Salt Lake City, UT — Many labels have, over the last two centuries, been pinned to the Mormon church. Depending on the standpoint, it’s one of ornate temples, wacky theology or forward-thinking philanthropy. But few realize that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), although technically a nonprofit, is also a lucrative business machine. Central to this growth has been a nationwide real estate portfolio. At a time when large developers matter because of their impacts on cities, LDS should be a bigger part of America’s urbanist conversation.
I hadn’t realized the church’s vast real estate holdings, myself, even while walking through one of its major projects. I was spending a Saturday night in downtown Salt Lake City, when I stumbled upon a large shopping mall called City Creek Center. It is an insular development built around a pedestrian walkway, with multiple stories of retail. While the mall wasn’t especially crowded that night—the east side of downtown Salt Lake City remains the busier portion—it still seemed to be doing well, with a Tiffany & Co., Apple Store and upscale Brazilian steakhouse. It wasn’t until later that I realized the $2 billion project was developed by a private company sitting under LDS’ umbrella.
But City Creek Center represents a fraction of the portfolio. LDS currently oversees various private real estate investment and development firms, all with names that avoid mentioning the church. City Creek Center, for example, was the undertaking of Property Reserve, Inc., an LDS subsidiary. Others include AgReserves, Suburban Land Reserve and Ensign Peak Advisors. The portfolio, meanwhile, spreads well beyond Utah. The church is Florida’s largest private landowner, and has the nation’s largest cattle ranch, and its holdings extend into cities, too.
The church has built temples in various downtown areas, often surrounding them with profit-driven, even luxurious, projects. In Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden, the church has built (relatively) high-density, mixed-use projects, such as City Creek Center, right across from their grandiloquent temples. In Philadelphia, LDS is building a 32-story tower in the north-central area, near another temple. Other urban-style developments include a 386-unit apartment complex in Irving, TX, west of Dallas; and a 550-unit affordable housing project outside Honolulu. The church is also building, or plans to build, various master-planned sprawl communities. Most famous is the church’s long-term vision to turn Deseret cattle and citrus ranch, a 290,000-acre plot in central Florida, into a new city that could house 500,000 by 2080.
This penchant for city-building dates to the church’s roots. After Joseph Smith invented Mormonism in upstate New York in 1830, he and his followers were forced by persecution to move west, settling in one town after another. When the church finally found its home here in the Salt Lake Valley, it built cities based on Smith’s early town planning visions. In 1833, he had prepared a City of Zion plan, calling for long square blocks, wide streets and large setbacks, to go around a temple square where the devout could worship together. Smith’s vision is still reflected in the layout of downtown Salt Lake City, with its abnormally large blocks, and in other Utah cities and towns.
This approach of building cities around the Mormon faith remains relevant to the church. Much of the reason that LDS so adamantly builds around its temples is to create an atmosphere of safety and comfort for church members who attend services; and to expand the Mormon sensibility throughout the neighborhood. A senior church real estate manager declared as much in 2014 to the New York Times.
“The church is sensitive to what can be developed next to its temple,” said Michael Marcheschi. “The church would like to control to a certain degree its environs,” so that surrounding uses are of the “right moral fabric.”
“They’re an interesting landlord,” added Jason Mathis, of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, to the Times. “They’re not worried about the next quarter. They have a much longer perspective than many other investors would have had. They want to know what the city will look like in the next 50 or 100 years.”
But more and more, the church has abandoned these religious undertones, argued Ryan Cragun, a Univeristy of Tampa sociologist specializing in religion. For example, this big future city in Florida, he said by phone, will likely function like any other wealthy private community—with high-end retail and golf courses—rather than a modern version of the religious towns envisioned by Joseph Smith.
“[LDS] is not centralized around religious interests anymore,” said Cragan. “You could arguably go so far as to say the LDS church today is one of the largest property developers in the U.S., and that just sounds weird [because] it’s a religion.”
The church’s longtime defense is that owning land is a sound way to preserve wealth and assets, which are crucial for self-preservation in the event of economic crisis (the church’s press department refused multiple interview requests.) LDS also, like other U.S.-bred theologies, sees material wealth as a means for improving people spiritually. Home development and homeownership would be obvious paths to this goal, perhaps explaining why Utah has the nation’s second-highest homeownership rates.
But regardless of how this pro-money mentality is perceived, one thing’s for sure – the Mormon church is a major American developer, from building in the inner cities, to expanding suburbia, to envisioning new masterplanned communities. Whether or not people like the church, it is a major player in modern American urbanism.
[This article was originally published by HousingOnline.com]