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Ten years ago, LDS Church leaders reportedly wanted the shopping center they were about to build in their own front yard to be both world class and enduring.
City Creek Center needed a style and scale suited to occupying two high-profile Salt Lake City blocks next to the faith's global headquarters, while helping to revitalize a fading downtown around it.
"I heard the term 'world class' at least a million times," recalled adviser Ronald Pastore, a retail consultant with Boston-based AEW Capital Management.
The historic undertaking also had to yield a shopping center built to last in a retail industry evolving so rapidly with technology that most malls can't go 10 years without overhauls.
Need top-shelf architectural ideas? Crib from Italian genius Michelangelo and his flourishes near the Vatican or from the timeless piazzas of Milan or the cobblestone streets of Paris.
Erect an American shopping mall that endures? Easier said than done, judging from a rare glimpse last week into what one official called the LDS Church's 10-year "gestation period" of planning and replanning its $1.5 billion-plus retail, office and residential gem.
Bill Williams, director of special-projects design for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a leading player in City Creek's construction, summed up the dilemma this way:
"We hope that we don't ever have to do this again," Williams said.
Three years since City Creek Center officially debuted, the luxury mall along Main Street still generates heated debate over its urban-planning values and how well it ties in with the rest of downtown. But, as evidence of its financial success mounts, the privately funded shopping center offers a clear guide to the U.S. mall industry's best thinking on its future survival.
Indeed, as City Creek won the International Council of Shopping Centers' "best-of-show" award recently, the place was held up to mall owners everywhere as a showcase of the industry's best practices.
With nearly a third of all sales now conducted online, "the mall industry is in a mature phase of its growth, without a doubt," said John Williams, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group, a Toronto-based retail- consulting firm.
Successful retailers now deploy an "omni-channel" strategy that melds their Web presence with the ability to make more personalized in-store connections with customers.
"If you're not thinking differently, you're out of the game," Williams said. "The status quo is not acceptable."
With City Creek, he said, "somebody thought differently, and the result is a joy to behold."
In the beginning • Back when City Creek planning began, the LDS Church partnered with Taubman Centers, a national developer of upscale regional malls.
In a recent interview, Taubman Centers' chief operating officer said his company advised replacing the failing ZCMI and Crossroads Plaza malls on Main Street with a more dynamic and better-designed home to retain fashion retailers threatening to leave the city. The resulting design, William Taubman explained, reflects a broad philosophy of building shopping centers to provide a rich and integrated set of experiences as opposed to just a fetching collection of shops.
"Nobody has to come to the shopping center and shop in order to live their daily life," Taubman said. "They come because they enjoy coming. They come because they fulfill an emotional need to be with people, communicate and connect."
Analysts said that retail strategy of offering experiences, meaning and a sense of authenticity as opposed to simple access to material goods is especially crucial in Salt Lake City, with its high concentration of young adults known as millennials.
"Demographics matter when we talk about retail demand," said Darin Mellot, senior commercial real estate analyst with Salt Lake City-based CBRE. "And as big a story as millennials are on a national level, it's a lot bigger in Salt Lake."
The northeast end of the Salt Lake Valley also boasts large numbers of well-off baby boomers, Mellot noted, which also portends well for retail.
The experiential approach to shopping is reflected again and again in City Creek features, Taubman and others noted, from its open-air design, landscaping, simulated creek and waterfall, fountains, plazas, pocket parks, public art and retractable skylight to its many vistas of the surrounding city.
"It feels so good when you're in this space," said Ron Loch, head of planning and design for Taubman. "And that's what we want. We want our customers to feel good."
Block busters • Loch said designers opted early on to break up large city blocks within the mall into smaller segments by opening up and improving several midblock streets. The idea, said Loch, was to model the proportions of great walking-friendly European thoroughfares.
"By quartering them," he said of Salt Lake City's super-sized blocks, "they became much more comfortable in scale and much more walkable. It also allowed for more intersections and the creation of open space."
Both Loch's and the LDS Church's designs, Williams said, were intended to be inclusive and porous to the surrounding streets, creating pedestrian paths that bring people into and through City Creek. And while nearly all the stores in the church-owned mall close on Sundays, public passages remain open around the clock.
When it was on the drawing board, City Creek drew criticism over the elevated skywalk that stretches over Main Street to connect the mall's two halves.
City Creek and its skywalk have created "a culture of privatization, and downtown didn't use to have that," said Stephen Goldsmith, a University of Utah lecturer and former Salt Lake City planner. "This is an insidious erosion of the public way, and the public way is essential to democracy."
While he and other detractors maintain the bridge creates a sense of elitism and division that funnels shoppers away from the street, Taubman said the feature was an essential part of the company's desire to keep the City Creek experience uninterrupted.
"There needed to be a convenient and seamless connection throughout the entire project," he said.
People will come, and eat • City Creek is a mixed-use development, incorporating office towers at its east end and residential high-rises with hundreds of apartments and condominiums, primarily to the west. The shopping center also reaches eastward through a tunnel under State Street to link up with the popular Harmons City Creek grocery store.
While bonding the mall into its urban setting, these other uses beyond retail also buttress City Creek's future vitality, said Williams, the church's designer.
"Isn't that what creates a 24-hour downtown," he asked, "is people living there?"
City Creek has about 700 upscale condos and apartments, with 425 of them in three residential towers: 99 West and Richards Court on the mall's west end and The Regent farther east. Proximity to shopping, downtown and the LDS Church's Temple Square are obvious selling points for these units, but Loch said the mall's designers deliberately chose distinct architectural styles for living areas and retail spaces.
Among other advantages, Loch said, "this lets us adapt to trends in retail, whether stores get bigger or smaller. That flexibility is a really important principle."
Construction on City Creek's east block involved tying the new shopping center into a handful of existing office towers, boasting a total of nearly 1.4 million square feet.
Not coincidentally, the mall's east side also houses its food court, which feeds sizable lunchtime crowds with its nearly 25 restaurants.
At 1,250 seats, the cavernous court extends indoors and outdoors and is more than twice as big as the industry average for U.S. shopping centers, according to City Creek general manager Linda Wardell.
"Some days," she said, "even that's not enough for us."
As retail and shopping habits continue to evolve, that expansive food area may prove an even more important draw than marquee retailers such as Macy's and Nordstrom.
"One thing we're seeing globally is the power of food," said Williams, the Toronto-based mall consultant. "From a shopping center point of view, food is the new anchor. That's where the action is today."