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The LDS Church is targeting March 2012 for the grand opening of downtown's $1.5 billion City Creek Center, spanning two city blocks where the old malls used to sit. Presiding Bishop H. David Burton has molded the project — considered one of the largest current commercial ventures in the nation. The Salt Lake Tribune quizzed Burton on a status update, how the recession is affecting the project and about the criticism over whether the church's increasing reach could lead to a "Vaticanization" of downtown Salt Lake City. The question-and-answer exchange, conducted by e-mail, appears below.

Derek P. Jensen

Q: City Creek Center already is changing Salt Lake City's skyline. Towers are rising, condominiums are being sold, some businesses are moving in. Give us an update on City Creek's retail, housing and office progress. And, given the soft economy, will you be able to lease all of the retail space in time for the 2012 opening?

A: We're right on schedule for a 2012 retail grand opening. Meanwhile, if you walk around the area, you'll notice that construction has topped out and we are largely formed in. The shape of things to come is clearly outlined now.

Our first 90 condominiums at Richards Court, across the street south from Temple Square, are complete. About a third of those units have been sold or are under contract. Over at The Regent on 100 South, 90 of the 150 units there have been reserved. At Promontory, the 30-story residential tower on the corner of South Temple and West Temple, 185 units will be offered for sale sometime near the end of this year.

Our 1.6 million square feet of office space at City Creek is essentially fully leased with two exceptions. The Deseret Building (the old First Security Building) at 100 South and Main, is undergoing a seismic upgrade and renovation that should be complete by year end. We are also constructing a new small office building on South Temple on Block 75 that will be finished the middle of next year.

On the retail side, as you know, Nordstrom and Macy's will be our anchors, with a half million additional square feet of space for approximately 80 other stores and restaurants. Our goal has been to create an inviting and open downtown, where people can live, work and come to enjoy a meal, take a stroll, and shop.

Leasing retail space is an inexact science and it depends on many variables, and, yes, the economy is soft right now. However, City Creek is in a unique situation because of its location and because the recession has virtually stopped new retail development in the rest of the country. I have full confidence in our retail development partner, The Taubman Co. Taubman has a team of seasoned leasing professionals and years of successful retail management and leasing experience. Time will tell, but all indications are pointing to a bright future. I'm very optimistic about City Creek.

Q: What do you hope City Creek will do for the city and the church? How might it affect the image of each?

A: City Creek will create an inviting sense of energy and vitality that will bring people downtown. We have worked closely with Mayor [Ralph] Becker and the City Council to make sure our efforts complement the city's master plan, and we're optimistic it will bring more development to Main Street and Salt Lake City in general. Salt Lake City is a dynamic, wonderful place to live, work and visit. We want to do our part to keep it that way.

For the church, our world headquarters and some of our most sacred and historic sites and grounds are located right across the street from City Creek. It's important for us to protect what we consider sacred space. City Creek's design and the overall environment it creates will help us do that.

Q: What elements excite you most about City Creek?

A: The fact that we're creating a safe, beautiful, open, inviting area where Utahns and visitors alike can come and experience Salt Lake City at its finest.

Q: Most residents probably don't realize you are a key "architect" of this project. When it's done, should you be called Mr. Downtown?

A: Perhaps it would be better to call me "Mr. What were you thinking when you started this project?" This is a huge project that has taken years of planning and work, and I personally feel a great sense of satisfaction seeing it come to fruition. I've appreciated working with Mayor Becker and other city leaders. I've been especially impressed with our construction workers, engineers, and architects and the pride and effort they've put into their work.

Q: We have yet to see the names of new retailers for City Creek. Will some of those announcements be coming and when? Will there be any retailers or restaurants entering Salt Lake City for the first time? And has the recession made it difficult to sign tenants?

A: As we've discussed, Nordstrom and Macy's will anchor the retail development, and we're anticipating more than 80 other stores and restaurants. But Taubman is still making contacts and negotiating leases, so any announcement would be premature. We expect Taubman will start making some announcements early next year. Our plan is to have the grand opening in March 2012.

Q: Is there any truth to rumors that the total price tag is nearer $3 billion than $1.5 billion?

A: Obviously construction of a new 22-acre, mixed-use development requires substantial resources. I have told the City Council that we are investing hundreds of millions of dollars. It is a private development that isn't using public funds, and no church tithing funds are being used. While the scope of the project has increased slightly since inception, we are on budget and currently expect the net cost of the project to be very close to our original estimates.

Suffice it to say that City Creek will be a wonderful benefit to the city, the church and everyone who visits downtown Salt Lake.

Q: How do you answer those who fear the LDS Church's increasing control in and around City Creek will lead to a "Vaticanization" of downtown Salt Lake City?

A: I would tell them that those concerns are unfounded. We are striving to build a center that is open and accommodating for all. We have a partner, The Taubman Co., with great experience in operating retail centers. Guidelines for the open space will conform to standards used for privately owned commercial space.

Stores on property owned by the church will be open six days a week. Owners of stores and restaurants on property not owned by the church will make their own decisions about days and hours of operation. They will also make their own decisions whether or not to apply for alcoholic beverage licenses.