The Mormon public square

When the late Richard John Neuhaus argued for greater participation in civic life by people of faith in his classic 1984 book, his title was metaphorical. The Naked Public Square warned about the crisis of faith confronting a democracy that legislates religious faith to the periphery of cultural life.

But Kirk Johnson of The New York Times’ Denver bureau writes about a literal public square that some say may be too wrapped up with religion in his recent piece, “Project Renews Downtown, and Debate.”

The public square in question is a 20-acre, $1 billion development project called City Creek Center that is being funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is located near the church’s temple and the adjacent Temple Square.

This story operates on multiple levels — religious, financial and civic. Johnson gives each its due, quoting church officials and members as well as local business and academic experts.

Some residents say the church, by opening its checkbook in a recession, rescued the city when times got tough. The 1,800 construction jobs at City Creek alone have provided a big local economic cushion. Completion of the project–20 acres of retail shops and residential towers–is scheduled for 2012.

“City Creek has been a literal and figurative godsend,” said Bradley D. Baird, the business development manager at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, a private nonprofit group that has no direct involvement with the project.

Other people say that if the new heart of downtown has a strong church flavor, Salt Lake, which has become more diverse in recent years–could veer back toward its roots, for better or worse. About half of city residents are Mormon, according to many estimates, and if many, or most, of the roughly 700 apartment units at City Creek were occupied by Mormon families, the city could have a dramatic new feel.

“Our downtown has become a ghost town in my life–nobody lives there,” said Dan Egan, 55, a lawyer and church member who works near the site but lives in the suburbs. “Having several thousand people live down here will have a big impact, and having many of them L.D.S. would be a very interesting thing to see.”

Church leaders say they are pursuing no religious agenda with the development, and say they will negotiate special contracts with restaurants that allow the sale of alcohol, which church members are taught to avoid.

Though parts of this story are unique to Salt Lake City and its Mormon establishment, issues raised by the City Creek Center development project are of interest to religious institutions and civic leaders in other cities who are seeking viable urban renewal partnerships at a time when public deficits create the need for creative responses to recurring urban problems such as crime and the loss of jobs and residents to the suburbs.

Although lots of urban churches worry about those issues, the ones that can write a $1 billion check are rare.

“It’s certainly one of the largest, if not the largest project in the United States funded by a single entity, and the fact that the entity is a church makes it doubly unusual,” said Patrick L. Anderson, the chief executive and founder of the Anderson Economic Group, a Michigan-based real-estate consulting company.

Perhaps Johnson’s piece on City Creek Center shows how religious, business and government groups can cooperate in public squares that are both literal and metaphorical.

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  • Jettboy

    They mentioned the 1930s, but the history of urban development for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints goes back almost to its roots. The headquarters of the LDS Church for Joseph Smith was a store. City development started with Kirtland, OH, continued with Nauvoo, IL, and then Salt Lake City, UT. There is a modern flavor to it, but this isn’t actually that unusual.

  • HiveRadical

    “And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the amammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”

    –Luke 16:9

    I’ve never seen someone address this statement by Christ. People always remember that you can’t serve God and mammon, the whole two masters thing, but I’ve never seen someone consider what was meant by Christ when he told us to make friends with commerce.

    This is even more pronounced in Mormonism because we have a double dose with the same admonition appearing in one of our books of scripture “The Doctrine & Covenants.”

  • Linda

    I know that Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake is never going anywhere and is considered a sort of Mecca for Mormons everywhere, as well as a great historical site.
    I have heard that Salt Lake City downtown, like many other large city down towns, is starting to get shabby and unused and is subject to blight and a certain unfavorable element of humanity. If this should happen, many Mormons would be hesitant to come to downtown SLC.
    Therefore, it is in the best interests of the LDS church to try to head off this possible future. And it doesn’t look like anyone else IS interested. I would think that, if they have the means, and the reasons, and no one else seems to care what happens to the area, then why should the church NOT try to improve the area? The church has, out of necessity, run many businesses in it’s history. And successfully. There are a great many successful business men and women who are members of the LDS church, and would be able to make a success of this venture. As with all the other businesses run by the church, it’s not out of a need for profit, but a need to provide for it’s members.
    I just don’t see a problem. I don’t foresee that anyone is having a particular religion shoved down their throats.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    According to Latter-day Saint scripture, Enoch, the seventh patriarch from Adam, was the archetypal urban planner-prophet. He preached the gospel of Christ thousands of years BCE and gathered his converts into a city. A war ensued, which I call “World War Zero,” when the entire world gathered together against Enoch’s people. The Lord fought their battles as Enoch commanded all of nature in defense of the the Former-day Saints.

    “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 7:10-21) Zion was eventually taken to heaven, and in subsequent times many Saints were “translated” to the heavenly city; a dramatic example is Elijah. (2 Kings 2:11)

    By revelation, Joseph Smith designated Independence, Missouri as the “center place” of the Latter-day Zion (Doctrine & Covenants 57:3), but because the Latter-day Saints failed to develop the level of faith, hope, and charity achieved by Enoch’s Saints (D&C 101:1-9) mobs succeed in driving them from their early “stakes of Zion” in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

    Today we no longer gather to the “central place” but gather in 2,818 stakes comprising ten times as many wards and branches around the world. The designation “stake” comes from Isaiah: “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.” (Isaiah 54:2 , 3 Nephi 22:2) We even have a stake in Haiti, where since the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, local lay priesthood leaders have served magnificently in coordinating relief efforts for their congregations and neighborhoods.

    Significantly, the local congregations that make up a stake are given the urban designation “ward.” On p. 104 of his book “People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture,” (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), Terryl Williams notes that the current LDS practice of designating membership in a ward by “strict geographic boundaries” is traceable to the early practice of literal gathering: “In the logic of Zion building, Saints must build heaven where they find themselves gathered . . . .” Thus if City Creek Center becomes a residential magnet for Latter-day Saints, they will find, as always, that they belong to the same ward as their closest neighbors.

    If and when the Latter-day Saints develop the character of a “Zion people,” we anticipate a great polarization of the righteous from the wicked. “And it shall come to pass among the wicked, that every man that will not take his sword against his neighbor must needs flee unto Zion for safety.” (D&C 45:68) In the winding up scene, the Lord will fight our battles, and the City of Enoch will return from heaven to be united with the City of Zion on earth. (Moses 7:58-64)

    Salt Lake City is only a temporary “center place” of Zion, but City Creek Center certainly reflects the Mormon ethos of building family-friendly urban spaces.

    For an interesting initiative by one Mormon entrepreneur who seeks to implement Joseph Smith’s 1833 “Plat of the City of Zion” as a “large scale urban concept for sustainability and massive scalability,” see New Vista Village. (Disclosure: The developer, David R. Hall, is my brother.)

    Tracy Hall Jr

  • Jen G.

    The article mentioned, but didn’t really delve into, the thing which really underlies any discussion of the LDS Church and property development in central SLC – the possible impact on civil liberties when one organization is the major property owner downtown. SLC is interesting as it is the one place in the U.S. where the downtown is increasingly controlled by one business interest and that business interest is a religious group. In this instance, it looks like the lines are being clearly drawn between existing church property and everything else – but I would have liked to have seen the issue dealt with more thoroughly in the article.

    I would like to see some investigative journalism along the lines as to whether ‘Victoria’s Secret’ would be open right next to ‘Deseret Books’. What concessions did Taubman make to the LDS church and how does that impact potential retailers?

    For me, the real story isn’t the interaction of religion and commerce, but how much ownership or monopoly of a downtown center any non-publicly owned organization should have – particularly if it has a religious, philosophical, or ideological basis.

  • jculv

    Steve, you perhaps already know that there’s a church in Colorado Springs doing something somewhat similar, though not nearly to the tune of $1 billion. The same questions have arisen: is the church trying to produce a “Christian city”?

    Their website is here:

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Jen G: The public sidewalks around Temple Square, the Church Office building square, and the LDS Conference Center are ALL “public forums” where protestors regularly assemble with signs and loudspeakers to berate Mormons, especially when they gather for their worldwide Conference very April and October. The Mormons just put up with it, even though it is obnoxious and intrusive (and sort of stupid). The same will be true of the public sidewalks around the City Creek development areas.

    The Church does exclude protestors from its private property, but that is the same thing every private property owner does. When I worked in San Francisco’s financial district, I noted that there were brass plaques placed in the paving that clearly declared that the property between the signs was private property and not a public forum like the adjacent public sidewalk.

    A few years ago the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake held a meeting to discuss a lawsuit to try to force the Mormon Church to allow protestors on its (Mormon) private property. The Unitarians kicked out the press and closed the doors of their own church when they did it, though. There were no Mormon protestors at the Unitarian Church, and for that matter I can’t recall the Mormons ever picketing or protesting any other denomination. I guess tolerance for other religions is another thing that distinguishes Mormons from many “Christians”.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Civil Liberties will not be threatened by the Church ownning the mall. The Church actually has owned both major malls in downtown Salt Lake City since about 2004 and one of them it built, so the new mall development is not a real change.
    I have yet to even see anyone argue that any actual civil liberty has been changed by the Church buying crossroads. Having stores open on sunday is NOT a civil liberty, buying alchohol is NOT a civil liberty.
    There are many counties in Texas, Kentucky and other states that ban the sale of alchohol. Legally, any state could ban the sale of alchohol in the entire state if it wanted, and also ban any importantion of alchohol from other states. Alchohol is the one form of inter-state commece that the constitution allows states to regulate (specifically in the admendment that repealed prohibition).
    Yet alchohol and shopping on Sunday are really the main gripes of the liberals against the Church. The other is protesting, but outside of a few anti-private property states like New Jersey most malls ban any form of demonstrations.

  • Jeanne G

    Jen G.–I am an active Latter Day Saint, and just so you know, LDS people also shop at Victoria’s Secret. I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all! And the article did say “Church leaders say they are pursuing no religious agenda with the development, and say they will negotiate special contracts with restaurants that allow the sale of alcohol, which church members are taught to avoid.” So there you go.