Visitors to downtown Salt Lake City can’t miss the timeless granite edifices of Temple Square, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a less obvious real estate empire that stretches beyond those blocks in many directions.
The late apostle N. Eldon Tanner, counselor to four Latter-day Saint presidents and the faith’s financial whiz, often referred to downtown as “the church’s living room.”
And the Utah-based church of 16.8 million members worldwide owns a lion’s share of the layout, property records show, including almost 10 blocks in the east-west corridor around the Salt Lake Temple between North Temple and South Temple as well as hundreds of other parcels scattered nearby.
A new analysis reveals a portfolio of downtown church lands worth at least $2.3 billion at full market value, owned in priceless religious and historic sites and surrounding blocks filled with administrative buildings, a luxury retail mall, office and residential towers and lots and lots of parking stalls.
That’s about a quarter of all of downtown’s $9.8 billion in land and buildings, much of it tied to a rich pioneer history and run by ecclesiastical leaders and church firms whose planning timelines often stretch for generations.
City Creek Center — the glitzy shopping and living complex that opened in 2012 along Main Street — is the commercial centerpiece of these holdings, anchoring almost 146 total acres of church land between North Temple and 500 South from 300 East to Interstate 15.
Further down the list in downtown landownership are Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Union Pacific, the Utah Transit Authority and some of the region’s biggest developers. And given the faith’s heavyweight influence, what it has built in recent years— most notably, the mall and several office towers — may say a lot about where the future of Utah’s capital is headed.
“They recognize the value of density downtown, and they are building out from the core,” said Dee Brewer, a former executive with Taubman at City Creek, the church’s partner in developing and operating the shopping center under a long-term lease.
“And they are timing their development to support downtown’s growth trajectory,” said Brewer, who now heads the Salt Lake Chamber’s Downtown Alliance, advocating for merchants in the heart of the city.
Theirs is also a conservative vision, he said, based on long-haul investments in components of a healthy city ecosystem and “long-term forecasts for how we live, work, socialize and transport.”
Church’s stake in housing
Records show church firms own nearly 9,260 housing units downtown, from small apartments to luxury condominiums. More crucially, its investments in housing at City Creek starting a decade ago — with condos at 99 West, The Regent, and Richards Court, and apartments at City Creek Landing — are thought to have catalyzed today’s residential boom, with nearly 3,500 new housing units under construction downtown.
Church officials reportedly worked for years to lure a new grocery store as a prelude to building 95 State at City Creek, and that Harmons Grocery at 135 E. 100 South has helped solidify residential construction.
The church’s two latest high-end office skyscrapers — 111 Main and 95 State at City Creek — are each worth more than $150 million, according to the latest tax records.
Both are 25 stories tall. Both feature an impressive lobby with large digital screens, and both are built to tie in with adjacent cultural attractions. Through its special design, 111 Main creates a cantilever over the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater on Main Street, while 95 State at City Creek has a Latter-day Saint chapel and meetinghouse complete with steeple.
Large acreages traced to church firms are deployed in surface parking, including two entire city blocks, one at West Temple and 500 South and the other nearer to church headquarters, at North Temple and 200 West. The church also owns several aboveground parking structures built for conversion to residential units as the city evolves.
All these major stakes give the faith’s leaders and property managers a big role in shaping future development, especially as the city’s core continues to add population, with housing and available land at a premium.
Fulfilling the faith’s ‘religious mission’
Church real estate firms such as City Creek Reserve, Property Reserve and the more administrative Corporation of the Presiding Bishop operate in private and are not obliged to share their plans.
In April, the church issued a statement saying its immense land portfolio in general — spanning at least 1.7 million acres in the U.S. and worth at least $16 billion — is “used to fulfill the religious mission” of the faith.
“This includes,” the statement added, “providing for the welfare and humanitarian operations of the church; providing for religious worship (chapels, temples, missionary offices, educational centers and efforts and more); and preserving a sacred religious site or its surroundings and enhancing the character of the local community.”
Ted Wilson, Salt Lake City’s mayor from 1976 to 1985, said the church has a long history of public and private collaboration with the city. Then-apostle N. Eldon Tanner, Wilson said, “let me know early on when I first became mayor that he wanted to be of substantial help to develop downtown in particular.”
Wilson recalled sheepishly going to Tanner’s office once to seek a $5 million loan to assist with redeveloping the block north of City Hall on 400 South. Tanner had the check cut almost immediately and let the mayor take it back with him to City Hall.
When Wilson later sought to repay the loan with interest, Tanner would only accept the principal. “The church’s interest,” he told the mayor, “is the interest of the city.”
Church officials went on to support construction of Abravanel Hall, rebuilding of the Capitol Theatre and other major developments that have proved to be big attractions, recalled Wilson, as the city became more cosmopolitan. “Tanner was a true believer in making Salt Lake a place that anyone could visit and get a good, clean, progressive feel out of it.”
That era before the 2002 Winter Olympics — and the jet fuel the Games added to Utah’s world profile — also enshrined what was then a new mixed approach to land use downtown.
The City Creek model
If you want a strong hint for how the deep-pocketed church land may develop from here, look at City Creek, 111 Main and 95 State at City Creek — now shepherded by the church’s City Creek Reserve, created in 2007.
City Creek Center, built during the Great Recession and providing much-need construction jobs, capped the church’s stated desire to improve downtown and protect the area around the faith’s showcase campus from falling into disrepair.
“It is imperative that we preserve the environment around Temple Square,” then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley said during a 2004 General Conference. “This makes necessary a very large construction project. Tithing funds will not be used for this construction. The income from church businesses, rents on the property, and other such sources make this possible.”
Dale Bills, a spokesperson for church-owned City Creek Reserve, noted that naming the redevelopment project after the creek honored “the legacy of pioneering Latter-day Saints whose faith brought them to settle the Salt Lake Valley and who depended on City Creek as their primary source of life-sustaining water.”
The center, he wrote in an email, has been “a substantial contribution to creating a vibrant, attractive, inviting environment” on the downtown blocks around Temple Square and church headquarters. “This revitalized area welcomes visitors to the global center of an international faith.”
To renew and beautify the area, City Creek “increased pedestrian activity, rebuilt retail, improved office space to retain and attract employment, added residential to provide comfortable urban living, and strengthened the Main Street corridor.”
Brewer, now with the Downtown Alliance, called the 40-acre center “an anchor destination that draws people downtown to shop, to socialize and to park.” That has benefited City Creek retailers, he said, “but I see another hundred businesses lifted by those tides of visitors.”
He said City Creek represented the great advantage of the church’s long view, built “when many cities were razing their downtown malls.”
“They make long-term investments,” Brewer said, “that no other developers can make.”
In its day, the concept of City Creek, which cost at least $1.6 billion to build, also proved divisive over the symbolism of its internally facing architecture, the insular skybridge over Main Street, and converting a segment of the public right of way along Main for the mall’s private purposes.
“We pushed very hard for mixed use,” said then-Mayor Rocky Anderson, “but also for mixed income, and I don’t see a lot of success in that major aspect.” He insists that it fell short in other ways, particularly in creating a public center inviting to all residents.
“I was advocating that we have a real downtown, a place that incorporates more local businesses and residents, and that grows and changes organically over time,” he said. Instead, “it’s really just mass commercialism. It’s only there for the very wealthy.”
Anderson once called the skybridge between the east and west portions of City Creek “a gerbil tube” and vowed it would only happen “over my dead body.”
Months later, H. David Burton, the church’s presiding bishop at the time, called to ask if he could bring new design schematics over to City Hall for the mayor’s perusal.
“I thought it was really nice of him,” Anderson recalled. “He laid them out in my conference room and I said, ‘Wait a minute, Bishop Burton! I think they made a mistake! What’s this little thing over Main Street?’
“He smiled at me and without hesitation he said, ‘Oh, that’s the over-your-dead-body skybridge.’”
Stephen Goldsmith, then the city’s director of planning, said City Creek seemed caught at times between profit-driven values of executives at Property Reserve and those of church leaders, who leaned toward stewardship and a sense of the public good.
“When we talk about church land, Rocky and I shared the awareness that this was not any of our land,” Goldsmith said, “that we were on the land of first people, and therefore, we had extraordinary responsibility as stewards.
“How,” he asked, “do we together manage this incredibly beautiful fragile place with a development pattern of care?”
Whatever is coming, it’ll probably be an eclectic mix and built to last. Residential and office uses have been part of the church’s vision for its properties in the central business district, Bills said, since well before the City Creek expansion.
The towers at 111 Main and 95 State at City Creek added over one million square feet of Class A office space, typically with the market’s top rents per square foot, in what Bills called “follow-on projects.”
“Any future residential or office construction,” he said, “will be according to our long-term objectives.”
Bills said there are no immediate changes being contemplated for the church-owned parking lots at North Temple and 200 West and at West Temple and 500 South.
Because of its proximity to church headquarters, the block east of the Triad Center — now blanketed in parking stalls — seems a more likely site for expanding the church’s main campus and could even be a locale for new offices if the 28-story Church Office Building, now a half-century old, is ever demolished.
Anderson said church officials also once assured the city they would not build substantially south of 200 South, which — in lieu of details from the church — leaves the future status of the open block at 500 South even more subject to speculation.
While nothing is imminent, Bills added, “we are always considering ways to utilize church-affiliated holdings in furthering the good works of the church.”
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