel Hall, and the proposed Broadway Theater would not be completed without the church's help, Bishop Burton says.

Reflecting on City Creek, Bishop Burton said that if he'd known seven or eight years ago that "we'd be facing the second-worst recessionary period in our history, I may have not suggested we proceed this quickly with the City Creek project. But knowing there would be on any given day upwards of 1,700 jobs in the community — and that could bless the lives of a lot of families," the church decided to move forward.

"And when you get the secondary impact of those 1,700 prime jobs and the multiplier effect, it is a substantial contribution to this state and this community and its tax base, Bishop Burton said. "Any parcel of property the church owns that is not used directly for ecclesiastical worship is fully taxed at its market value."

Deedee Corradini, who was mayor of Salt Lake from 1992 to 2000, agrees. She said she considered the church her partner on many projects that enhanced the community during her tenure. An ugly parking lot became the Brigham Apartments, which helped address a need for more housing downtown. And when federal dollars dried up for light rail, she says, the church stepped forward.

"I had a wonderful relationship with the LDS Church while I was mayor because our goals were same: We wanted to have a fabulous world-class city," she said. "The city would not begin to be what it is without the LDS Church. All you have to do is look at the money they're putting into City Creek. Those projects wouldn't happen. Once it's done it will make the city that much more fabulous."

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said the goals of the county and the LDS Church, in the realm of land management and development issues, have been closely aligned and functioned as a positive partnership.

"We've always had a strong relationship with the LDS Church, whether it is a property or business issue we've been involved with," Corroon said.

That relationship has included a variety of land swaps and purchase deals over the years, with a recent one adding over 1,000 acres of county open space near Bluffdale and establishing a site for a future regional park in the area.

But not all the mayors in the region see the church as a partner. Former Mayor Rocky Anderson, who had an often contentious relationship with church leadership, says the church is more interested in creating a "controlled, sterile" environment than it is a vibrant, diverse downtown.

"They seem always to get their way even when in the long term it's not going to be a good thing and runs counter to well-established urban planning principles," he says.

He points to the City Creek development as an example. He says there's not an urban planner in the country who would put a suburban mall in the core of a city's downtown, especially a mall that has a walkway between its stores and its residential tower.

But Natalie Gochnour, the executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber, points out that the development will include 524 residential units and is already pumping life into downtown. Over the last two years, more than a dozen new restaurants have opened within a two-block radius of the development.

Gochnour concedes that initially the development was a "closed monolithic structure," but she said that changed. In response to public input, historic buildings, like the First Security Building, are being restored and side streets that are now dark alleys, like Regent Street, will become pedestrian walkways. All told, the 24-acre development will include eight acres of open space.

"If the LDS Church was not so sensitive and responsive to community concerns, that could be a problem," says Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "But in my experience, at the Legislature and on the Planning Commission, the LDS Church has bent over backward to try and be responsive to community goals — and to a community vision that isn't necessarily the same as what their vision is."

This summer or fall, the city is expected to begin discussions on a master plan for the Northwest Quadrant, where the church owns nearly 5,000 acres, much of which was once a welfare farm. Working with city officials and environmentalists, the church plans to clean up the two landfills in the area (at a cost to the church of $180 million) and hopes to help restore the natural flow of the Jordan River, and in so doing, re-create a wetlands and bird refuge known as Bailey's Lake. And once the property is ready, the church will step out of the way and let someone else develop it, as it has done with other projects.

In some ways, the church will come full circle when it comes to the Northwest Quadrant. For now, the area seems practically uninhabitable, or at least not the sort of place where anyone would choose to live. Salt Lake was once viewed the same way.

"This has been the objective of the church for all of these years, to make certain that this desert blossom, this desert thrive and that it is a beautiful, safe and lovely place," Bishop Burton said. "... It started in Kirtland, it continued in Nauvoo. Think about what took place in St. George, in Manti, in Logan and finally Salt Lake — and then it goes on from there. But community development has always been part of the DNA of the church [and] it continues today."