It’s early downtown and the sun is still rising behind the Wasatch Mountains. The 7AM TRAX glides along Main Street, and pulls into the City Creek station. Throngs of commuters pour through the open doors. They walk in, around and through this experiment in urban renewal that the International Council of Shopping Centers called an “outstanding example of visionary architectural achievement in sustainability and innovative design.”
Bankers, line cooks, janitors, lawyers, servers and other downtown employees all converge on downtown hours before the shops open. City Creek Center is transformed into a hive of movement completely unrelated to a retail experience. Connecting and welcoming people from across the region is one of the primary reasons City Creek Center was built. And the Center’s utility is only fully realized when it is teeming with diverse crowds. Nothing makes Linda Wardell happier.
The charismatic general manager came to Salt Lake City in 2010 to open City Creek Center for Taubman Corp. which owns and manages the retail component of the project. After opening centers across the United States, she has found a home in Utah and at City Creek.“The part of my job that I love the most is interacting with the shoppers, neighbors and tourists that fill the center every day,” She said. “I spend a couple of hours every day in the center and my favorite thing to do is stand at Richards Court and see so many different kinds of people all having a fantastic time. I’m especially thrilled when people bring their friends and family from out-of-town. It’s such a compliment that this is one of the places they choose to share as part of our capital city.”
Form and Function Collide
“Ten years ago, our partners at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day envisioned the development of these two blocks as a way to enliven the entire city center,” Wardell said. “City Creek is a model for urban architecture, not only in the design and construction, but in its purpose and operation.” Much has been written about the bells and whistles of the center, from the retractable roof to the Rainbow trout that swim the center’s namesake feature. Less focus has been paid to the intentions of the developers and operators of the site. The aspirations for City Creek Center are more than just a nice shopping mall. The goal was to transform the entire downtown core.
Influenced by city planners and national urban design best practices, City Creek Center has 16 access points to surrounding streets, significantly more than traditional malls. The center is dissected by walking paths that are open 24 hours per day. It is one of the most porous privately owned blocks in the Central Business District. One evidence of the center’s integration into the rest of the city center: only 40 percent of City Creek’s shoppers use the center’s garage which means that 60 percent of the center’s customers arrive in some other way – through public transit, walking, biking or coming from another downtown destination.
A Good Neighbor
Wardell is a committed and engaged neighbor – not just for surrounding downtown storefronts and cultural amenities, but also for the larger municipal community. “City Creek is a gathering place for people from neighborhoods around the community,” Wardell said. “If you draw a circle 10 miles around the center, it would include Glendale, Rose Park, North Salt Lake, Centerville and Bountiful, the Avenues, Central City, Yalecrest, Liberty Park, Sugarhouse, 9th and 9th, South Salt Lake and of course downtown. These are our shoppers and you see an incredibly diverse group of our neighbors here every day.”
“People get a sense of ownership about their downtown here,” Wardell said, “when people come to City Creek Center they are usually also incorporating another event like the Farmers Market, a Utah Jazz game or Utah Symphony performance. Sometimes they are just eating in a restaurant like Martine, Eva’s Bakery or Café Molise before or after visiting us. We understand that we are part of a larger downtown experience that is more than just shopping.”
As part of a commitment to community stewardship, City Creek Center has supported diverse groups including the Utah AIDS Foundation, EVE, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the Junior League, The Road Home, Volunteers of America, Ballet West, United Way, Utah Symphony and Opera, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Utah and the Downtown Alliance.
The retail world continues to change and shopping and entertainment centers must evolve to stay relevant. City Creek epitomizes this kind of successful evolution. Increased competition from Internet shopping sites and suburban malls means that successful retail centers must offer more than just the right stores and products. They have to create an experience and appeal to shoppers emotional and social well being, too.
“City Creek Center is about creating an experience that people can’t get through the Internet or in a traditional mall setting,” Wardell explained. “Shoppers are looking for something different today than they were in the past. They want their favorite stores, but they also want to have an authentic and distinct experience that is beautiful and social.”
Quantitative research recently released by the Downtown Alliance shows that City Creek is a regional destination, attracting a wide swath of age groups, income levels and a broad cross section of Utah shoppers from along the Wasatch Front. This is in stark contrast to many suburban shopping centers that draw from a smaller geographic footprint and appeal to specific age groups. City Creek Center draws from a wide cross section of income and demographic groups.
“This is the urban center for a 250 mile radius,” Wardell said. “We draw on shoppers from Idaho, Wyoming and we benefit enormously from being across the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center.” About 40 percent of the money spent at City Creek comes from outside Utah’s borders and includes shoppers who are skiers, national parks visitors and convention delegates. “We really benefit from being in the heart of the convention district and look forward to the completion of the convention headquarters hotel, recognizing the huge economic benefits that it will bring to the entire state.”
The Great Glass Ceiling
City Creek Center is known for a giant glass retractable roof, but the center has helped to shatter another kind of glass ceiling in Utah. Wardell is a prominent female leader of a major Utah institution and the region’s flagship entertainment and retail center. “When I came to Utah, I understood I might be watched and observed by many people and I needed to consider my actions, words and deeds because whether I wanted to be a role model or not, I would be – for my peer group, women in other organizations, and people who would come after me.”
Along with former Democratic state senator Pat Jones, Wardell has helped to champion the creation of the Women’s Leadership Institute. The mission is to elevate the stature of women’s leadership in Utah. Wardell notes a significant increase in attention and resources that Utah leaders are expending to help support more females in leadership roles. “I’m seeing that dynamic change now and I think that’s a really positive thing,” she said. “I think helping to support change is a responsibility I have and I try to set a good example. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I can make sure I am the most prepared person in the room.”
At Home in the Beehive State
Few of Wardell’s colleagues at Taubman believed she would stay in Utah once City Creek Center was open. But she has found a home in Salt Lake City and is committed to spending the rest of her life here. “When I came to Utah, I told everyone I was looking forward to the Utah lifestyle,” she said. “All my friends thought I was crazy. I told them I would have a great experience – people would be friendly and welcoming, similar to the South and it has exceeded my expectations.”
The Georgia native said Salt Lake City was a huge shift from Southern New Jersey where she was the General Manager of the Pier Shops at Caesars, a shopping mall on Atlantic City’s boardwalk. “People here are the nicest people that I have encountered in the many places that I have lived,” she said. “ I have been embraced, accepted and warmly welcomed, especially in the downtown business community.” Wardell credits Utah’s lifestyle, geography and sense of community for the decision to stay. She recently relocated her parents to Utah from Georgia to keep her family close.
“When people have lived here their entire lives they don’t fully appreciate what we have here,” she said. “When you move to a place like this that is beautiful, clean and safe and the people are wonderful, I would be crazy to want to leave this place.”