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All under one roof: how malls and cities are becoming indistinguishable

Suburban malls may be a dying breed, but in cities from New York to Hong Kong, new malls are thriving by seamlessly blending into the urban fabric

We didnt expect to see stores, says Yulia, as her husband browses for shoes in one of the shops lining the Oculus, the new focus of New Yorks World Trade Center.

Visiting from Ukraine and on their way to the 9/11 memorial, they were beckoned by the Oculuss unusual architecture: from the outside, the Santiago Calatrava-designed ribbed structure reminds you of a bird or a dinosaur skeleton; inside, it is teaming with tourists taking pictures with selfie sticks.

But the Oculus, named after the eyelike opening at the apex that lets in light, is more than a piece of striking architecture. It exists as a mall, with more than a hundred stores, and as a hub connecting office buildings in Brookfield Place and One World Trade Center with 11 subway lines and Path trains, serving 50,000 commuters every day. Thats a lot of eyeballs on shopfronts.

The mall company Westfield, of course, hopes that the tourists and transit users will stray to the stores. The New New York Place to Be, reads the malls tagline. Shop. Eat. Drink. Play. All under one magnificent roof.

Oculus was Westfields $1.4bn bet that New York, a city known for its love of the street, could also have a successful mall. And judging from the crowds, it counters the narrative that the mall is dead, like those thousands of empty suburban malls dotting the American landscape, ghostboxes decaying on cracked asphalt parking lots.

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Boxpark turned shipping containers into an urban mall that merges directly with the London street. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Michael Sorkin, professor of architecture at City College of New York, points out that Westfield is an example of a kind of global urbanism. The Westfield mall is virtually indistinguishable from Dubai duty-free, he says, pointing out that the same generic multinational shops are now to be found not just in malls, but on the streets of cities. The effect is compromising and imperial a real estate formula.

Certainly, the Westfield World Trade Center seems to demonstrate that it is not the mall that is declining, but suburbia. The mall, meanwhile, is becoming urban.

In fact, a new breed of shopping centre is integrating so seamlessly into its urban surroundings that it can be difficult to draw any line between city and mall whatsoever. Londons Boxpark, Las Vegass Downtown Container Park and Miamis Brickell City Centre are examples of mall-like environments that try to weave into the street life of a city.

Across the Pacific Ocean from the Oculus, developers in China are experimenting even more radically, with new mall configurations catering to the rapid rise of domestic consumerism and quickly evolving tastes.

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Sino Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, China, an outdoor mall with streets. Photograph: Oval Partnership

In the early 2000s, when enclosed malls were the standard, architect Chris Law of the Oval Partnership proposed an open city concept for San Li Tun, an area in Beijings central business district. He proposed to inject the big box with a heavy dose of public space. He says people had a common reaction to his plan: You guys are crazy.

Instead of laying out asphalt parking lots, Law wanted sidewalks and trees that would cool and shade pedestrian outdoor space. He designed the shops and restaurants around two distinct plazas one brimming with an interactive water feature and a massive screen to televise events, the other for quietly reading a book over a cappuccino.

Rather than designing the whole complex himself, he created a masterplan with an urban design framework for other architects to fill in, making it appear as if the complex grew organically just like cities do, Law says.

As a result, the mall has the look of a modern village complete with irregular facades and zigzagging alleyways. It became a large success, not least for being a pedestrian respite in a city of cars.

The developer then tasked Law to design another outdoor retail development in Chengdu near an ancient temple. Law respectfully designed structures with timber portal frames to match the cultural heritage, laying out the stores and restaurants along intimate, tree-lined lanes. He added a hotel, serviced apartments and an office tower to create a mixed-use district centred around intricate public space.

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An escalator gives the game away at this outdoor retail space in Chengdu, China. Photograph: HeZhenHuan

As innovative as his projects may be, we simply continued the urban pattern that has been around for hundreds of years, Law says. He mentions medieval cities such as Sienna, or those depicted on the Qingming scroll, where shops and food stalls lined thriving public space.

It raises the question: was the enclosed, suburban mall, located far from the city centre, a discontinuity? An invention for the age of cheap fossil fuel?

They certainly waste energy. The typical big box is thick and fat, says Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology at Harvard University and founder of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities. In contrast, the outdoor retail village typically has a smaller ecological footprint. Thin structures allow for the possibility of natural ventilation and daylighting, and hence can be more energy-efficient, Malkawi says.

Malls first appeared in suburbs in the 1950s, when reducing energy was not a priority, says Malkawi, and they were only accessible by car. The more you move shopping away from where people live, the more you increase transportations impact on the environment, he says. (The transport sector accounts for nearly a quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions.)

Architect Friedrich Ludewig of the firm Acme takes the idea a step futher. Knowing that the point to shopping in stores is to offer something physical that is interesting, otherwise we can do it all online, he designed a suburban mall extension in Melbourne around a town square, with a public library at its centre, not an anchor store.

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Offer something physical or we can all do it online … Friedrich Ludewig, whose suburban mall in Melbourne is designed around a town square with a public library (pictured) at its heart. Photograph: Acme

Customers prefer to be outside and to feel less artificial, Ludewig says of what is, in fact, an outdoor mall. His company has taken steps to create a seamless urban feel. There are guidelines for storefronts, including about colour, to ensure the visual coherence of the public space and avoid screaming yellow storefronts. When there are lots of people shouting, he said, you cant hear anyone.

He also thinks about the right ratio between landscaping and paving of the open spaces, and makes an effort to think about the city planning of how the space is used throughout the day. We spend a lot of time thinking: what does it feel like at Wednesday morning 11am?, when there are not a lot of shoppers around. He also argues that outdoor malls save money by having open spaces and buildings that are naturally ventilated rather than air-conditioned.

Above all, however, he says: It shouldnt feel like something is wrong. He describes a feeling akin to what is known as the uncanny valley: the hypothesis that when human replicas appear almost (but not quite) real, they trigger disgust and revulsion because they seem unhealthy.

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Langham Place, like many Hong Kong malls, is deliberately placed to capture natural pedestrian flows. Photograph: Alamy

The city of Hong Kong solves this issue by going one step further it weaves malls into the very urban fabric.

The city counts more than 300 shopping centres. Most do not perch on asphalt parking lots, but on subway stations and underneath skyscrapers. Hong Kongs transit provider is also a real estate developer, and has capitalised on the value created by its subway stops: it sandwiches malls between stations and skyscrapers, establishing pedestrian streams that irrigate the shopfronts.

Tens of thousands of people often work, live and play in a single megastructure, without ever having to leave. And the mall is deliberately placed on the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between entry points into the structure and the residential, office, and transit functions. These malls are, by design, impossible to miss.

Langham Place, for instance, is a 59-storey complex in Hong Kong that includes retail, a five-star hotel and class-A office space. It is connected to the subway with its own tunnel and pulls in an estimated 100,000 people per day.

My whole life is here, says Katniss. She works in the buildings office, where she also shops, eats her meals and watches movies. Even on her daysoff, she enjoys going on dates in the malls soaring atrium, and drinking coffee near the huge escalator.

This expresscalator whisks people up four storeys in a matter of seconds. To get shoppers back down, the Jerde Partnership designed an ingenious retail-lined downward spiral path, shaped like a corkscrew. Langham Places retail portion alone measures 15 storeys, which is a skyscraper in its own right a vertical mall.

On both sides of the Pacific, the mall is not dead. It has simply transformed into an integrated part of cities themselves.

For Sorkin, that comes with a risk. While the idea of the shopping mall becoming urban has a certain appeal, the net effect is to turn the city into a shopping mall.

Stefan Als books include Mall City: Hong Kongs Dreamworlds of Consumption and The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/16/malls-cities-become-one-and-same


Building Zion: the controversial plan for a Mormon-inspired city in Vermont

A Mormon businessman is buying up land to build master-planned towns from scratch, based on the church founders idea for a plat of Zion

The roads through rural Vermont wind past rolling forested hills and quaint small towns, including South Royalton used as the quintessential New England village in the opening sequence of the TV series Gilmore Girls.

A short drive away, the Tunbridge Worlds Fair has run almost continuously since 1867, with games, contests for best pig or pumpkin, and displays of old-time printing presses and candle making.

And not far from there, one stop on the areas low-key tourist trail dotted with maple syrup farms, pottery workshops and picturesque covered bridges, is the birthplace of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church.

The site now hosts a museum, run by the church and staffed by cheerful missionaries. Outside, a giant granite obelisk rises towards the sky. Calming music flows from speakers located high up in the trees. It is a peaceful place, designed to inspire reflection.

But, over the last year, it has also found itself at the centre of a controversy. In front of many houses and shops, signs exclaim: Save our communities. Stop NewVistas.

NewVistas is the name of an unusual, indeed, one-of-a-kind project led by a Mormon businessman named David Hall to build new, master-planned towns from scratch inspired by notes written by Joseph Smith himself in 1833.

Hall says these designs, which described how ideal Mormon settlements should be laid out and were drafted almost 200 years ago, offer answers to modern-day challenges of sustainable living. And to make it happen, he has been buying land lots of it.

The first goal is to build a NewVista community near Smiths birthplace in Vermont, which would be home to about 20,000 people. The next step: to build more. Ultimately, Halls vision describes a new city of connected communities, with a total population of up to one million.

The fantastic story first came to light last spring, thanks to the careful eye and diligent research of a librarian in the small town of Sharon, who uncovered a series of local land purchases that she traced to the businessman and his plans.

Reflecting on that time, Nicole Antal, 30, says shed found it all hard to believe particularly the scale.

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Plat of Zion by Joseph Smith in 1833. Photograph: https://newvistasllc.sharepoint.com

This is very big for Vermont, she says. Burlington is 40,000 people. Montpellier, the state capital, is 7,000. This is not one guy buying a house and trying something new.

To date, the NewVistas project is thought to have purchased as many as 1,500 acres in central Vermont with plans to buy much more. Its focused on a largely rural area at the intersection of four tiny towns Royalton, Sharon, Stafford and Tunbridge which have a combined population of just 6,400.

Nor is the project just buying up vacant lots. It appears to be purchasing whatever it can. Antal says a few properties sold to NewVistas were second homes. But so far acquisitions have been fragmented parcels.

Antal first blogged about the land purchases in March 2016, setting off a flurry of articles in the local media. Soon Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, revelling in its unusual characters, audacious vision and local controversy.

Residents in Vermont, meanwhile, had started to organise in opposition.

This threat is like nothing weve ever seen or could have conjured up ourselves, says one long-term local resident Jane Huppe, 58, describing it as a top-down venture that doesnt fit with the areas own ideas for how it should develop.

It hit us like a ton of bricks, she adds, suggesting it could completely overwhelm existing communities. Why does he not bring this to where they need massive amounts of housing, instead of disrupting the rural countryside?

Building Zion

Joseph Smith left central Vermont as a child with his family, moving to rural New York, where he later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But despite his rural upbringing, Smith outlined a vision for new and compact settlements that would go on to influence the planning of hundreds of American towns.

This farm boy … dreamed to build a metropolis that rivalled the large seaport cities he had only heard about, writes the academic Benjamin Park, in a 2013 paper.

In the 1830s, Smith laid out a detailed plan called the plat of Zion. It described new towns, designed to be self-sufficient, ordered by rigid grids, and surrounded by farmland and wilderness.

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The memorial of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church at his birthplace in Vermont. Photograph: imageBROKER/Rex/Shutterstock

The plan included ideal sizes of streets, blocks and lots. Roads should be straight and oriented to the points of a compass. Homes, built in uniform stone or brick, should sit within deep individual lots, with front yards and back gardens.

Significantly, the plan lacked designated areas for government buildings and town halls, as well as for markets or commercial districts. Instead, central blocks would be set aside for temples and community buildings.

Once fully occupied, with 15-20,000 inhabitants, the settlement would not be expanded. Instead, others would be built, to fill up the world in these last days.

This wasnt a theoretical plan. Smith hoped to build a new town like this in Missouri, specifically. In 1831, he said that Independence, in Jackson County, had been revealed as the land of promise and the place for the City of Zion.

Unlike other new religious movements in America at the time, which were warning congregants of the evils rooted in urban cities, Smith believed that cities were not to be fled, but sacralised, writes Park. This reflected key Mormon principles that focused on establishing a righteous civilisation … rather than individuals.

[Zion] was literally the centre place for a new civilisation destined to expand as Gods people multiplied. Gathering and city building were not incidental parts of sanctification, but the goal.

In the summer of 1833, Smith and other church leaders met in Kirtland, Ohio, and drew up specific blueprints for a city of Zion, including designs for specific buildings. Smith sent these to church members in Missouri, who were to purchase this whole region of country, as soon as time will permit.

It didnt happen; early Mormon settlers were driven out of Missouri. And in 1844, Smith was killed, before his city plan could be realised.

NewVistas,
A computer rendering of a plan for NewVistas that would house, feed and employ 15-20,000 residents. Photograph: NewVistas Foundation

His designs survived, however, and were later used as a blueprint for as many as 500 communities in the American West. In the 1990s, the American Planning Association went so far as to recognise the plat of Zion documents for their historical significance and influence.

Most famously, church leader Brigham Young drew on the plat for the design of Salt Lake City, which was established by Mormon settlers in 1847. The citys core still reflects this: it features wide streets, oriented north-south, and mammoth blocks focusing on Temple Square, where a church museum also holds the original plat of Zion documents.

The concept of Zion remains key to the Mormon faith. The church explains that it represents the pure in heart, but also a place where the pure in heart live. It says: In the latter days a city named Zion will be built [in Missouri] … to which the tribes of Israel will gather. In the meantime, members are counselled to build up Zion wherever they are living.

Salt Lake City itself was also, of course, heavily influenced by broader trends in American life, such as the completion of the transnational railroad in the 19th century, which brought new visitors and migrants, and later by car culture and sprawl.

In December 2016, a popular architecture and design podcast noted that the citys design means that addresses can read like sets of coordinates. 300 South 2100 East, for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square. But, it said, the most striking thing about Salt Lakes grid is the scale:

The streets are so menacing and crossings so long that the city has placed plastic buckets on lampposts which hold flags that pedestrians can carry to the other side while crossing. In present-day Salt Lake City, its hard to get around without a car.

Nevertheless, some experts argue that the plat of Zion was a precursor to intelligent urban planning and leaves a legacy that could help tackle haphazard developments today.

The NewVistas project

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A design of food production in the NewVistas Mormon development, Vermont. Photograph: NewVistas Foundation

This is of little comfort for those Vermont residents who oppose NewVistas. The Mormon church, too, is apparently displeased: they dont support the plan.

David Hall, the businessman behind the contemporary and controversial NewVistas project, lives in Provo, Utah. His background is in big energy: he reportedly made his fortune selling sophisticated drilling tools to the oil and gas industry.

In an interview with the Guardian, he says Smiths city plans remain remarkably relevant for todays challenges.

The plat describes a very low footprint, 20,000 people on only three square miles. Everything else was supposed to be wilderness. Its telling us not to sprawl, which is what we do, we even go into the mountains, Hall says. It really makes sense for our time.

The projects website says it follows the plat laid out by Smith and that its architectural plans are also based on the same sizing specifications for early Mormon temples, which were designed to fulfil multiple functions.

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David Hall with a modular kitchen design in Provo, Utah. Hall, a wealthy Mormon businessman, plans communities of tiny dwellings based on the teachings of church founder Joseph Smith. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

But, Hall says, the goal is to develop secular, sustainable communities taking advantage of modern technology, including food production techniques that make it possible for people to live in ever-smaller spaces. It is envisaged for Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

The NewVistas Foundation argues: Sustainable living in the modern world requires high density urban development, pointing out that sprawl consumes too much energy and other resources, not just in urban areas but rural as well.

It presents a detailed, wide-ranging plan, including specific designs for three-storey standard buildings with apartments, businesses, and some farming and manufacturing, all located in one place.

More futuristic ideas include internal walls and floors that could be moved by robotic systems, so that families could live in small spaces that are easily rearranged. Outside, walkway-podway systems (something like elevated sidewalks and an underground tube network) would operate on multiple levels to transport people and goods. New toilets would monitor users health.

Not unlike Smiths original vision, the foundation says the goal is massive scalability, so that these communities can be replicated to encompass all of the earths billions of people. It calls itself nothing less than a new urban model and economic system for the 21st century.

Each complete NewVista would have as many as one million people, but be composed of 50 similar and carefully designed communities, each with a population of 15,000 to 25,000 and the capacity to be self-sufficient with respect to basic needs.

There are also unusual proposals for how these places will be run: organised according to a private capitalistic economic structure. The community is not a political entity but a productive enterprise, like a company town.

There is even a suggestion that a NewVista Community Corporation would have control over things like land use, transportation, and community environment, which are usually matters of government concern.

Hall predicts that the first NewVistas community could require as much as $3bn (2.3bn) to build, expecting 20% to come from the first residents and the bulk from other investors with nothing from the church.

NewVistas is my own modern interpretation of Joseph Smiths community documents and I have not ever discussed the ideas with the church and wont involve them in the future.

Vermont strikes back

We didnt waste any time when this came up, says Michael Sacca, 61, director of the Alliance for Vermont Communities, a new non-profit organisation formed by local residents in opposition to Halls plans and any other similar large-scale developments in future.

Sitting on the porch outside the house he and his wife built themselves 15 years ago, with the sun setting below the hills around him, he says: We want to protect our future and our childrens future and the region … we want to maintain our lifestyle and our communities.

The NewVistas plans simply dont fit into local, regional or state visions of how Vermont should develop, Sacca argues, which instead aim to concentrate development as much as possible in village centres, town centres, leaving rural areas for rural life.

Sacca also describes the corporate structure envisaged for NewVistas as Orwellian and as an experiment designed to stand on its own as an insulated corporate town.

Residents
Residents attend a public meeting in Tunbridge, Vermont to discuss the NewVistas development, which many oppose. Photograph: Lisa Rathke/AP

Opposition to the project, which would transform the area, has been vibrant and vocal. Sign and stickers are visible on the streets of central Vermont, and petitions are calling for discussion at town meetings in March.

The Alliance is also tracking land purchases. By their count, NewVistas has already acquired an estimated 1,200-1,500 acres of land with purchases continuing despite the controversy.

The Mormon church is itself, a significant land and real estate developer, with farms, ranches, residential and commercial properties across the US. In Florida, a church-owned property is now set to become the site of a new city for as many as half a million people by 2080.

However, it does not seem to be too happy about the NewVistas project either.

In August 2016, a church spokesman said: This is a private venture and is not associated with The Church … [which] makes no judgment about the scientific, environmental or social merits of the proposed developments. However, for a variety of reasons, we are not in favour of the proposal.

The NewVistas website explains that the community layout envisaged follows a city plot pattern created by Joseph Smith in June of 1833. But it also carries an Important Note stating that its model is not presented as a fulfilment of Joseph Smiths vision. It is not supported or endorsed by the Church.

The church in Salt Lake City did not respond to requests for comment or further elaboration of its position.

In Vermont, some of the projects opponents hope they can use Act 250 the states premier land use law to stop it. This law was enacted decades ago after new highways and ski resorts lured investors into the state. It requires that developers comply with regional plans, as a way to manage growth and protect the environment.

Hall acknowledges his project has been controversial and many people are against it. But he says hes drawn to Vermont in particular because of its connection to Joseph Smith, because land is relatively cheap, and because there is too much of what he calls rural sprawl.

Theres lots of rules that keep you from building things, so Vermonters would eventually have to approve it but not right away, Hall adds, stressing that nothing is happening overnight and it would take decades to realise his plan.

He says technical components must first be worked out, and he needs to consolidate land, which can take generations because weve had this trend of subdividing and sprawl, so the reverse process will take a long time. The project, he argues, is very unique, but I have a hard time getting people to really look at it and study it.

Meanwhile, land is also being bought in his home town of Provo, Utah, where NewVistas is again facing local opposition. Professor emeritus at Brigham Young Universitys Marriott School, Warner Woodworth, who lives in Provo, described it as a takeover.

To have someone with money and power enter our area and gradually buy up homes, offering distorted purchase power to grab residences, is troubling. It shakes the peace and violates the sense of continuity and mutual care for one another, Woodworth wrote in September, arguing that Halls plans are also a far cry from the original plat of Zion idea:

Halls system is corporatist, while Josephs was more communal. Hall wants to establish a top-down power structure, whereas Joseph envisioned a bottom-up community of common consent. Hall seeks to control. Joseph sought to liberate. The early Zion plat consisted of large family yards and agriculture. In contrast, Hall plans for tiny urban apartments of 200 square feet in a bare, boring apartment.

But, he suggested: It may have been more achievable and acceptable if he had engaged more participants from the beginning. While one may disagree with some of his ideas, its the process he uses that becomes the fatal step.

As for Antal, who first discovered Halls project, she is concerned about the impact on her family.

There are some good ideas [in the NewVistas project] … Polluting less, creating local agriculture. But I dont think it applies to Vermont. I think Vermont is doing a pretty good job at being sustainable, she says. I dont like that this is being imposed on us.

Read the first part of Claire Provosts investigation into the role of Mormons in city planning here. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jan/31/building-zion-controversial-plan-mormon-inspired-city-vermont


From book to boom: how the Mormons plan a city for 500,000 in Florida

The Mormon church owns vast tracts of US land, and now envisages a huge new city on its Deseret Ranch but at what cost?

Everything about the Deseret cattle and citrus ranch, in central Florida, is massive. The property itself occupies 290,000 acres of land more than nine times the size of San Francisco and almost 20 times the size of Manhattan. It is one of the largest ranches in the country, held by the one of the biggest landowners in the state: the Mormon church.

On an overcast weekday afternoon, Mormon missionaries give tours of the vast estate. Fields, orange trees and grazing animals stretch as far as the eye can see. While central Florida may be best known for Disney World, the ranch roughly an hours drive away is nearly 10 times bigger. It is home to a jaw-dropping 40,000 cows and has grown oranges for millions of glasses of juice.

Now there are ambitious, far-reaching plans to transform much of this land into an entirely new city, home to as many as 500,000 people by 2080. Deseret has said that while nothing will be built here for decades, its plans are necessary because urban growth in the area is inevitable and the alternative is piecemeal development. A slide from a 2014 presentation explains: We think in terms of generations.

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The Deseret Ranch in central Florida. The Mormon church has said it plans are necessary because urban growth in the area is inevitable. Photograph: John Raoux/AP

Deserets plans, which were given the green light by local county commissioners in 2015, are thought to be the largest-ever proposed in the state and have attracted high-profile attention. Critics have accused the plans of putting already stressed natural habitats and critical resources, such as water, in further jeopardy.

This is not a typical housing development. It is an entire region of the state of Florida and it is the last remaining wilderness, said Karina Veaudry, a landscape architect in Orlando and member of the Florida Native Plant Society. It is, she stressed, a plan on an unprecedented scale: This project impacts the entire state, ecologically.

For years, environmental groups protested that it was too risky to build so much on such ecologically important land particularly in one of the few areas of Florida that hasnt already been consumed by sprawling developments. We fought it and fought it and fought it, said Veaudry, who described it as nothing less than a David and Goliath struggle.

Except this time, Goliath was part of the property empire of the Mormon church.

Faith and property

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long influenced urban developments in America through specific ideas about town planning. In the 1830s, the churchs founder, Joseph Smith, laid out a vision for compact, self-sufficient agrarian cities. These were utopian in conception and have been hailed as a precursor to smart growth planning.

The plans for the Deseret ranch in central Floridahave shone a spotlight on another side of the churchs influence: its investments in land and real estate. Today, the church owns land and property across the US through a network of subsidiaries. Its holdings include farmland, residential and commercial developments, though it remains notoriously tight-lipped about its business ventures.

The church has been buying up land in central Florida since the 1950s, starting with 50,000 acres for Deseret Ranch since expanded almost sixfold. Its most recent major acquisition, by the church-owned company AgReserves, was another 380,000 acres in the states north-western panhandle the strip of land that runs along the Gulf of Mexico. Deseret Ranchs website quotes the late church president, Gordon B Hinckley, as saying that farms are both a safe investment where the assets of the church may be preserved and enhanced and an agricultural resource to feed people should there come a time of need.

Across America, subsidiaries of the church reportedly hold 1m acres of agricultural land. This is thought to include land in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas. Church companies are also thought to hold land outside the US, including in Canada and Brazil. In 2014, when church-owned farms in Australia were put up for sale, reports estimated their worth at about $120m (72.8m).

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The Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City where the church has its headquarters. Photograph: George Frey/Getty Images

Recent real estate investments by church companies include the 2016 purchase of a 380-unit apartment complex in Texas, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, and, in Philadelphia, a shopping area, a 32-storey apartment block and a landscaped plaza being built across the street from a newly constructed Mormon temple.

In Salt Lake City, where the church has its headquarters, a church company is currently working on a new master-planned community on the citys west side for almost 4,000 homes. Last year, another investment was unveiled: the new high-end 111 Main skyscraper. Goldman Sachs is reportedly signed up as a tenant.

This city was built by Mormons. In the 19th century, early Mormon settlers gave Salt Lake City bridges, miles of roads, rail and other infrastructure. Hundreds of businesses were also set up: banks, a network of general stores, mining companies. The citys Temple Square is filled with statues glorifying the pioneers.

Nearby is a more contemporary monument to the investing and enterprising church: the City Creek Center, a new shopping mall with 100 stores and a retractable glass roof. It cost an estimated $1.5bn. At its grand opening, a church leader cut a pink ribbon and cheered: One, two, three lets go shopping!

The church said its investment in the mall would help revitalise central Salt Lake City as part of a wider multibillion-dollar initiative called Downtown Rising. Bishop H David Burton said it would create the necessary jobs and added that any parcel of property the church owns that is not used directly for ecclesiastical worship is fully taxed at its market value.

The City Creek Center project has been controversial, however even among Mormons. Some current and former church members have questioned why money invested in such projects isnt spent on charitable initiatives instead.

In 2013, Jason Mathis, executive director of Salt Lake Citys Downtown Alliance business development group, said the church was an interesting landlord. Theyre not worried about the next quarter, he explained. They have a much longer perspective they want to know what the city will look like in the next 50 or 100 years.

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The City Creek shopping centre in Salt Lake City, which reportedly cost $1.5bn. Photograph: Rick Bowmer/AP

Black box finances

Projects such as the Salt Lake City shopping centre have certainly focused attention on the churchs investments, but it remains secretive about its revenues and finances.

An entity called Deseret Management Corporation is understood to control many of the churchs enterprises, through subsidiaries focused on different commercial interests including insurance and publishing.

Several church ventures bear the name Deseret itself a term from the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee and intended to represent goals of productivity and self-sufficiency.

In central Florida, the churchs Deseret Ranch is understood to sell cows to Cargill, a Minnesota-based trading company, and oranges to Tropicana, as well as renting land to hunters and other companies.

Deseret, however, declined to confirm this. It said: As a private investment affiliate of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Deseret Ranch does not release financial information or details about our production and customers.

The churchs press office in Salt Lake City also did not respond to emails from the Guardian.

Previously, church officials have emphasised that finance for its companies investments do not come from tithing donations (church members are supposed to contribute 10% of their income each year) but from profits from other such ventures.

But these and other claims, even when offered, are also difficult to verify. Ultimately their finances are a black box according to Ryan Cragun, associate professor of sociology at the University of Tampa.

Cragun previously worked with Reuters to estimate in 2012 that the church owns temples and other buildings worth $35bn and receives as much as $7bn in members tithing each year. But he says the church stopped releasing annual financial information to its own members many years ago.

Estimating their total land holdings? Good luck, says Cragun. Nobody knows how much money the church actually has and why theyre buying all of this land and developing land.

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The Mormon church-owned skyscraper at 111 Main in Salt Lake City. Photograph: City Creek Reserve

A new city for Florida

Over the last half-century, Florida has become something of a laboratory for ambitious and sometimes surreal master-planned communities. In southern Florida, for example, the founder of Dominos Pizza funded the construction of a Catholic town called Ave Maria. Closer to Orlando is the town of Celebration, developed by the Walt Disney Company, where shops on meticulously maintained streets sell French pastries and luxury dog treats.

Across Florida, more new subdivisions and developments are planned. Many of these projects have drawn criticism for their potential impact on Floridas already stressed water resources.

Sprawl is where the money is, and people want homes with big lawns and nearby golf courses, a columnist for the Florida Times-Union newspaper recently lamented. He suggested the state should step in to ban water-hungry grass varieties and introduce stronger planning procedures to limit large-scale developments.

The ranchs plans are the largest of these yet. Indeed, they are thought to be the largest-ever proposed in the state, and this land lies in an area thats been called Floridas last frontier.

In 2015, local Osceola county officials approved the North Ranch sector plan, which covers a 133,000-acre slice of Deseret property. As part of this plan, tens of thousands of these acres have been earmarked for conservation lands, not to be built on; and, in addition, Deseret has insisted that it will also continue ranching operations here for generations in the future.

But most of this land, under the approved plan, could be transformed into a new urban landscape. By 2080, it could be home to as many as 500,000 people. The plan explicitly refers to a new fully functioning city.

It envisages a massive development complete with a high-intensity, mixed-use urban centre and a variety of centres and neighbourhoods. There would be 16 communities and a regional hub with a footprint of around one square mile equal to [that] of downtown Orlando.

The
The Lake Nona complex of master-planned communities where the grass is greener. Photograph: Claire Provost

New office blocks, civic buildings, high-rise hotels and apartment buildings are among the structures anticipated, along with new schools, a hospital, parks and a university and research campus. New motorways and rail lines would connect it all to Orlando and cities along Floridas eastern coast.

The document argues that the plan is necessary to prepare for expected population growth. More than 80% of the vacant developable land in the very area where demographic and economic forces are propelling an increasing share of the regions population and job growth is located on Deserets North Ranch, it says.

In an email to the Guardian, Dale Bills, a spokesperson for Deseret Ranch, said it offers a framework for future land use decisions but will not be implemented for decades.

Were not developers, but the sector plan allows us to be involved in shaping what the ranch will look like over the next 50-60 years, Bills said. When growth does come to the region the plan will help create vibrant communities that are environmentally responsible and people-friendly, he said.

The plan also provides for continued farming operations, Bills added, meaning that generations from now, Deseret will still be doing what we love growing food and caring for the land.

Meanwhile, the ranch has set aside another, smaller block of its land for a separate and more immediate project called Sunbridge, to be developed by the Tavistock Group known in the area for its Lake Nona complex of master-planned communities just south-east of Orlandos international airport.

A
A render of the Lake Nona development. Photograph: KPMG

On a weekday afternoon, the still largely empty Lake Nona development is silent. Signs planted by the road proclaim it is where the grass is greener. At the visitors centre, a pair of well-dressed women chat over coffee. A sales agent hands out glossy brochures with aspirational verbs embossed on its cover: DISCOVER. EVOLVE. INNOVATE.

Still under construction, Lake Nona describes itself as a city of the future with super-fast internet connections, one of the top private [golf] clubs in the world and homes ranging from luxury apartments to sprawling estates. Less than an hours drive from the ranch, it offers a potential hint of whats to come.

The damage is done

Until this happened [the ranch] was a quiet neighbour, said Jenny Welch, 54, a registered nurse and environmental activist who lived in the area for decades before leaving earlier this year. When I first moved here in 1980, I thought it was great because it would never be developed. This is such environmentally important land. Its a wildlife corridor. There are wetlands.

Major concerns about the Deseret North Ranch plan have included how much water it will consume, the impact of proposed new roads and the amount of land set aside for conservation.

Veaudry, the Orlando landscape architect, said environmental groups tried to engage with the Deseret plans from the beginning by raising concerns but also suggesting enhanced measures to protect local ecosystems.

But, she said, what was ultimately approved was pretty much the nail in the coffin for decades-long efforts to establish a north-south ecological corridor to allow wildlife and ecosystems to flow across the state. It would put literally a city right in the middle of it, she said.

The new city envisaged for this land wont be constructed overnight. While the overall plan for the area has been approved, more approvals will be needed on specific details. This has not reassured critics.

Florida environmentalist Charles Pattison has argued that the long time frame only makes it harder to monitor the project. People involved in this today will not be around to see [it] through to completion, as many new administrative and elected officials will come and go over that time, he said.

The main guidelines, the amount of conservation, how wide the buffers have to be, all of that is already approved and set, said Veaudry. As far as I understand it, the damage is done. Locals know what happened. The Mormon church is the largest landowner here. And they have enormous resources.

The second half of Claire Provosts exploration of Mormon city planning will appear tomorrow. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jan/30/from-book-to-boom-how-the-mormons-plan-a-city-for-500000-in-florida


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