Rather than restoring the 101-year-old Utah Theater to its past glory, Salt Lake City officials are eyeing a plan to redevelop the site on Main Street into a new skyscraper with retail outlets, affordable housing and a new midblock walkway.
The latest idea, now before the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA), calls for paying homage to the decaying performance hall by saving and reusing theater bricks, an original signboard, an atrium ceiling skylight, and even some of its plaster sculptures.
But a full-blown restoration of the once-venerable theater — estimated to cost upward of $60 million — “is not financially viable without monumental public investment to address structural, seismic, and code compliance deficiencies,” according to city documents.
The new approach, documents state, recognizes that a huge financial subsidy is unlikely for the Utah Theater, which the city bought for $5.5 million a decade ago during the Great Recession.
Adjacent property owners Hines, a global real estate developer, and Utah-based LaSalle, which has experience in revitalizing historic buildings, have an inside track on negotiations for executing the project, given the site is landlocked for street parking without their involvement.
RDA officials are urging the Salt Lake City Council, in its role as the RDA’s governing board, to approve further talks with the developers to add more detail to the project, including options for building a mixed use high-rise with up to 300 new dwellings, some of them affordable housing, and creating a new midblock walkway and new open space downtown.
Built in 1919 and then called the Pantages Theater, the playhouse was rendered in high neoclassical style and served as Salt Lake City’s leading performance venue for touring acts such as Abbott and Costello, Will Rogers and baseball legend Babe Ruth.
Modifications to the theater over the decades, including its conversion into a movie house in the 1930s, have hurt its chances to receive tax incentives from a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to several studies.
The theater’s increasingly water-damaged plaster interior, a growing list of seismic and engineering needs, the lack of available street parking and several new and competing theaters built downtown have all worked against bringing it back to a viable life.
An RDA report issued last summer found a gap of at least $20 million in potentially available funding and the costs of basic structural improvements to restore the dilapidated theater, which sits on a 0.89-acre parcel at 144-158 S. Main.
If the RDA board agrees to pursue new talks on building at the theater site, negotiations will reportedly involve calculating a sales price for the choice downtown property, taking into account the project’s potential benefits to the city. Talks will reportedly also look at other tax and lending incentives the RDA could offer to developers, documents state.
The proposed high-rise tower would stand approximately 375 feet high, putting it among the tallest buildings now standing or currently proposed on the city’s skyline. Its 30 floors or more would offer retail, office and residential spaces as well as a public parking structure.
At least 30 of the tower’s 300 proposed apartments would be kept affordable for city residents making between 60% and 80% of area median incomes, according to preliminary details.
The reuse project also would open up a midblock walkway off of Main Street linking to the existing Kearns Building plaza. There would be an open space on top of a proposed parking structure at the rear of the site, extending north onto Hines’ property to the north.
Elements of the old theater would be preserved and reused “for archival purposes,” according to city documents — including some of its original bricks, ropes used in the theater’s operation, some of its ornate interior fixtures and portions of its original stage.
The project’s inner-block open space — dubbed Pantages Park in one artist’s rendering — would also feature an “iconic” art installation, according to city documents, with the resulting public space helping to enliven Main Street and the surrounding neighborhood.