The recent news about the demolition of the North Visitors Center on Temple Square as part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ multi-block renovation efforts on its downtown Salt Lake City campus meant the loss of a signature building, but it also meant an opportunity for improved sight lines to the Salt Lake Temple itself along with the promise of more open public access to Temple Square.
But without any sort of visitors center to speak of at Temple Square—the South Visitors Center was always included in the Salt Lake Temple’s multi-year refurb plans—the area will lack any sort of casual congregation place. The temple itself is, of course, only open to members of the church deemed worthy. The other remaining buildings, the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall, are open for tours and form part of the history of the square, but are hardly places for the masses to congregate outside of concerts and other meetings, let alone to host exhibits or other events.
But a likely candidate for such efforts in the future is the Conference Center. The massive building, situated just across North Temple, a major artery of Salt Lake City, is already hosting some exhibits previously shown in the South Visitors Center, and during the Salt Lake Temple’s renovation is something of a de facto visitors center. That role will likely only expand with the razing of the North Visitors Center.
There’s just one problem: North Temple. It’s a busy street that has, for two decades, separated the Conference Center from Temple Square proper. This hasn’t been much of an issue in the past, as the Conference Center held its handful of events during the year and offered tours, but wasn’t being used as a port of entry of sorts for all things Temple Square. If that role expands, the Church might need to rethink how easily pedestrians can access Temple Square from the Conference Center, particularly as it pertains to a unified Temple Square (i.e. missionary) experience.
Also present is a common theme in tearing down visitors centers and drastically altering the plaza in front of the Church Office building: opening up the view to the Salt Lake Temple. As current projects stand, there’s still a wide strip of asphalt marring the view between the Conference Center and the Salt Lake Temple, even as Temple Square’s walls give way to fences, and it’s hard to imagine the folks in the Church Administration Building wouldn’t like to change that.
Might the Church investigate purchasing at least one block of North Temple so it can pedestrianize the space between the Conference Center and Temple Square? Such a move is not without precedent. In 1999, the Salt Lake City council voted 5-2 to sell a block of Main St. to the Church for around $8 million. The move was controversial at the time due to a municipality selling public land to a religious organization, and the city required the Church treat the space as a public plaza and not simply an annex of Temple Square, but it allowed the Church to build a pedestrian plaza between the temple and the Church Office Building plaza. In 2017, the Church made a similar, albeit smaller-scale move, in Manti, Utah.
Let’s pretend the Church pushes for this purchase. It would need to convince the city that it has abided by its commitment to treat the area as public – something the Church hasn’t always succeeded with on the Main St. parcel, particularly when it comes to the exercise of free speech. Would this include allowing protesters during General Conference? (Such individuals could always stand on the corners of Main St. or West Temple.)
What about traffic? Closing a block of Main St. does not appear to have adversely affected traffic flow in the area because after Temple Square, the street flows into a largely residential area in the hills above the city, and also abuts the state capitol. Closing North Temple might be fraught with more complications, especially as it thwarts easy access to the Conference Center parking garage on the western side of the property. And tunneling under the new pedestrianized section of the street is no longer feasible because of the massive tunnel recently completed to connect the Conference Center to the new Salt Lake Temple annex. However, a block east of Main Street, North Temple becomes 2nd Avenue and enters a residential community, so closing the street to cars might not be the arterial cutoff some fear.
Of course, if the Church purchased North Temple, where does this process end? Some might argue it’s foolish to separate the Church History Museum and the Family History Library from the main compound, so is West Temple next? Do we take in two full blocks of North Temple so as not to leave out the Church History Library?
We can only assume the Church isn’t eager to revisit the public relations mess in the wake of its purchase of Main St. from the city, but we also know the Church cares about controlling the environment in and around Temple Square as much as it can. The City Creek center, a mixed-use shopping, commercial, and residential development immediately south of Temple Square, is a perfect example of the Church investing heavily to improve the overall experience around Salt Lake City’s landmark attraction. Taking a one-block stretch of North Temple wouldn’t be nearly as significant an undertaking, but might come with more significant drawbacks in community relations.
To be clear, this is all conjecture. We’ve seen no plans nor heard any inside information about the Church making such a move. But pushing to expand the overall Latter-day Saint experience around these important properties easily falls within previous and current efforts in which the Church has engaged, and permanently attaching the Conference Center to the rest of the Church’s property might be a logical move.