By Christopher Solomon, The New York Times -- As an occasional Utah visitor, I’ve viewed downtown Salt Lake City like many other travelers who find themselves in the area: as a place to gas up the rental car as I race to the airport after a ski vacation in Park City or Alta. The word “interesting” rarely found itself in the same company with “downtown Salt Lake.” Its urban core was nearly vacant after dark, with few residents and even fewer restaurants and attractions. The double-length blocks and yawning streets hardly welcomed tourists or residents, either — the streets platted so wide, history tells, so pioneers could easily turn around their four-ox teams.
Now, though, a nascent renaissance has taken hold in downtown Salt Lake City, making a stop appealing even outside ski season.
Roughly 125 businesses of all kinds have opened or moved there since 2009, or are about to open — not counting 100 in the newest shopping center — according to the Downtown Alliance, which promotes the area. About 5,000 people now live there, too, a 35 percent jump since 2010, said Jason Mathis, the group’s executive director. No one will mistake it for the East Village, but downtown is starting to become a place people actually seek out to eat and play. One fact captured the change as well as any, apparent on a recent visit: Four craft breweries now operate within 10 blocks of Temple Square, the historic center of both downtown and of the teetotaling Mormon world.
“Salt Lake is really ascending, and all the stars seem to be aligned” for the future, Mr. Mathis said. “There’s good stuff going on.”
The single biggest catalyst of this change, strangely, is a shopping mall. In March 2012 City Creek Center opened, a sprawling, 23-acre mall adjacent to Temple Square that was completely financed by a development arm of the Mormon Church.
City Creek Center (shopcitycreekcenter.com), at 50 South Main Street, is a handsome monument to consumption. There are more than 100 stores, many of them high-end and new to the market — Tiffany, Nordstrom, Coach. The development also has Las Vegas-like fountains (music! jets of flame!), a fully retractable glass roof that closes in inclement weather and a river that runs through it (O.K., a stream; the eponymous, reimagined City Creek, with actual trout). A “Passport to Savings” with special offers and discounts for travelers can be picked up at the center’s customer service desk and area hotels.
The project isn’t so important for the Porsche sunglasses that you can now buy downtown as for what else it brought: vitality. The complex, which covers some two and a half city blocks, also has 1.2 million square feet of office space and three residential towers housing 800 units (with one more tower planned) and will incorporate an existing, soon-to-be-renovated Marriott hotel.
Spurred by the investment and the excitement, restaurateurs and other entrepreneurs have focused their attention anew on downtown in the last few years. Here are some highlights: