Church buys prime downtown real estate

Salt Lake City » LDS official calls 13 acres a long-term investment.
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In an abrupt about-face, the LDS Church has vastly expanded its presence in downtown Salt Lake City with the purchase of 13 acres of prime real estate, including one entire city block.

The church, which is active in real-estate development, purchased a 10-acre block between 400 South and 500 South and West Temple and Main streets from the Sinclair Cos., controlled by oil magnate Earl Holding. The block is directly north of the Little America Hotel, which is owned by Holding.

The church also purchased a 2- to 3-acre parcel to the east of that 10-acre block across Main Street, said Sinclair spokesman Clint Ensign, who declined further comment. That parcel is directly north of the Grand America hotel, which also is owned by Holding.

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter confirmed the purchase by the church's Property Reserve Inc.

"The land was purchased as a long-term investment with no immediate plans for development," he said in a statement. Purchase price was not disclosed, although estimates value the deal around $25 million.

The purchase, announced Thursday, runs counter to the church's statements over the years that it does not want to keep expanding its downtown real-estate empire, which already consists of the equivalent of more than six city blocks.

In a 2004 interview, LDS Church Presiding Bishop H. David Burton said the church does not want to own more property south of 100 South or north of 200 North.

"We don't want to, in any way, have a situation where it can be said that the church is trying to control the city," Burton said at the time. "What we're trying to do is control that part of our destiny that is immediately adjacent to the most important, sacred parts of the property owned by the church."

Brandon Smith, a land broker with NAI Utah in Salt Lake City, said he believes the church eventually will build a mixed-use development on the site, a project that probably would have a hotel component to it. But unlike other developers who must finance the acquisition of land and construction, the LDS Church most likely can afford to wait -- years if it wants -- before officials even begin to plan what to do with the property. Smith said that 10 contiguous acres could accommodate most any type of development.

The church already is developing the massive City Creek Center project four blocks to the north in downtown Salt Lake City, which will include retail, office and residential space.

The church did go beyond its self-imposed central business district boundaries years ago when it bought the Old Navy building, south of 100 South on Main Street, and later, when it purchased the former Newspaper Agency Corp. offices at 135. S. Main St. But both were fairly small purchases compared with the purchase announced Thursday.

Much of the 13-acre parcel being sold to the church by Sinclair comprises surface parking lots used by various tenants downtown. Ensign said the Holding family still owns about 14 acres south of their two hotels.

Over the years, various uses have been proposed for the 10-acre property. It was a possible site for the Real Salt Lake soccer stadium, but that project ultimately was built in Sandy. In June of last year, Holding offered up some of the property for a new convention center, a proposal that went nowhere.

Salt Lake City Councilman Luke Garrott on Thursday said the lack of development of that land has been a detriment to the downtown area.

"It's been a dead zone. If this [sale] spurs good development in the south part of downtown, I'm all for it."