The LDS Temple Square of tomorrow could transform Salt Lake City’s downtown

One vision, now on the shelf, calls for tearing down longtime landmarks, erecting new attractions and creating scenic vistas of the iconic temple to enhance the visitor experience.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023. A draft proposal from a church department envisions a huge lawn east of the Salt Lake Temple, along with razing the Church Office Building, Joseph Smith Memorial Building and the Church Administration Building, to open up views of the iconic six-spired edifice.

The scaffolding-shrouded Salt Lake Temple towers as a testament to the massive makeover, now entering its fifth year, reshaping one of Utah’s most prominent tourist draws.

But an even bigger and bolder overhaul may await the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, packing a large footprint for downtown.

One grand vision— intended to enhance the “guest experience” for millions of annual visitors — would refashion Temple Square into a dense panoply of new institutional buildings and refashioned religious monuments, threaded together with select street closures, new green spaces, walkways and water features spread over an eight-block, parklike campus in the center of Utah’s capital.

The scenario creates a sort-of National Mall of Mormonism in downtown Salt Lake City, even an international one for the global faith of 17 million, with a sweeping lawn east of the temple, a new lake west of it and a dedicated transit loop encircling the core.

The proposal — drafted in 2020 and then shelved — also calls for tearing down the 28-story Church Office Building; the historic Joseph Smith Memorial Building; and the landmark Church Administration Building; along with uprooting and relocating the 24-spired Assembly Hall.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

How many of these ideas, if any, may ultimately come to pass remains unknown, but the leaked document — which church officials have authenticated — offers a snapshot of internal planning for pivotal swaths of church-owned land in and around the current Temple Square.

“The draft proposal put forward in July 2020 represented an independent effort by employees in a church department,” church spokesperson Doug Andersen said in an emailed statement. “The draft proposal was not approved and all work on the plan was curtailed. It was never authorized nor considered for implementation by senior church leaders.”

For now, Andersen said, the Utah-based faith continues to “focus on the large renovation effort on Temple Square involving the Salt Lake Temple and its immediate surroundings, and on planning for the temple open house, which is expected to attract a large, global audience.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renovation of the Salt Lake Temple on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. Work is expected to wrap up in 2026.

Begun in early 2020 as a four-year project, the latest wave of temple renovations and seismic improvements is now expected to be completed in 2026. The iconic pioneer-era edifice then will open its doors to the general public for the first time since just before its 1893 dedication.

The 2020 proposal — developed from a missionary perspective — brings to light other far-reaching possibilities circulating at church headquarters for transforming the faith’s premier campus.

What’s in the draft proposal?

Titled “Temple Square Guest Experience Master Plan Concept Proposal,” the 107-page document — complete with explanations, maps, photographs, renderings and more — was prepared by marketing consultants at The Design Farm, a North Salt Lake-based agency.

It depicts a campus spanning some 80 acres, from 400 West to east of State Street between North Temple and South Temple — and stretching north of North Temple to 200 North between Main Street and just west of 200 West.

The proposal also embraces redeveloping the massive surface parking lot between 200 West and 300 West just east of the Triad Center — something city officials have long sought — and replacing it with a range of church-related visitor attractions.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A draft proposal envisions developing the park lots west of Temple Square to include offices for church employees and other attractions.

The vision also carves entire area into three primary zones:

• A western zone, closer to Interstate 15 and transit lines, geared toward the church’s workforce.

• A central zone, nearer to the current Temple Square, dedicated to a wholesome visitor experience.

• An eastern zone, stretching past State Street, offering a verdant, serene and picturesque panorama of the temple itself.

In all, the campus would be about two-thirds the size of Vatican City, a city-state surrounded by Rome and the worldwide seat of the Catholic Church.

According to the proposal, the contemplated Temple Square makeover is aimed partly at elevating the guest experience and ultimately boosting visitor numbers from upward of 5 million a year to about 10 million.

That trajectory alone has immense potential consequences for downtown’s visitor economy. The notion of enhancing what guests take away from the capital of Mormonism has since been underscored by the late November announcement of Salt Lake City as the preferred host for the 2034 Winter Olympics.

The “concept proposal” also includes a deep dive into what draws visitors to Temple Square and highlights goals of making the site more memorable and focused on Jesus Christ while reestablishing the locale’s preeminence downtown. It even suggests renaming the square “The Mountain of the Lord” as an alternative.

Such a move would “signal to the world that a great transformation has taken place,” the authors wrote, and “draw their attention to this place and the master’s work for salvation.”

What do city officials know?

Despite potential implications for the rest of downtown, government officials say they are unaware of major details of long-range plans for Temple Square.

Andrew Wittenberg, spokesperson for Mayor Erin Mendenhall, said his boss “has regular meetings with church leadership, but the city has not been involved in any considerations around additional long-term development on Temple Square.”

City Planning Director Nick Norris said his department had not taken up future proposals for the square, at least since the city’s zoning review related to the current renovation work on the Salt Lake Temple ended several years ago.

Dee Brewer, executive director of the Salt Lake Chamber-backed Downtown Alliance, which advocates for downtown merchants, said he had “no formal conversations” about the plans with the church’s Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the faith’s financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations.

At this point, Brewer said, any plans are probably “highly conceptual.”

Church officials are “deliberate and thoughtful about what they do when it comes to development,” he said, adding that he has heard unofficially that visions for Temple Square have changed several times in recent years.

Even so, key public officials assume planning is in the works, given the current and extensive renovation being done on Temple Square and the fact that the church owns all but three land parcels in the eight-block footprint.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) These are the three properties not owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints inside a proposed eight-block campus.

In a recent presentation at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on downtown’s future, the idea of “master planning” the church campus and “rebuilding a major visitor attraction” was listed among elements of a “perfect storm” of opportunities for the urban core — along with efforts to recruit Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and continued work on Salt Lake City International Airport.

The 2020 Temple Square proposal describes itself as “preliminary and conceptual.” While its ideas are “well researched and creative,” the document adds, those “need additional study, work and consideration,” with collaboration from church leadership councils, church departments, civic leaders, residents and future visitors.

In a signed preamble, John R. Uibel, creative director with the church’s Publishing Services Department, describes the vision as “the shared collaborative output between internal staff and external top industry experts — including members of the church and friends not of our faith.”

The proposal also offers this 2018 quote from church President Russell M. Nelson: “Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”

How much it might cost, how long it might take

No dollar figures are mentioned in the proposal, but the sheer magnitude of the overall work envisioned in the 2020 snapshot would propel the price tag well into the billions.

The document mulls several timelines and phases of work on Temple Square, extending in some cases up to 10 years or more — and this is where the city’s new Olympic prospects could influence timing.

In addition to shaping the currently disjointed blocks surrounding the Salt Lake Temple into a cohesive unit, the proposal calls for infusing up to 1 million square feet of green space and natural elements. Given the extent of new landscaping involved, such an overhaul would likely need to be finished several years before the city hosts another Winter Games, observers said, to allow plantings to adequately mature before a massive influx of global visitors.

In either case, public announcement of details for the new campus, according to this master plan, would best be made when the current work on the Salt Lake Temple is expected to wrap up, sometime in 2026.

The draft proposal’s major elements

The proposal puts the renovated Salt Lake Temple at the figurative core and sacred centerpiece of the campus. Several renderings imagine the city’s skyline with major church-owned landmarks gone to open up new vistas of the temple.

Among the buildings recommended to be demolished would be the half-century-old Church Office Building; the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (formerly the Hotel Utah); the Church Administration Building; and the nearby Salt Lake Plaza Hotel.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Clockwise from top left: The Church Office Building; the Church Administration Building; the Plaza Hotel; and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. A draft proposal, which has been shelved, calls for razing these structures.

The proposal also contemplates moving the Assembly Hall farther west, near the Triad Center, to anchor that end of the campus as a main arrival point.

The document includes evidence of pushback within the church on several of those suggestions.

Appendices, for instance, refer to subsequent and refreshed renderings that retain the Church Office Building and Joseph Smith Memorial Building and reject the idea of moving the Assembly Hall.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A draft proposal, which the church has shelved, calls for relocating the pioneer-era Assembly Hall, shown Dec. 12, 2023, farther west, near the Triad Center.

What’s more, landmarks mentioned in the proposal for possible razing — including the Joseph Smith Memorial Building — are currently undergoing major restoration efforts.

Among the vision’s other ambitious — and thought-provoking— goals:

• Create a new conveyance system on Temple Square with “clean, modern vehicles” to transport visitors on a circuit of eight stations spanning the campus, with the exact mode of transport to be “determined only after careful study.”

• Build new high-rise offices for the church’s workforce to be located at the far west end of the campus, near I-15, TRAX and FrontRunner. Offices for top church leadership — including the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Presidency of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishopric, the Relief Society general presidency and others — would be in a new administration building, in the northwest corner. The building would be fed by a new network of underground tunnels, providing “quick, private, convenient, comfortable and secure transportation” to the temple, Conference Center and other key sites on the campus.

• Repurpose the existing Relief Society Building into a fully functioning (though not yet dedicated) temple to be kept permanently open for guests. It could be dedicated at “special times” so only recommend-carrying members could attend to relieve pressure on the Salt Lake Temple. A common disappointment of non-Latter-day Saint tourists who come to see the church’s most famous sacred space is their inability to step inside the six-spired building. This would provide them the opportunity to, in essence, enter a temple. The document cites a nonmember focus group participant saying such a move would “give the church a feeling of accessibility as opposed to being closed” and “take away from the weird perceptions people have.” The Relief Society Building renovations also would add floors to the building with a viewing deck of the temple.

• Construct an atrium between the Church History Library and a new Church History Museum, with an immersive storytelling feature on the Mormon pioneers, dubbed “The Saints.” The new museum also would have living quarters for senior church leaders on its top floor, with views of the temple’s east face.

• Create children’s play areas throughout the campus.

• Refurbish the Lion House, the family home of pioneer-prophet Brigham Young, and the adjacent Beehive House, official residence for Young and, later, church Presidents Lorenzo Snow and Joseph F. Smith.

• Resurface City Creek and make a West Temple Lake inside the campus.

• Create a tree-canopied green zone on the southern flank of the Salt Lake Temple. Plans also call for an adjoining Testament Wall, with the entire text of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, spelled out in inscribed columns along the length of a stone terrace wall.

• Add an Assembly Circle at the western edge, meant as an arrival point for Temple Square. The circle would showcase a large panoramic “All Nations of the Earth” art display. An interactive walk-through exhibit, titled “A World of Faith,” would display “the global presence of the church.”

• Build a Museum of Christian Art and a Giving Hearts Pavilion, highlighting church charitable programs, near a Family History Restaurant and a bakery.

• Create a Hall of Light near the proposed western arrival point designed with architecture complementary to the temple. It would be a place for guests to gather or join tour groups.

The hall also is proposed as the future home for the white marble Christus, once housed in the now-demolished North Visitors’ Center, as well as new statues of the biblical apostles, Mary, Martha and other prominent women in the New Testament.

The impact on traffic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Temple in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023.

Few aspects of this Temple Square vision are as bold as its view for downtown transportation, with potential for closing portions of West Temple, First Avenue, 200 West and possibly 300 West where those roads traverse the new campus, as well as putting a segment of State Street underground.

Land bridges would be built, according to the draft proposal, over the stretch of North Temple between 300 West and West Temple and over both 200 West and State Street between North Temple and South Temple.

“Focused discussions and extensive collaboration with [the Utah Department of Transportation], city officials, affected businesses and local residents are necessary,” the document says, “to develop a viable street plan that works for everyone.”

Designs include a circular roundabout at 300 West between North Temple and South Temple and a midblock pedestrian crossing at North Temple between Main and State streets.

The church endured a firestorm of criticism two decades ago when it bought a block of Main Street between North Temple and South Temple from the city and turned a public thoroughfare into a pedestrian plaza, with rules against protesting, smoking and other behavior.

Many officials were reluctant to comment on the details of the guest experience document, given that it is a concept proposal. When, if ever, the church is ready to move on further expansion of Temple Square, they say, extensive public dialogue would be a must.

“It would have a massive impact on downtown,” said Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. “This should be an open, transparent, participative process.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023.

As for this proposal, which the church has mothballed, Ewing worries that road closures and land bridges could hamper street connectivity and pedestrian flows, potentially isolating the campus from the rest of the urban center.

“Two things come to mind to describe it,” he added. “One is an island separated from downtown. The other is a theme park. Neither strikes me as really a good thing for downtown.”

Brewer, with the Downtown Alliance, pointed to nearby City Creek Center, which he called “a very well-thought-out investment downtown, with multiple components — housing, stores, offices — and the relationship it has to the rest of the city.”

“I would expect the same on future developments that they do,” said Brewer, who is also a former executive with Taubman, the church’s partner in developing and operating the shopping center under a long-term lease.

Darin Mano, current chair of the Salt Lake City Council and an architect by profession, was also upbeat about the possible impact on downtown.

“Something that grand could certainly be really positive,” Mano said, “and could really help the community, redevelopment and the vibrancy of downtown.”

Setting aside any specifics, he added, “I’m excited there may be further investment in our downtown core.”

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.