Attempts to revive the 100-year-old Utah Theater in downtown Salt Lake City aren’t ‘feasible or viable,’ officials say

(Tribune file photo) An undated photograph of the Utah Theater in Salt Lake City.

Prospects of a comeback for the 100-year-old Utah Theater in downtown Salt Lake City are looking bleak.

Almost a year into the latest study of how to revive the dilapidated historic theater on Main Street, city staffers report the concept still faces substantial obstacles over parking and building access — along with a projected funding gap of at least $20 million.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) bought the theater and a nearby retail space in 2010 and has been in exclusive talks with two adjacent property owners, The LaSalle Group and Hines Interests, exploring either selling the site to them for redevelopment or hiring them to do the overhaul on the city’s behalf.

The LaSalle Group, a Utah-based firm that owns Golden Braid Books, the Oasis Cafe and other popular area restaurants, proposed two years ago turning the site into an entertainment and dining center, possibly with an office or residential tower on top. Other ideas have included a media center, hotel and apartments.

But after extensive study of nine options, the RDA quietly submitted a report last week to city leaders saying that “none of the scenarios explored appear to be feasible or viable, and any scenario will likely have a significant funding gap in the tens of millions of dollars.”

That was true, the report said, even if the city offered a range of tax incentives to help fund the project, sought donations or required financial participation by developers.

In an interview Friday, RDA Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz said the agency now hoped to gauge public sentiment on where restoring the Utah Theater fits in the city’s fiscal priorities, given it would probably require a major public investment.

“When we look at the challenges and the opportunities and issues that are facing the rest of the city,” Walz said, “is that the best place to invest $40 to $60 million?”

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler recalled feeling a sense of sadness when she toured the aging building earlier this year.

“There was this beautiful amenity, something we really could have cherished, that really has been neglected,” said Fowler, who is also the vice chairwoman of the city’s RDA board. “That’s why we see that big price tag. There’s so much work that would need to go into it.”

A relic of vaudeville

Built in 1919, what was then called the Pantages Theater served as Salt Lake City’s marquee venue for top touring acts such as Abbott and Costello, Will Rogers and baseball legend Babe Ruth, before it was converted into a movie hall in the 1930s.

Generations of Utahns remember seeing major motion pictures in the elegance of the theater’s neoclassical auditorium.

Preservationists have praised the extraordinary craftsmanship on the theater’s interior and continue to urge that it be saved — as have similar structures in other cities — but the building has deteriorated significantly, with many of its stately plaster features damaged by water and age.

The RDA bought the Utah Theater for $5.5 million as it sought to build what is now the 2,468-seat George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, just across Main Street. The city has made minor improvements to the Utah Theater and replaced its roof, but the grand lady of Utah’s vaudeville era has otherwise languished.

It is reportedly ineligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places or the Salt Lake City Register of Historic Cultural Resources due to a lack of historic integrity. But officials with Preservation Utah, formerly the Utah Heritage Foundation, have nonetheless told the city the theater remains historically significant and worth preservation.

Complete restoration and return to life as a traditional theater are unlikely, but a sensitive rehabilitation “could serve downtown Salt Lake City as a linchpin of the emerging cultural district,” city documents quote the group as saying.

The city entered its exploratory talks with The LaSalle Group and Hines, a privately owned international real estate company, just as Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski was taking over for her predecessor Ralph Becker and his longtime RDA director, D.J. Baxter.

A spokesman for Biskupski said Friday she had read the RDA report and was eager for public input and discussions with the City Council before deciding on a path forward.

A second act?

City documents now indicate that involving LaSalle and Hines in RDA negotiations was motivated, in part, by the fact that the Utah Theater is landlocked. Any redevelopment would have to rely on either Hines’ Kearns Building to the north or The LaSalle Group’s 160 Main Street to the south for street access and parking.

Access to a potential parking structure otherwise would mean either tunneling under the Kearns Building, with major disruptions to its tenants, or building a ramp over the theater, which would mean demolishing part of the building. Either option, the report said, would “significantly” raise construction costs that are already spiraling upward for other reasons.

Officials with Salt Lake County studied the site in 2012 as a possible home for the Utah Film and Media Arts Center, pegging renovation costs at between $35.6 million and $42.1 million. But the RDA now says that study was flawed.

Cost estimates for earthquake protections were calculated on a flat-cost-per-square-foot basis, not a list of the theater’s specific structural features. More accurate estimates on seismic repairs have raised any renovation’s price tag by at least $15 million, city documents say.

In 2016, an architectural firm studied possible uses for a revamped theater, including office space, a hotel and even an apartment complex. But that study, by the firm JLL, also glossed over seismic costs, according to city documents. Its restoration estimate of between $30 million and $35 million is now also thought to be at least $15 million low.

Rising prices

What’s more, both the JLL and county studies need updating to reflect current construction prices, which city analysts estimate could raise a final price tag to between $62.2 million and $70.2 million. And even those numbers could go higher, the report said, with looming trade tariffs likely to push up steel prices.

The report also says it is not yet clear who would want to operate the theater commercially if it was renovated.

The city has yet to find a viable end-user for the theater — even after RDA talks with “national entertainment companies, development companies, national and regional theater companies, media companies, brokers, institutional investment companies, office developers, events companies, hotel developers, etc.”

And with heavy taxpayer investments in other arts venues in the downtown area including Eccles Theater, Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and Rose Wagner, city documents say a renovation and redeployment of Utah Theater “would have to be done so as to not directly compete” with those facilities.

Even understanding all of these challenges, Fowler said she remained optimistic.

Short of a full renovation, she said, the city likely can still make use of the building. Fowler said she, too, welcomed input from the public on how to proceed. “Whatever happens,” she said, “it still will be a wonderful amenity and we committed to making sure it is the best thing it can be for the city, whatever that is.”