Tuesday, March 14, 2017 1:00 AM
By Jasen Lee, Deseret News — SALT LAKE CITY — It's been five years since downtown Salt Lake City marked a major milestone, christening a grand mixed-use development that was supposed to resurrect a central business district that was suffering through the worst economic downturn in recent memory.
Today, the $1.5 billion commercial and residential project known as City Creek Center has turned out to be one of the best investments ever made in Utah’s capital city.
City Creek has been a catalyst for rapid urban redevelopment that has helped revive the downtown area, Salt Lake economic development director Lara Fritts said Tuesday during a roundtable discussion with community leaders to exchange ideas on the impact the center has had since opening on March 22, 2012.
“The central business district of any city should be its heartbeat, and our heart is strong in Salt Lake City,” Fritts said. “Vacancy rates continue to go down while we added (new elements) to the market.”
She said rental rates for office and commercial property in downtown are rising along with supply and demand. She also noted that more people are choosing to live in the downtown area, which is creating a more vibrant urban community. Much of that growth can be attributed to City Creek’s development, she added.
“There are a lot of things planned for continuing the momentum City Creek has brought,” Fritts said.
Noting the $125 million redevelopment plan for Vivint Smart Home Arena, the Gateway’s $100 million renovation, along with development plans for the Depot and Granary districts; she said the growth trajectory for downtown over the new few years is trending upward.
“What we’re (also) seeing is this evolution of people wanting to live in the city and with that, retail follows rooftops,” Fritts said. “We’re hoping that within the next three to five years, we’re going to see some significant progress and impacts made.”
When it came online in March 2012, City Creek Center was the only retail center to open in the U.S. that year, according to International Council of Shopping Centers.
Locally, it was hailed as an architectural marvel with 700,000 square feet of shopping and dining space, along with a total of 536 new condominiums and apartments. Among the unique features of the 23-acre development were the 30,000-square-foot retractable glass roof, a skybridge over Main Street and a re-creation of City Creek, the snow-fed stream that once meandered through the city.
During its relatively short time on Main Street, the impact of the development has been transformative, said Mark Gibbons, president of City Creek Reserve — a real estate arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that developed the property's master plan.
“It’s been gratifying to see the momentum City Creek ignited as a catalyst for investment,” he said. “The revitalization of downtown is an abiding source of satisfaction for all of us who’ve had the privilege of being part of it.”
One analyst described the City Creek development as a key economic driver during what were tough times prior to opening, and has now helped downtown become a thriving commercial and residential center again.
“What (construction projects like City Creek) did was allow our economy to not go as low as it could have and to rebound more quickly,” said Natalie Gochnour, economist and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. “That rebound set us apart, and it’s just been magic since then.”
City Creek Center is managed by Michigan-based Taubman Inc., which operates retail shopping centers across the country, as well as properties in Asia and Puerto Rico. Thus far, the center has been able to meet all of its business goals over the past five years, explained general manager Linda Wardell, and that momentum is expected to continue.
“We’re a part of the evolution of retail, and that’s why we’re performing very differently in the face of other types of competition,” Wardell said.
While the panel of nine civic leaders agreed the center has been the catalyst for economic growth locally, it has also helped Salt Lake City become a more sought-after destination for business and convention travelers.
According to Visit Salt Lake, the typical convention delegate spends $940 during an average three-day stay, with about $126 spent on shopping, explained Scott Bank, president and CEO.
“While shopping is not the biggest driver for choosing a destination for a convention or meeting, it’s one of the more important activities they do while they’re here,” he said. “Having that activity makes the city more appealing for a meeting planner who's choosing a location for a meeting of 500 (people) or 25,000.”
He said having City Creek and the subsequent additional development in the center of downtown has definitely been advantageous.
“When you have a center at that (high) level, in a city like Salt Lake, it makes us that much more competitive with other cities of similar size,” Beck said.
Over the past decade, the number of rooms booked for conventions has nearly doubled, he noted; and while all of that increase cannot be attributed to the development of City Creek Center, it has been a key component.
“It was clearly around 2010 to 2012 when our (city) really became competitive (to) the other convention cities we compete with,” he said. A lot of that is City Creek (and) a lot of that is City Creek-inspired from the other development that has taken place on Main Street and the surrounding area, he said.
“All the development of the new restaurants and light life; all of those things connect the dots directly back to the investment of the LDS Church and Taubman to come in and create that experience,” Beck said.