After grim reviews, Salt Lake City plans to put a public spotlight on restoring Utah Theater

Salt Lake City will ask residents how much taxpayer money, if any, should go to preserving the old Utah Theater on Main Street.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency plans an online poll to gauge support for returning the 100-year-old site to some useful life, after a bleak staff report last month noted major project obstacles on parking, building access, earthquake protections, viable future uses and a projected funding gap of at least $20 million.

RDA Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz told city leaders Tuesday that the survey in early October, to be run in conjunction with the Downtown Alliance and Preservation Utah, would try to gauge the public’s appetite for preserving the landmark building — and at what price tag.

“Obviously you can do anything if you’re willing to pay for it,” Walz told members of Salt Lake City Council, which doubles as the city’s RDA board. “That’s part of the issue: What would it cost, what would you save and how would that be structured?”

The RDA has been working for more than a year with two adjacent downtown property owners on options for turning the theater into an updated entertainment and dining center, possibly with office space, a hotel or residential tower rising above downtown’s 144 S. Main.

But well into those negotiations, “none of the scenarios explored appear to be feasible or viable,” according to an August report by RDA analysts. Driving up costs, the report said, were at least $15 million in seismic and structural needs that had been underestimated in prior studies.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Interior of the aging Utah Theater, as seen in December 2015.

Some of the report’s scenarios had funding gaps above $60 million in potential public subsidies or tax breaks to fully pay to bring the theater back to life. With building costs rising, even those estimates could be low.

And while Walz said Tuesday the city’s scenarios assume “for now” the building would be preserved in some capacity, the survey’s findings will inform what future direction it takes with developers Hines and The LaSalle Group.

Built in 1919, the theater was once Salt Lake City’s marquee venue for top touring acts, before being retrofitted into a movie hall in the 1930s. The city bought it in 2010 for $5.5 million when it was seeking a site for what is now the 2,468-seat George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, just across Main Street.

Both Walz and Councilman James Rogers noted Tuesday the building lacked enough features to merit official designation as a historic landmark. “So we’re really at ground zero, depending on the survey,” Rogers said.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Ornate plaster ceiling and skylight in the interior of the aging Utah Theater, as seen in December 2015.

Many of the theater’s regal plaster features have been damaged by water, age and past retrofits, but preservationists praise the craftsmanship of key elements of the interior and continue to urge that the building be saved.

Preservation Utah, formerly known as Utah Heritage Foundation, has said that complete restoration as a traditional theater is unlikely, but that a sensitive rehabilitation “could serve downtown Salt Lake City as a linchpin of the emerging cultural district,” according to city documents.

Councilman Chris Wharton voiced hope Tuesday for preserving at least some elements of the theater, but other council members mentioned options such as selling the property or a study of replacing it with housing.