The Utah Theater was once a centerpiece of nightlife in Salt Lake City. Built in 1919, the neoclassical structure exuded glamor with elaborate plaster ornamentations and a Tiffany glass skylight in its interior.
Originally known as the Pantages Theater, the building on 144 S. Main was designed as part of a national theater circuit launched by Alexander Pantages, a vaudeville and early movie industry mogul who was the first to champion the idea of grandiose “movie palaces.” But over the past century, the theater has undergone name changes and building alterations. It’s ultimately fallen into disrepair and hasn’t been operating for years.
The city bought the property in 2010 with hopes of renovating it as a film and media center. But the plans never panned out, and last week, Mayor Jackie Biskupski signed off on a deal to sell the building and some properties on the same block at a discount to a pair of local developers, who hope to bulldoze it to make way for a mixed-use, 375-foot-tall residential tower, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The news has sent local preservationists and film buffs into a tailspin.
“Mayor Biskupski has doomed this theater without public hearings,” Pete Ashdown, a downtown business owner who has led efforts to preserve the theater by launching the website savetheutahtheater.org, declared during a Redevelopment Agency meeting Tuesday, where members of the Salt Lake City Council listened to public comments and deliberated over the potential sale.
“Please do not be complicit in her actions, you are a counterbalance to the mayor,” Ashdown added.
Although nothing was decided at the meeting, the RDA is weighing whether to approve sale of the 0.89-acre property at 144-158 S. Main at a discount of up to 10% of its current market value of $4.07 million. In exchange, the developers, Houston-based real estate giant Hines and Salt Lake group LaSalle, have agreed to pay for a series of concessions to make the property more friendly for public use. This includes incorporating affordable housing units, carving out a mid-block walkway for pedestrian use, and preserving historic elements of the theater—like stage ropes, signs and the antique skylight—to incorporate into the new building’s design.
“We understand why people want to save it,” Dusty Harris, senior managing director at Hines, told reporters in a hastily-assembled news conference Tuesday morning. The conference was held in the Kearns Building, another historic Main Street property, which is owned by Hines and sits next door to the Utah Theater.
“Really, some of the best and brightest minds in the city have tried to save it, which we were fully in support of,” Harris said. “But for physical, practical and financial reasons, the mayor and the RDA have made the decision to move in a different direction.”
In a staff report, the Redevelopment Agency cited two analyses that estimated it would cost the city between $43 and $70 million to pay for a renovation of the theater, including improvements for structural issues, water damage, seismic standards and code-compliance. A renovation would also have to address limited parking options and the fact that the property is just down the street from other competing theaters.
Speaking during the meeting, Ashdown expressed skepticism about the RDA’s numbers, pointing out that similar Pantages theaters in other cities were renovated at a much lower cost—for $24.3 million in the case of one in Tacoma, Wash., and $9.5 million for the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, Minn.
David Amott, interim executive director of the Salt Lake-based historic preservation organization Preservation Utah, said that the organization was working together with the Redevelopment Agency and local business initiative Downtown Rising to launch a public survey and a series of tours of the site to seek feedback from Salt Lake residents about what could be done with the theater. But the RDA moved forward on its own plans before the survey launched, undermining what Amott believes could have been a more thorough public process.
He also read a letter arguing that taking architectural elements from the theater and incorporating them into the new skyrise won’t be a proper tribute to the historic nature of the original space.
“Like most other preservation and architectural organizations, Preservation Utah believes that all of the historic and much of the aesthetic value of a building’s ornamentation is destroyed once it is removed from its original context,” he said.
City councilmembers, acting as the Redevelopment Agency, closed the meeting without taking any action. Andrew Johnston, who represents District 2, said he was inclined not to support the sale and ask Biskupski not to move forward, but wasn’t ready to make a decision either way. Ana Valdemoros of District 4 called for more public input and ideas for concrete plans.
“I want to exhaust every single option that we have,” Valdemoros said.
James Rogers from District 1, on the other hand, seemed content with moving forward with the sale to the developers, citing the poor condition of the building as it currently stands and the years of delays in city efforts to take action.