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Friday, August 8, 2003

Do Utahns need public space?

The Mormon Church doesn't like its critics. (To be fair, many of them are gratingly obnoxious. They really don't like the Mormon Church.) And so an important element in the three-year-old battle over Salt Lake City's sale of part of Main Street to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is precisely this: The church wanted to link its two most visited pieces of property — Temple Square and the church's administration complexes — with a plaza that its critics wouldn't be free to roam. The church wanted a two-block piece of private property where it set its own rules. Makes sense to me.

But the city goofed. Salt Lake's mayor and city council somehow imagined that the sale of a city street to a private corporation could be presented to the voters as a "public park." And they were foolish enough to require the church to maintain an "easement" through what would in every other respect be private property. The city got millions of dollars in the deal — and the plaza is very lovely — but the church and the city fully deserved the lawsuit that pointed out that a public thoroughfare is precisely where we exercise our First Amendment (and several other) rights. That's what public space is for.

Ever since the courts said the church can't control behavior and expression on its plaza so long as an easement exists, the city and church have been trying to find a way either to provide "free assembly" areas in the plaza — a version of the "put your soapbox here and nowhere else" strategy several college campuses have recently tried — or to sell the easement outright. That last option would make the plaza fully private property, and in the end this is what the city is going to have to do.

But here is where the story gets interesting.

The heart of downtown Salt Lake City includes not just two adjoining city blocks owned by the Mormon Church. The church also owns the block south of its administration complex — and it is just about to buy the block south of Temple Square. In other words, the church will own the four blocks that constitute the major tourist and shopping destination in the city. Crossroads Plaza (formerly the "secular" mall) and the ZCMI Center (the Mormon Church-owned mall) face each other across Main Street.

Are you ready for what's next? According to the LDS Church-owned Deseret Morning News, preliminary plans for the renovation of Crossroads Plaza include "a skywalk connecting Crossroads with the neighboring ZCMI Center."

While the details are fluid, the church's lead strategic advisor on the project, Ron Pastore of AEW Capital Management, said it is driven by several concrete goals:

  • To increase pedestrian traffic.
  • To provide a welcoming, open atmosphere that draws people in while maintaining the "classical" feel emanating from Temple Square and the church's headquarters to the north.
  • To integrate and connect retail with office, residential and entertainment opportunities.
  • Whoa! Back up. "Classical feel"? What exists out there on the sidewalks of Main Street that somehow interferes with the "classical feel"? What interferes with the "welcoming, open atmosphere" (i.e., the attractive 21-year-old "lady missionaries" who greet you at Temple Square)? Why, those 67-year-old crabapples harping on about how Joseph Smith married a 12-year-old, for one thing.

    And what can you do inside your very own skywalk that you can't do on the sidewalks below? That's right. You can kick out the riffraff. There are only two groups of people that the Church and its thin-skinned partisans don't like encountering: the punks (sometimes their own wayward children) and the anti-Mormons (sometimes their siblings and cousins) who enjoy practicing their rights of speech and assembly in downtown Salt Lake.

    Public space is a political problem in Utah. The city is going to need a lot of spine to tell the church that it can't have a skywalk (for which the zoning laws are already quite clear) and that the church can't buy any more of Main Street — or South Temple, for that matter. There is no legal reason why the city can't sell off all sorts of property — which is why I think the new ACLU lawsuit has a lot less to stand on — but there is a political reason why it shouldn't. Cities are not theme parks. And as much as it may pain the Mormons to come to terms with it, Salt Lake City is not just Zion. But it's going to take a lot of voters and some very public-minded politicians to draw the line.

    Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 8 August 2003 at 5:13 PM

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