City Creek Environmental Graphics and Wayfinding

Salt Lake Rising

Art, landmarks, and signage elements give City Creek, Salt Lake City's new downtown mixed-use community, a unique sense of place. 

When Brigham Young led the pioneers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Missouri west to their new home in Utah in 1847, the Mormon founders settled along a mountain creek that flowed past what is now the center of Salt Lake City.

In the 1920s, that natural spring-fed creek was covered over by development, but it still courses underground through the city founded by the Latter-day Saints and on to the Jordan River and beyond, into the Great Salt Lake. So when the church undertook a sustainably designed urban community on 23 acres adjacent to Temple Square, it seemed natural to name it for the creek that inspired Young and his followers to end their pilgrimage.

City Creek includes the 700,000-square-foot retail centerpiece City Creek Center, as well as five residential towers, 1.4 million square feet of office space, and a 5,000-space underground parking garage. The only U.S. regional shopping center opened in 2012, it includes 90 stores and restaurants and some unique amenities: a retractable glass roof, a pedestrian skybridge, fire-and-water fountains, two 18-foot waterfalls, and a replica of the historic creek.

“More than anything we wanted to create some great public spaces,” says Bill Williams, Director of Design for Special Projects with the Mormon Church. “We looked to the model of great European cities, with their sense of pedestrian scale and their integration of water features and public art. At City Creek, landmark elements and environmental graphics were central to developing a strong sense of place.”

Triple-duty EGD

Environmental graphics played at least three essential roles in the project: unifying the site that consists of two huge city blocks bifurcated by Main Street, guiding visitors to and through a challenging underground parking situation, and last but not least, lending an interpretive voice to the story of City Creek.

“To make the project successful, we knew it was critical to make the two blocks work together as one site,” says Ron Loch, Vice President of Planning and Design for developer Taubman. “It took strong planning and wayfinding to make sure that people on either block knew what the other block had to offer.” Key to the solution, he adds, was the new pedestrian skybridge over Main Street that allows the two blocks to function as one. It also became an iconic branding structure for City Creek.

“Circulation wise, we had to carefully study and really understand where people were coming from for all the different uses and design a clear, concise wayfinding system that worked hand-in-hand with the environmental graphics and storytelling elements,” says John Lutz, Principal with Selbert Perkins Design. Using Salt Lake City standards for vehicular wayfinding around the site, Selbert Perkin’s City Creek wayfinding program takes over as visitors enter the parking garage.

Garage wayfinding and graphics were critical because like the site, the huge garage is also divided by Main Street and split into four levels. “When parking is below grade, it seems even more disorienting to people,” Loch observes. “At City Creek, it was especially challenging to make sure people know how to get from their cars to retail or other destinations and back again.”

Selbert Perkins’ solution was a memorable graphics system based on animals indigenous to the mountainous region. Like the project’s other storytelling components, the garage graphics provide a solid connection to the region’s natural history and sense of place.

A rich story

Selbert Perkins is known for its ability to weave story into place, and City Creek is no exception. A complex multi-use project (12 years in the making), a conservative client, and the need to interact with a large multidisciplinary team were all factors, but Lutz says the bottom line was telling the City Creek story.

“Creating a branded experience in this type of environment is challenging,” he admits. “The scale is intense, you’re dealing with so many different physical components, including historical landmarks and an existing city streetscape, and in addition, you’re trying to address the needs of people shopping, going to meetings, visiting residents, and going to work.”

For the Selbert Perkins team, it all came down to the creek. “We crafted a story with the architects about how this creek comes down from the mountains into the valley and the city, and everything grew from there.” The recreated creek itself helped a lot, he says. “SWA did a great job. It could have looked very Disney-like, but it feels very authentic.”

The center is divided into four quadrants—mountains, canyons, valley, and wetlands—and each quadrant features environmental graphics relating to the natural history and animal life of that ecosystem. Graphics, landscaping, railings, light fixtures, pavement treatments, and architectural detailing all support the stories for each. A “creek grass” design that Selbert Perkins used for the City Creek logo is repeated site-wide, providing a unifying element across all the quadrants.

Interpretive elements range from large-scale to the smallest of details. Super-scaled garage graphics use bold colors and animal illustrations to link the site to the region’s natural history, while storytelling elements extend to animal tracks sandblasted into pavements and even down to doggy-bag dispensers emblazoned with the City Creek logo. The program also includes a set of rotating interpretive cubes along the creek, as well as plaques marking historical landmarks on the perimeter of the site.

“It was all about creating a sense of discovery and a place where people would want to be,” says Lutz. “What the LDS Church and Taubman have created here is a new downtown for Salt Lake City, and we wanted it to be a place people would visit and tell their friends about.”  

Timeless aesthetic, fine detail

With all its rich storylines, the environmental graphics program also had to be sensitive to the site, which is next door to Temple Square and literally in the shadow of Salt Lake Temple.

“We believed the traditional architecture found in and around Temple Square has stood the test of time, and we wanted City Creek’s overall aesthetic to mirror that timelessness,” explains Williams. “We wanted to reflect that solidity in the use of enduring materials—stone and brick and bronze—that will stand the test of time.”

For the environmental graphics program, that translated into a demand for quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. CREO Industrial Arts was chosen as the primary fabricator, tasked with creating 100 different types of signage and graphic elements installed in 2,500 locations across the two city blocks. Components included three-dimensional signage and placemaking above ground as well as vinyl and painted graphics on 36 elevator cores and parking signage throughout the garage, some integrating dynamic message systems. 

The project’s signature identity elements—three stately 25-foot-tall obelisk light towers and three 20-foot-tall versions of the same pillars—were a prime example of the attention to detail required in the two-and-a-half-year fabrication process.

“The challenge was to create the convincing appearance of an ornate cast-bronze old-world monument within the budgetary constraints of retail EGD,” says Patrick Angelel, Principal at CREO. To deliver on that challenge, CREO achieved a detailed cast-bronze look by layering hydrocut aluminum pieces developed through 3D modeling and blanketing them with a faux finish designed to emulate patina’d bronze.

Producing the glass orbs atop the obelisks required significant R&D to determine not only the correct production method for the orbs, but also how to suspend them above the pillars without exerting so much pressure on the glass that it would crack. “Ultimately, we consulted with local glass artisans who led us to a creative casting process that was durable and fit within the budget,” adds Angelel.

The pillars also contain hundreds of LED modules and a series of LED drivers, and CREO had to ensure they were easy for the client to service. At the same time, the design called for the glass panels to be permanently affixed to the structure, making it difficult to access the modules. CREO’s solution was to create a track-like system on which the LED modules would slide out through the base of the structure, making servicing them much easier.

Signs of success

The development team considers City Creek Center a success on multiple fronts, not the least of which is its goal of being a prime downtown destination and a memorable shopping experience. It is on track to exceed Taubman’s goal of attracting 10 million people a year to downtown Salt Lake City.

Williams says he also considers the project a success and understands that environmental graphics play a huge role. “We recognize the importance of environmental graphics and finding the right people to do it. It adds character and story, and it’s that intimate, layered detail that people remember. If you ignore it, you’ve really missed an opportunity.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, eg magazine No. 03, 2012


Clients:  City Creek Reserve Inc., Taubman

Project Area:  23 acres

Opened:  March 2012

Design:  Selbert Perkins Design Collaborative

Design Team:  Robin Perkins partner in charge; John Lutz principal/project director; Youn Choi design director; Tim Cohan, Jamal Kitmitto senior designers, Hanks Krake project manager

Fabrication:  CREO Industrial Arts primary fabricator, YESCO food court signage

Architecture:  ZGF Architects, Callison, Hobbs + Black Architects, FFKR Architects

Consultants:  SWA Group landscape architecture; Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design lighting; WET Design water features; Jacobsen Construction, Okland Construction general contractors

Photos:  Jason Koenig/JKoe Photography


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