Between Church and State- Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center

One of my students this semester sent me the following link to an interesting development conflict in Salt Lake City:

Salt Lake City Journal – Project Renews Downtown, and Debate – NYTimes.com

Churches as developers is not a new phenomenon, as Catholic Churches wielded (and continue to wield) enormous financial and political capital in the places they hold land. The LDS folks here are pragmatically allowing the development of liquor licenses. IOW, they seem to be acting like any other property developer.

One of the things I always wonder about, however, is what would the US be like if it ever went the way of Iran–going from a modern state to religious one. I know plenty of people think that Christian groups have far too much influence in the US as it is. But I could imagine a world where nation-states have largely dissolved in favor of city-states. If that ever happened, what would these cities be like? Would churches become less pragmatic and more prescriptive, being such major landholders, in a city-state? Or would global economic pressures force cosmopolitanism?

Clearly I am skylarking, but it brings me to the thought that came up as I was reading the story: well, if church development of its own property is a problem because it’s a church, what, exactly can Salt Lake City do about it? I assume the church holds the property at a certain level of zoning which entails by-right development intensities. Other than denying approvals for changes or trying to argue that the church can not develop or hold property, I can’t think of anything that prevents a church from doing what any other developer would do.

The problem, from the social inclusion/sustainability perspective, is not that real estate companies, whether they are some billionaire LA developer or a billionaire Church like the LDS, creates these kinds of faux-public space developments. The problem is the underprovision of genuinely public places like parks and squares in the chronically underfunded cities like Los Angeles. It’s not that these developers are really doing anything sinister; the problem arises if cities are not doing their job as public space developers in keeping pace with providing good spots for activities that don’t involve shopping or having to buy a $4 latte to sit down anywhere.


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