Is downtown becoming another Vatican?

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 15, 2004
By Heather May

Jacqueline Jensen doesn't visit strip clubs. But she defends the Dead Goat Saloon's shift from blues bar to semi-nude dance venue.

The 18-year-old college student says she won't shop at an overhauled Crossroads Plaza or ZCMI Center, either.

With the LDS Church's eyes on both transformations -- it is suing over the Dead Goat and redeveloping the Salt Lake City malls -- Jensen and other non-Mormons fear the city's downtown is becoming the church's downtown.

The Main Street Plaza furor heightens those worries. Jensen anticipates a similar situation, with the malls welcoming the public but promoting church values. She and others wonder if the church is trying, in essence, to Provo-ify Utah's capital. (The Utah County seat is more than 90 percent Mormon while Salt Lake City, although the church's world headquarters, is only 45 percent LDS.)

"I don't think they're realizing there are different people here," she says. "It's just kind of a tactic they're using to keep it under control."

H. David Burton, the presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dismisses such conspiracy talk.

"This is a community endeavor. This is not an ecclesiastical endeavor," Burton says of the mall makeovers. "If there's an uncomfortableness, I hope we can overcome it."

The church notes the new malls won't "feel" like a church project. They will be run like a business such as the ZCMI Center. And they won't be dedicated as sacred spaces, as the plaza was, according to spokesman Dale Bills.

Burton says the malls will include retail that "everybody will feel comfortable coming to." However, he allows that some church-related facilities eventually could open on the revamped blocks, saying a church presence is "not presently planned."

The church decided to buy Crossroads Plaza (it already owned the land) and revitalize the area to protect its religious interests, including Temple Square, to ensure they "continue to be viable and good neighbors to the headquarters of the church," Burton says.

Still, the church has boundaries, not wanting to own more property south of 100 South or north of 200 North. "We don't want to in any way have a situation where it can be said that the church is trying to control the city," Burton says. "What we're trying to do is control that part of our destiny that is immediately adjacent to the most important, sacred parts of the property owned by the church."

"We're not buffering ourselves from anything," Burton adds. "What we're trying to do is keep it presentable and compatible with the church-owned property."

To the church, that means the area is lively, pleasant, safe. Buildings aren't boarded up. It also means the properties and activities are "compatible with the principles of the church, the doctrine of the church," Burton says. No decisions have been made about the sale of alcohol on the blocks or if the malls will be open Sundays.

The American Civil Liberties Union links the redevelopment plans to its lawsuit over the Main Street Plaza. The organization sees LDS transformation of a secular section of Main Street into a religious plaza as the first step in the church's encroachment on traditional government functions.

And Dead Goat owner Daniel Darger fears the church is trying to turn downtown into one large Temple Square. He fears a "squeaky-clean" image will kill other alcohol-serving bars and clubs.

But others see the church's interest -- and ideals -- as helping spur downtown development. "They are going to keep it beautiful and maintained," says Salt Lake Chamber President Lane Beattie. "It's kind of like being in the Vatican."

That's what alarms some people.

"We know what the buildings are going to look like, but what's it going to be in terms of the atmosphere? Is it going to be family-oriented or more of a metropolitan, big-city type of feel?" wonders Peter Corroon, president of the business group Salt Lake Vest Pocket Coalition.

Many will see the church's stand on alcohol service and Sunday openings as the answer.

Mayor Rocky Anderson hopes the church creates "family friendly" activities because there is little to keep those crowds around after they visit Temple Square. And he says suspicions of an LDS takeover downtown are unfounded, especially since the church for years has owned the blocks that will be redeveloped.

"I don't look at it as an exertion of power. I look at it as an exertion of leadership," he says.

But the mayor also wants to make the city friendly to gays, artists and rock 'n' rollers as a way to boost economic development.

Stephen Brown, director of SB Dance, a Salt Lake City performing arts group, says, "There are a bunch of artists in this town -- young, experienced artists like myself -- who are really keen on finding some place a little bit hipper than what downtown is becoming."

He wants to see music clubs, coffee shops, live performances on the streets. "I have a feeling it's not really going in the right direction for what I do. What will happen if it becomes too homogenous downtown [in terms of what activities are available] is another area will sprout up."

Anderson says downtown can be hip and family friendly.

"That doesn't mean we have to all go partying together," Anderson says. "But the opportunity needs to be there for people to enjoy the kind of music they want or to enjoy the kind of nightlife or entertainment they prefer."

Burton says "sure" there is room for both visions; the marketplace will decide.

As for Jensen: "If I go [downtown], I'll go to a place where it seems a little less controlled."

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