The conventional wisdom in Provo right now is that once the burned out Tabernacle becomes an LDS temple, foot traffic in downtown will dramatically increase. Almost everyone I’ve talked to expects downtown businesses to experience a financial windfall as temple worshipers stroll the area and patronize local restaurants.
To one extent or another, that scenario seems very likely to me. But I’d argue that the size of the financial boost to local businesses will hinge on one thing more than any other: temple parking.
In short, if temple parking is abundant, free, and located very near the temple itself — as is the case with most temples I can think of — we should expect few people to actually venture off the temple grounds and into downtown. In other words, if the church makes it easy for people to park, attend the temple, and leave, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
While researching this concept, I found this article, which discusses parking at the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. The article describes how the concert hall provides sufficient parking for every single ticket holder and that, not coincidentally, surrounding businesses are virtually deserted. The article also contrasts the concert hall with similar venues in San Francisco, which are legally prohibited from installing extensive parking. As the article points out, it’s no surprise that concerts in the Bay Area tend to result in bustling streets and nearby businesses.
The Tabernacle Temple can take either the L.A. approach, or the San Francisco approach. I hope planners opt for the latter, though most LDS temples seem to take the former. Specifically, in Utah, most temples produce very little pedestrian traffic in their surrounding neighborhoods. For example, the sidewalks near the Provo and Timpanogos temples — the two I’m most familiar with — have fewer pedestrians than the sidewalks outside my house in the Joaquin neighborhood. In fairness, though, these temples are set in residential areas with few “attractions” to draw people onto the street.
Perhaps a better comparison would be the Salt Lake Temple, which is situated in a dense urban zone. I’ve only actually been inside the Salt Lake Temple once, but on that occasion I parked in an underground lot which conveniently led me into the temple itself. I’ve had a similar experience virtually every time I’ve visited Temple Square.
The sidewalks around Temple Square are certainly more bustling than those around the Provo Temple, and people visiting SLC do patronize nearby businesses. But the sidewalks also seem less used than those in other urban areas — such as parts of New York or San Francisco — with comparable density. I never realized why until I started researching parking, but now it seems obvious: the area’s major attraction provides enough parking that only a fraction of the visitors are incentivized to walk the streets (discovering shops and restaurants along the way).
If downtown Provo could become as lively as downtown Salt Lake that’d be a big improvement. But I think that the comparison is imperfect. Downtown SLC is already much denser than downtown Provo, for example, and the entirety of Temple Square is a tourist attraction that Provo will be unable to duplicate in the near future.
A better comparison seems to be the L.A. temple (which, coincidentally, is mentioned briefly in the article linked to above). Like the Tabernacle Temple, the L.A. Temple sits on a major road in a medium density neighborhood. The area surrounding the L.A. Temple also includes both residential and commercial real estate, similar to downtown Provo.
There are a great number of differences between the two temples, but I’d be interested to see how beneficial the temple is to surrounding commerce. Certainly there must be some windfall, but personal and anecdotal experience suggests it isn’t much. After growing up as a Mormon in the L.A. area I don’t know anyone who went to a restaurant near the temple, I rarely saw many people in the nearby shops, and virtually all temple-goers seemed to walk only to and from the parking lot. Many people, myself included, went out to eat after going to the temple, but invariably we drove to another neighborhood or city.
And of course, that’s a pattern repeated at pretty much all LDS temples set in residential areas, which means that by and large Mormons have a culture of driving to the temple. If temple-goers break that tradition in downtown Provo, then, it will be an aberration.
Luckily there is a cheap, easy, and to me obvious solution: don’t install very much parking at the Tabernacle Temple, and/or place that parking far away.
Imagine, for example, if future Tabernacle Temple attendees all parked in the vicinity of the Zion’s Bank and Wells Fargo parking lots. They’d all end up walking a short and pleasant two blocks, and along the way they’d pass Communal, Spark, Gandolfos, The Black Sheep Cafe, and Gloria’s Little Italy. Many planners will point out the importance of the visual impact of having a lot of people on the sidewalk, but even discounting that factor those businesses would likely benefit more from increased foot traffic.
By contrast, a large, on-site parking lot will give temple attendees no incentive to go into downtown, explore, and patronize local businesses. People will still go out to eat after attending the temple, for example, but without incentives to stay in downtown there’s little reason they won’t drive to an Olive Garden in another city.
The LDS Church is likely not accepting input on how to deal with parking at the temple. But the city and its residents can have a major impact on how the construction process unfolds. Cities, after all, are free to impose parking minimums or parking maximums.
The Tabernacle Temple also will draw people from all over the state, the country, and in some cases even the world. The impact those visitors have on Provo’s economy will depend in large part on how much we encourage them to walk in downtown.