Will 'Mormon mall' rules stimulate or stymie downtown?

The Salt Lake Tribune/March 3, 2012

Dreamed a decade ago then cured in concrete the past five years, City Creek Center opens in less than three weeks.

So what will be the rules and regs at the $2 billion "Mormon mall"? The operators say it will be "a place for everyone" — indeed, the public do's and don't's are mostly industry standard — but officials omit a Main Street Plaza-size caveat.

Banned will be "any activity or conduct which is detrimental to or inconsistent with a first-class, family-oriented shopping center."

That means no running, yelling, swearing, skateboarding or playing music. Don't try smoking, panhandling, proselytizing or pamphleteering. Better not wear a snarky or offensive T-shirt, low-hanging jeans or any clothes that don't jibe with a "first-class" shopping destination. And while a gay couple's kiss would be OK — even a same-sex marriage proposal at Tiffany & Co. — don't dare snap a picture of it or shoot video with your smartphone. Photography in front of the 90 storefronts is prohibited. Oh, and forget shopping on Sundays.

So "Go for It" and "Make It Yours," as the giant murals command, just be careful with the "it" part.

There is even a "Canine Code of Conduct" for dogs, which are allowed, and doggy bag dispensers will be handy. If you wonder which stores will allow your purse pooch, look for the dog stickers on those shop windows.

Those are the "Rules of Conduct," found on the blue directory signs, governing the two city blocks stretching south from Temple Square. That prompts a question: Since the 23 acres are private property, will the First Amendment be faux, like the creek? Will Utah's new downtown feel like downtown — complete with warts and wonders and people-watching? Or will the heart of Salt Lake City be sanitized?

The rules do not come from the LDS Church, whose leaders demurred from any comment on the subject. They were devised instead by mall owner and operator Taubman Centers Inc., which holds a long-term lease and insists the restrictions are identical to Taubman's 25 upscale shopping centers across the nation.

"There are some myths and concerns that are not valid," explains Linda Wardell, City Creek's general manager. "City Creek Center will be operated exactly like every other Taubman center in our portfolio. The reason that the church brought Taubman into this is because of the way we operate our retail environments."

Wardell says City Creek's Illinois-based IPC International security team will be carefully trained and that "90 percent" of incidents typically are handled by a friendly conversation — not by forced expulsion or arrest. The rules are set to foster high-end shopping, Wardell says, and "preserving that type of experience" is the priority.

The sensitivity lies in the location. The 700,000-square-foot center occupies a prominent patch of downtown. And the rules apply not just inside but outside — from the showcase courtyards draped with waterfalls and the creek to the re-created (and now private) Regent and Richards streets. The latter connect South Temple and 100 South on both blocks — but unlike the stores, which shutter at 9 p.m., the "streets" will remain open for 24 hours. In fact, City Creek wants foot traffic after Jazz games or Gallivan concerts. But the rules still rule.

"You take a big chunk of downtown and make it a no-speech or limited-speech zone and it does have a big effect on livability and the quality of life you're trying to create," says Stephen Clark, an attorney who served as legal director for ACLU of Utah during the Main Street Plaza controversy.

Clark anticipates similar problems that dog the LDS Church's plaza. City Creek patrons may think they're on public space only to be confronted by private-property signs and uniformed guards who tell them to put away camera phones or turn their insulting T-shirts inside out. He worries about "imprecise judgment calls" and says City Creek seems to present the perfect case for the Utah Supreme Court to examine what is appropriate where private property and public function converge.

" 'First-class, family-oriented shopping center' seems vague," Clark adds. "It begs the question that's being debated across our society on a daily basis: What kind of families are we talking about?"

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