As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many of them from out of town, descend on Salt Lake City this weekend for the LDS Church's annual General Conference, they are certain to notice some commotion: Two blocks in the heart of downtown are kind of a mess.

The blocks that encompass the Crossroads Plaza and ZCMI Center malls are the site of a massive downtown renovation project, spearheaded by the LDS Church in its efforts to bolster the economy and tourism of its headquarters city.

ZCMI and Crossroads, both of which are owned by the LDS Church, will be torn down, as will most other buildings on the blocks, to make way for City Creek Center, a 20-acre mixed-use development, bringing new residential, retail and office space to the heart of downtown.

But with all the construction — or, more accurately at this point, deconstruction — going on, there will only be one wholly inaccessible area for conferencegoers to navigate. The sidewalk running along the east side of West Temple from South Temple to the Marriott Hotel is closed.

Other sidewalks are also closed, but they have been replaced by covered walkways.

When the center opens, which LDS Church officials expect will be sometime in mid-2011, it will include four residential towers on South Temple, office space both in existing and new buildings, three department stores — Nordstrom, Macy's and Dillard's — and two levels of smaller retail stores that front an indoor-outdoor pedestrian walk.

The retail component will be managed by mall giant Taubman Centers Inc.

There will also be a spot on 100 South for a 415-foot-tall fifth residential tower, which would be among the state's tallest buildings. It won't be part of the first phase of the development but will be built later depending on how quickly the other condominiums are bought up.

It will be built between the Marriott Hotel and the Crandall and McIntyre retail buildings, all of which will be spared by the wrecking ball. Other current buildings that will remain are the Gateway West, Eagle Gate, Beneficial Financial Group and Zions Bank towers, Utah Woolen Mills, the Qwest building and the historic Deseret/First Security Bank building.

Two more future condo buildings may one day be built on the block just east of the Crossroads block, and there will be two levels of apartments for rent above some of the retail space. In the end, there could be anywhere from 300 to 700 residential units in the project.

Church officials have not said how much they expect the entire development to cost, though city officials and others have estimated it could be an investment of $1 billion or more.

Money for the project is not coming from LDS Church members' tithing donations. City Creek Center is being developed by Property Reserve Inc., the church's real-estate development arm, and its money comes from other real-estate ventures.

PRI has owned the ZCMI Center since the mall was built in the 1970s. That block has been home to the Zions Co-operative Mercantile Institution department store since it was founded in 1868 with the church as a major backer. ZCMI was sold to the May Company in 1999 and became a Meier & Frank store, and later became Macy's when May was acquired by Federated Department Stores in 2005. But the mall remained PRI property.

The church bought Crossroads Plaza in 2003 and announced it planned to give the two blocks a major face-lift. Since then, the church has unveiled ideas for that renovation that have been nixed by city leaders. The City Creek Center incarnation, unveiled in September, has received widespread praise and has already received several city approvals.

In October, the church received its first demolition permits from the city, and by the end of that month, the historic Inn at Temple Square, on the southeast corner of West Temple and South Temple streets, had closed its doors for good. A month later, demolition had begun, making way for one of the planned condo towers.

Today, demolition work is well under way on the adjacent Crossroads parking structure.

The LDS Church has also been given initial approval from the Planning Commission for three of the planned residential towers, including the 415-foot-tall one. Those towers needed special approval because they exceed the 100-foot height guidelines for midblock buildings — that is, buildings not built on corners.

But the plan hasn't been without some controversy. Among the first debates was the church's initial plan to demolish the Deseret/First Security Bank building on the northeast corner of 100 South and Main Street.

Calling the building a "gem" of classical revival architecture, the Utah Heritage Foundation led the charge to save the almost 90-year-old building.

Built in 1919, it was originally home to Deseret National Bank, which early church President Brigham Young opened on the same corner in 1871. It later became headquarters of the Eccles family's First Security Bank, which in 2000 merged with Wells Fargo.

Calls by historic preservationists and residents to save the structure, with its carved lions' heads peering from the top, ornate buffalo and Indian head medallions and two rows of classical columns, were answered when, in December, the LDS Church announced it had decided to let the building stay. Its use has not been decided, but PRI officials have said it could be put to residential or office use.

Another point of contention in the City Creek Center plans has been the idea of a skywalk, which PRI and Taubman officials hope to see spanning Main Street, connecting the upper level of retail on the two blocks.

Two city master plans, however, prohibit aboveground pedestrian walkways that would disrupt certain view corridors or discourage street-level pedestrian activity. Main Street is specifically named for its views of Ensign Peak to the north.

Taubman officials say the skywalk is needed to make the retail component viable, though they have stopped short of calling it a deal-breaker.

Among critics of the skywalk is Mayor Rocky Anderson, who remains skeptical of the idea although he has somewhat softened his originally hard-and-fast opposition.

The Planning Commission has given the skywalk a small boost by recommending that the City Council amend the master plans to allow the possibility of skywalks when no other alternatives are feasible and precautions have been taken to protect views and street-level commercial activity.

The amendments would give the city final design approval on any skywalks, and the City Creek Center bridge would not be given the OK unless PRI could show that it met those requirements.

More details on the plans for City Creek Center, including maps, illustrations and information on sidewalk closures and available parking, is available at www.downtownrising.com.


E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com