Bypassing Salt Lake City’s Heart - The Vital Signs of City Creek Center

Written by  Chris Dunsmore

On March 22, 2012, a group of Salt Lake City politicians, business leaders and religious figures gathered together with a crowd of residents to celebrate the grand opening of a "sustainably designed, walkable, urban community of residences, offices, and world-class shopping" called City Creek Centeri. Among the dignitaries in attendance were Utah Governor Gary Herbert, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Thomas S. Monson, the president of the Mormon Church. 165 years earlier second Mormon president Brigham Young stood on the same plot of land, near the banks of what would soon be called City Creek, and declared to his followers, "This is the place." The Mormon pioneers had finally reached their Zion, and a new city was born just by saying it was so. But over a century and a half later the city's leaders gathered behind a giant pink ribbon at the city's symbolic center to make a new claim on the land. Near a brand new, man-made creek, in a strange transposition of Salt Lake City's foundational scene, the ribbon was cut and everyone – the governor, the mayor, the president of the Mormon Church, and the crowd – raised their voices together in a cheer: "One, two, three! Let's go shopping!"ii

That Monson, along with Henry B. Eyring, Dieter F. Ucthdorf and H. David Burton, all high-ranking Mormon leaders, would join in such a cheer at the opening of a mall might seem strange.iii Monson, a man believed to be a prophet by Mormons, holds the current presidential position in a long line of prophet leaders that extends back to the church's founder, Joseph Smith. His cheer of "Let's go shopping" is a far cry from Brigham Young's proclamation at seeing the Salt Lake Valley of, "This is the place." The Mormon officials' participation suggests that the church believes City Creek's surroundings have now evolved into more than just a place. Where Young and his followers saw the destination, the end of a long trek and the discovery of a new home, Monson and the Mormon Church now see City Creek as a destination, an attraction developed to draw people to the city center for all their world-class residential, business, and shopping needs.

The presence of these Mormon leaders at the ribbon cutting for a mall's grand opening may seem strange but it shouldn't be surprising. Estimates suggest the church spent between $1 billion and $2 billion on the mall, which is just "one part of a $5 billion church-funded revamping of downtown, according to LDS church-owned KSL."iv In the eyes of the Mormon Church, the city center, property the church owns, was weak and in need of "revamping," and City Creek Center, as part of a larger downtown reconstruction plan branded Downtown Rising, would be the jumpstart the city needed. According to a news release distributed when plans for the City Creek project were announced, the Mormon Church "sees the development of the three city-center blocks as an integral part of the broader revitalization of the central city ... to create a vibrant and attractive downtown."v The new mall was developed to create vibrant office and residential space in the city, to spark a "retail renaissance."vi This rebirth of the city center would entice people who had abandoned downtown to return from the suburbs, and at the same time draw people from all over the world to the heart of Salt Lake City.

Keith B. McMullin, who heads a church-owned holding company, Deseret Management Corp., an umbrella organization for many of the church's for-profit businesses, says that for the Mormon Church the real return of City Creek comes not from any monetary gain but "in folks moving back downtown and the revitalization of businesses."vii A hearty, attractive city center benefits the people of Salt Lake City. And for the Mormon Church, happy and affluent people visiting, frequenting, or populating this center is good for business. And, as McMullin adds, "it's for furthering the aim of the church to make, if you will, bad men good, and good men better." The church aims to reshape the city's heart, which they believe will give them access to and influence over its residents and visitors. Aside from world-class shopping and ample office space, City Creek Center exists to offer visitors and citizens a space to be better people, as well as a place where "better men" have a place to live and play.

Promotion for and publicity about City Creek evidences its stakeholders' desire to reshape Salt Lake City's heart into this world-class, transformative place. City Creek, on its website and in brochures, news releases and ads, insists it's located at the "heart of downtown."viii This ubiquitous claim evidences an assumption made by those marketing City Creek Center, and those who developed it, that Salt Lake City has a heart that can be located, defined, claimed and shaped, hence the name: City Creek Center. And the Mormon Church has echoed this sentiment from the beginning. In an early release about the planned redevelopment of the blocks around Temple Square they announce their involvement in "a premier retail, office and residential development [that] will rise on nearly 20 acres across three blocks in the heart of Salt Lake City over the next five years" [my italics].ix The city's Cartesian grid system – in which Temple Square (the Mormon Church's headquarters) and City Creek Center are at the center – emphasizes this assertion about Salt Lake's heart. But marketing and publicity for the center suggests that those with stake in the new development, most notably the Mormon Church, have a asked question, "What amenities are offered?" City Creek's website lists the dining selections, the desire to shape the perceived heart of the city, rather than an interest in reinforcing a literal center. City Creek desires Salt Lake shoppers and citizens to see it not just as the "center" of the city grid, but also as a social hub, an integral part of the center of vital functions in Salt Lake City.

To claim a place in Salt Lake's heart City Creek Center first had to fully integrate itself into the city. Developers made an effort in the design and construction of the project to blend the center in with the Salt Lake's existing urban environment. Ron Loch, vice president of Planning and Design for the Taubman Company, writes in the 2012/13 holiday season City Creek Center magazine, "A critical design goal was to create an urban experience that seamlessly weaved the new development into the DOWNTOWN URBAN FABRIC."x This new development shouldn't seem new at all, it should appear as though it has always been part of the "urban fabric" of Salt Lake. But Loch's conspicuous typographical decisions undercut his statement. His italicized emphasis on seamlessness calls attention to his sentence's misplaced seams. Similarly, five long years of visible and occasionally disruptive downtown construction emphasized the newness of the City Creek project, its development and construction, rather than its "seamless" integration into the city. And Loch's emphatic "DOWNTOWN URBAN FABRIC" exemplifies City Creek's insistence that it has successfully woven itself into that fabric. Such emphasis draws attention to the "urban fabric" itself, instead of elucidating the ways in which the new development has integrated into and altered the city. And a close look at the "urban fabric" reveals the "seams" that constitute it, the constructed, often messy ways in which city projects, as well as cities themselves, are designed and built, repaired and reshaped.

City Creek developers also designed the center to appear as though it's simply a new element of the city's natural surroundings, rather than another alteration to the landscape. SWA Group, who "provided landscape architecture and urban design services" for City Creek, took "inspiration" in their design from the creek that once ran along the site.xi The center attempts to weave itself into Salt Lake City's natural fabric by replicating a natural creek that had been buried below the city long ago, and by constructing a landscape around that concept. But the landscape and center are just that: constructed concepts. Fake duck and deer prints mark the paths beside the artificial creek. Near the Macy's entrance, trout circle the mall waters without any chance of escape, stared at by sticky kids in strollers. The center even has a retractable roof, which "creates the perfect climate in any season."xii City Creek protects its visitors from the very environment the center insists they're experiencing, just as the structure shuts out the surroundings into which the developers want the center to integrate. Like the attempt to blend into the "urban fabric," the effort to become a part of Salt Lake's natural landscape calls attention to the fabrication such integration necessitates.

The "landscape concept" for City Creek Center, the creek itself, also exists as an icon with which the developers can link the center's story with the history of the site. In an effort to seamlessly blend into the city's heart, the center emphasizes its status as another development in the narrative of the site itself. A news release from the Mormon Church suggests "some historical descriptions indicate the south fork of City Creek may have run through the blocks occupied by the project."xiii But the link between City Creek Center's "landscape concept" and the historical City Creek is a tenuous one, suggested by "some historical descriptions" and an estimate about where the creek "may have run." The "Go for It" directory brochure for City Creek Center, available everywhere in the mall, reiterates this tenuousness in a section titled "Re-creation of Historic City Creek." The paragraph describes the 1,200-foot-long creek "meandering through the central walkways and plazas" as an "authentic re-creation of the south fork of City Creek, the iconic waterway that once coursed through the city." This oxymoronic attempt to describe an artificial creek as "authentic" again undercuts the center's claim that it fits seamlessly into Salt Lake City's landscape and the history of the site. Besides the fact that a subterranean 5,000-car parking structure literally undercuts the recreated creek, visitors to the center will have no memory of the historic creek with which to corroborate or challenge the artificial one's "authenticity." Nothing but the language the SWA Group uses to create the "landscape concept" links the recreated creek's waters to the waters of the original City Creek and the history of the site.

Attempts to integrate City Creek Center into the urban and natural environments of Salt Lake City, and to tell a new story about the site, stem from and proceed according to this oxymoronic notion of "authenticity." The center's insistence on being fully integrated into the city's heart – its vital space, surroundings, and history – betrays a myopic determination to become central, necessary and authentic. This single-mindedness is apparent in descriptions of the center and its design. On, when answering the frequently retractable roof and the pedestrian bridge over Main Street among other amenities, and describes the sum of the center's amenable parts as "an authentic, urban, retail, mixed-use experience" [my italics].xiv City Creek believes the shopper experiencing the artificial creek and its live fish, the 1000-seat food court and the programmed fountain displays is having an "authentic experience." But any experience of City Creek is mediated by artificial concepts and simulations of authenticity that the developers have designed and constructed according to their own desires. Authenticity at the center isn't an inherent quality or mode of being at City Creek, it's a prescription for how one should experience the space, written and reinforced again and again by the developers.

This is a philosophy that the SWA Group consistently promotes in its explanations about its involvement with City Creek's design. Though they express a concern for the "special character of each site" they work withxv, their conception of design involves taking over and managing a place, rather than facilitating or stimulating the expression and evolution of its innate character, its authenticity, its heart. According to SWA, a project's plan "should be invisible so that the place itself can take root and grow over time." SWA wants the City Creek – which they describe as "provid[ing] a pedestrian-oriented green space throughout the property," and which they state is "the largest flowing watercourse built on-structure in the US,"xvi the "inspiration" and organizing element of the center's plan – to seem "invisible." By disregarding their structures' artificiality – the fact that the plans they design are always artifice – SWA overlooks the seams in their concept of authenticity. The creek-centric plan SWA designed to be invisible at City Creek Center, to fit seamlessly into its environment, is actually the most visible aspect of the development. This deliberate oversight leads SWA to believe that, facilitated by their design, "the place itself can take root and grow over time." For SWA, the authenticity of a place isn't inherent and essential, but secondary and contingent on projects like City Creek. City Creek Center doesn't want to integrate into Salt Lake City as much as it has a desire to become the new ground at the city's heart, in which place can "take root" and from which place will "grow."

Put another way, SWA says their "urban concepts create the bones of a place." The skeletal structure they design becomes a framework for the "layers of art, culture, migration, technology, and commerce that make each city authentic."xvii According to this thinking, authenticity in a city blankets the place's constructed space in layer upon layer of society and culture. Though this metaphor reverses the bottom up growth of the previous one, both conceive of place as a mutable element. Seen through the lens of either metaphor, City Creek Center is not so much a structure being added to Salt Lake City as a catalyst introduced to transform the place in which the center exists. City Creek is an occupying element in the city, a force that "taps into the magic" of Salt Lake – its unique urban, natural and historical character – "to create an authentic sense of place," at the same time that it works to change the character of the city.xviii Just as the historic City Creek was diverted, altered and buried to accommodate Salt Lake City's growth, City Creek developers must "tap into," divert, alter and bury elements of Salt Lake's authenticity and "magic" in order to make and manage a place that exhibits an authenticity that they create, monitor, and manage for themselves.

The belief that authenticity and magic, that place, can grow from City Creek Center's development, and that these obscure but powerful concepts can be monitored and controlled, doesn't just inform the work of the developers and designers, it also motivates the center's biggest backer, the Mormon Church. To them, authenticity and magic aren't inherent and autonomous elements of a city's heart, they are qualities that can be developed, constructed and reformed by the entities that have the power and influence to shape the city's built environment. And those who shape and control the city's built environment can influence and regulate the behavior of people who move through and interact with that environment. The sentiment behind Keith B. McMullin's statement about the project's ability to "make bad men good, and good men better" has as much to do with the church's ability to construct and manage built space as they see fit, as it has to do with the church's actual community involvement. To create the authentic experience they want to be had at City Creek Center, and to ensure the center's proper social character, those behind the mall's development must utilize their powers as city designers to grow and shape a version of the place they deem to be "good."

This sentiment manifests itself in the Center's Code of Conduct, a list of eleven rules visitors must follow when on site, which are called the Rules of Conduct by the end of the FAQ entry.xix The rules are posted at entrances to the center, and wherever directories are found in the mall, in order to locate visitors within a built social environment, to tell them "You are here" in terms of what's expected of them, as well as where they are spatially. And though the number of rules ends at eleven, a reasonable list of rules for a large shopping center, the list is followed by a statement:

The foregoing list of prohibited activities is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all prohibited activities on the Property, and management reserves the right to prohibit any activity or conduct which is detrimental to or inconsistent with a first-class, family oriented shopping center. Management's interpretation of these Rules of Conduct is conclusive and binding.

The Rules of Conduct are "in addition to all other rules and policies pertaining to the Property," language that allows the center's built social environment to exist as an amorphous, arbitrarily defined grey area. At City Creek, Management could define any single act as inconsistent with first-class, family oriented shopping. This power is necessary to the center if it's to maintain and manage visitors' experiences of the space. Just as City Creek's structure and plan frustrates the possibility for shoppers to experience the very environment the center insists they're experiencing, the Property's power to define conduct as less than "first-class" or "family oriented" disallows any experience of authenticity or opportunity for magic at the site. Anyone who sets foot on the Property enters a zone in which strange displays of character, exhibitions of spontaneity, or demonstrations of genuine curiosity about the environment – the kind of authenticity and magic that would distinguish citizens from consumers – could likely be met with resistance or even antagonism.

And the Mormon Church's hand in creating and maintaining the site's codes and policies is evident at the very top of the list of rules. Before being told what not to do, visitors are given a clue as to who's behind this behavioral code: "City Creek Center is a privately-owned property ('Property')." Though Taubman, Inc. manages the center (in a manner "consistent with ... all other shopping centers in the Taubman portfolio"), the Mormon Church privately owns the Property and has the power to set all those "other rules and policies pertaining to the Property." Shoppers at City Creek need only look to the north to find the organization behind the property's transformation from property into a capital P "Property." This typographical shift is more effective, telling, and subtler than Ron Loch's strangely typed statement about seamlessness. Doubly protected on both sides by parentheses and quotation marks, the ('Property') – a shopping mall, which lives or dies because of the public's opinion, interest and participation – encases itself in its statement of privacy. The parentheses could even be turned to resemble the retractable roof that arches over City Creek to enclose it in inclement weather. Again, the Mormon Church and the developer's effort to claim and control the property at the city's heart accentuates the divide such an effort creates. At the entrances to City Creek Center, the property owner, the Mormon Church, along with the center's management company, Taubman, Inc., have drawn an invisible line under ("Property") that extends along all sides of the center, cordoning off the "heart of downtown" in a carefully constructed and highly controlled environment.

At City Creek Center the underlying tensions and the invisible lines dividing the city between Mormon and non-Mormon, community and commerce, authentic urbanity and artificial cosmopolitanism, natural and built environments, and public and private spaces, come into clear focus and take shape. And this shape could very well be the city's heart. But the center's "authenticity" is a product of the developers' desires, of their faithfulness to an imagined center that originated in their own hearts: an ideal space that exists independent and willfully ignorant of the city's complex and nuanced lines of division. By opting not to acknowledge the City Creek's position in nor the extent of its own influence on Salt Lake's dividing lines, its backers, designers, and developers can honestly celebrate the "authentic, urban, retail, mixed-use experience" and the "authentic sense of place" they've created as a success. Underlying tensions and invisible dividing lines don't sell clothing or condos, and they don't generate foot traffic. And shoppers, provided with variety, quality, and comfort at a mall that seems to meet their needs, won't notice the mall's failure to live up to design philosophies and conceptual frameworks, nor would they care if they did. City Creek's failure, then, is spectacular. At the center of the city, along the banks of a beautifully constructed creek, Salt Lake City's "authentic" center, its "heart," has been reborn, just by saying it's so.


i"Taubman's City Creek Center In Salt Lake City Wins "Best Retail Development, USA" In Prestigious International Property Awards." N.p., 13 Jan 2013. Web. 24 Mar 2013.

iiLee, Jasen. "Lines long as City Creek marks Day 1." Deseret News, 22 Mar 2012. Web.

iiiSwensen, Jason. "First Presidency attends City Creek opening." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 22 Mar 2012. Web.

ivWinter, Caroline, Katherine Burton, Nick Tamasi, and Anita Kumar. "The money behind the Mormon message." Salt Lake Tribune 26 Sep 2012, n. pag. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.
This article estimates the center was "built for about $2 billion."

In a November 6, 2009 broadcast of Religion & Ethics News, reporter Lucky Severson states, "the project's cost is expected to top $1½ billion."

Jasen Lee writes in The Deseret News article "Lines long as City Creek Marks Day 1," "The retail and dining portion of City Creek Center, a $1.5 billion mixed-used development that remakes downtown Salt Lake City, features outdoor walkways, retractable roofs, a pedestrian bridge over Main Street and a creek that winds through the property."

In an article for City Weekly entitled "City Creek Center: Three for the Money," Stephen Dark writes, "The financial might of the LDS Church, which has invested an estimated $1 billion-plus into the 23 acres smack in front of Temple Square and its global headquarters, has meant that while other American retail development projects languished in the downturned economy, City Creek pushed on, becoming the only mall set to open in the United States in 2012."

vFrom a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Public Affairs Department news release entitled "Downtown Redevelopment Plans Announced".

vi"Retail Renaissance." City Creek Center. n.d. 33. Print.

viiWinter, Caroline, Katherine Burton, Nick Tamasi, and Anita Kumar. "The money behind the Mormon message." Salt Lake Tribune 26 Sep 2012, n. pag. Web. 24 Mar. 2013.

viiiSee, for example:
"Taubman's City Creek Center In Salt Lake City Wins "Best Retail Development, USA" In Prestigious International Property Awards." N.p., 13 Jan 2013. Web. 24 Mar 2013.

"Downtown Living Reaches New Heights: Homes in City Creek's Promontory Tower Go on Sale Monday," a City Creek news release from February 11, 2011.

"City Creek Center Unveils Countdown Clock to Mark One Year Until Opening." N.p., 22 Mar 2011. Web.

"More Stores & Restaurants Coming to City Creek Center." N.p., 26 Jul 2012. Web.

And here:

Even here, in a description of the Blue Lemon restaurant: "Blue Lemon's superior cuisine and upscale, urban feel make this Express Gourmet restaurant a perfect fit for the rejuvenated heart of downtown."

ixFrom a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Public Affairs Department news release entitled "Downtown Redevelopment Plans Announced".

x"Retail Renaissance." City Creek Center. n.d. 32. Print.

xiFrom SWA Group's website:

xiiFrom the City Creek Center "Go For It" brochure, available at "You are here" directories set up around the center. (obtained Jan. 15, 2013)

xiiiFrom another LDS news release entitled "Project Scope and Overview."

xivFAQs can be found here:

xvFrom page 2 of an SWA Group planning brochure, downloaded from their website,, as a pdf.

xviFrom SWA's website:

xviiFrom page 4 of the SWA planning brochure.


xixFrom the FAQ,

Disorderly, intimidating, threatening, dangerous or disruptive conduct of any nature, including but not limited to: use of obscene or insulting language or gestures, loitering, running, yelling, fighting, throwing any objects, littering, playing radios or other audio devices, rollerblading, skateboarding, bicycling.

  1. Standing, walking, sitting or moving in such a way as to cause inconvenience to others, or in or on a prohibited area or object.
  2. Any act which could result in physical harm to persons or damage to property.
  3. Any act prohibited by local, state or federal laws or ordinances.
  4. Truancy.
  5. Possession of an open container or consumption of alcoholic beverages other than in licensed areas.
  6. Possession or consumption of illegal substances.
  7. Distribution of literature or other items, offering any item for sale, solicitation, conducting surveys, videotaping or photography, without, in each instance, the prior written consent of center management under the center's Access Policy or other applicable policies.
  8. Visiting the center without shirt or shoes, or failing to be fully clothed. Wearing clothing that is, or in a manner that is, obscene, offensive to others, that may provoke a disturbance, or is otherwise inconsistent with a first-class, family oriented shopping center.
  9. Smoking.
  10. Possession of pets or other animals, except dogs, is prohibited. Dogs and their owners must adhere to the Canine Code of Conduct at all times. Canine Code of Conduct is available at Customer Service. 

Additional Info

  • Location: City Creek Center, South Main Street, Salt Lake City, UT