Cement started to pour in March on the first portion of what city officials call the largest-ever commercial development in Salt Lake City. The $1.5 billion City Creek Center is a mixed-use, open-air project comprising four high-rise residential towers, 1.4 million sq. ft. of office space, and 850,000 sq. ft. of retail anchored by Macy's and Nordstrom.

The biggest controversy around the project, however, is not height or density but a second-level sky bridge for shoppers.

City Creek Reserve Inc. — which is a partnership between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Taubman Centers, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based mall operator — is developing the 25-acre project.

Financing of the project is “100 percent equity,” a combination of the church's business holdings, plus Taubman's equity stake. The project has no public subsidies.

The controversial sky bridge would span the city's Main Street, connecting portions of the retail development on either side. Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson has derided the proposed bridge as a “gerbil cage” to trap shoppers inside the mall and prevent them from patronizing street-level merchants.

But Mark Gibbons, president of City Creek Reserve Inc., maintains the project has been designed to encourage people to walk to nearby attractions in downtown Salt Lake City. Within a few blocks of the project are Temple Square, site of the headquarters Mormon Temple, the Abravanel Hall for symphony concerts and the city's convention center.

The developers view the project as urban infill that will fit in with its neighbors, including several high-rise office buildings. Unlike a suburban mall, parking will be entirely underground at City Creek Center. The project is also transit-oriented — the city's light-rail line is planning for a stop near the sky-bridge.

The most flamboyant feature of the mall — and a potentially costly one — is a retractable roof that covers a portion of the outdoor retail arcade. The developers say they have hired the same engineers who designed the retractable dome of Safeco Field in Seattle, where the Mariners baseball franchise plays.

The church has long been an active investor in Salt Lake City, conceivably to ensure the city is a fitting backdrop for the primary temple, which attracts about three million visitors annually. While Dale Bills, a spokesman for the development partnership, downplays the notion of City Creek Center as a showcase for Temple Square, “we certainly want a project that is appropriate to the world headquarters of an international faith,” he says.

The sky bridge, however, remains the sticking point. Conscious of tensions surrounding the bridge, the city council provided the developer with design guidelines to make the bridge minimally obtrusive.

While the city council reportedly likes the latest design, the developers are keeping it under wraps until the council votes on the bridge in April. “We're not publishing anything,” says Bills, “until it's approved.”