While agonizing over losing Utah Theater, leaders in Salt Lake City opt for talks to replace it with Main Street skyscraper

Salt Lake City leaders changed scripts Tuesday on the century-old Utah Theater, opting to pursue talks with adjacent landowners on building a new skyscraper at the Main Street site instead of rebuilding the one-time performance hall.

Considered one of Utah’s top early-20th century venues for popular touring acts of the day, the downtown theater was purchased by the city in 2010. It has a long list of woes these days, totaling an estimated $60 million to fix. Even that price tag is probably low, city officials said.

So members of the City Council — in their role as the city Redevelopment Agency’s governing board — opted instead Tuesday to pursue negotiations with two real estate development firms, Hines and LaSalle, which own buildings to the theater’s north and south, respectively.

The developers have offered initial plans to build a dramatic 375-foot skyscraper at the site, with retail outlets, up to 300 new apartments, a mid-block walkway and a small park. But there remains deep sentiment to save the old structure, known to generations as a movie theater.

Pete Ashdown, longtime downtown resident and owner-operator of Xmission, Utah’s oldest internet service provider, urged the board to reexamine the possibility of using a restored theater to show movies — especially given the state hosts the Sundance Film Festival each year.

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

Ashdown said the theater’s history had involved a series of “broken promises.” He was “stunned,” he said, that the $60 million restoration price was considered too expensive, when the city allocated $160 million for the Eccles Theater — without putting that move to a public vote.

Ashown called for a city referendum on spending to restoring Utah Theater.

“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said, “and we will never have another chance at a grand theater downtown.”

Councilman Chris Wharton said he sympathized wwith that view, noting the closure over the years of other iconic movie theaters in the region, including The Villa in Millcreek.

“I’m sad that we don’t have any of these in our city,” Wharton said. But RDA Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz said a series of economic studies indicated that use wouldn’t work.

“It’s easy to speak nostalgically with The Villa and other movie theaters,” Walz said. “But the market reality is, there’s not a demand anymore for single screen movie theaters.”

Walz said a restored Utah Theater also risked “cannibalizing” audiences at potentially competing downtown theaters such as Eccles, Rose Wagner, Capitol Theater and others.

Several board members repeatedly echoed a desire to preserve the building somehow, but acknowledged that the city may have exhausted its financial options for a full restoration.

“I do struggle with this project. We’re losing a lot of historic buildings downtown,” said Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, whose district covers the site.

Councilman Charlie Luke said the city had also worked extensively with Utah Film Center and Salt Lake Film Society on turning the old theater into a movie hall. "It still makes sense to me,” Luke said — but no partners had come forward willing to share in the $60 million.

The site has also been considered for re-use as a restaurant, dinner theater, offices and a hotel, in addition as a live performance venue — even as cost estimates have climbed over the years.

Utah Theater’s once-august neoclassical plaster interior — laden with ornate sculptures and filigree — is badly water damaged. Seismic, engineering and code deficiencies would take millions more to repair, and city officials worry that even when fully restored, the theater would lack adequate parking.

Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said the building has deteriorated beyond the point of being saved. “The theater is gone,” she said. “There is not a theater there today. There are some relics.”

The RDA’s initial plans call for recognizing the theater’s history by saving and reusing some of its key elements, including theater bricks, an original signboard, an ornate atrium ceiling skylight, and some of the plaster sculptures.

City officials urged the developers to raise the profile of those historic elements — and produce a striking design for the proposed skyscraper.

“Let’s get creative,” Mendenhall said. “Let’s make this a true gem.”

Completed in 1919 and then known the Pantages Theater, the original playhouse was among Salt Lake City’s leading performance venues and drew some of the era’s biggest touring vaudeville acts.

The theater has been modified over the decades, including its 1930s conversion into a movie house, and those have all but derailed its chances for qualifying for tax incentives with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Walz said RDA officials will consider a reduced sales price for the downtown property, purchased by the city for $5.5 million during the Great Recession — in light of the project’s potential benefits to city residents from new housing and activating that portion of downtown.

The agency will also consider tax and lending incentives it could offer the developers, Walz said, as a concession in light of their proposal to make roughly 30 of the tower’s 300 apartments affordable to renters making between 60% and 80% of area median incomes.

Luke said the city would seek to increase the number of affordable units in the project and increase how deeply rents might be subsidized, possibly by making the proposed tower even higher.

He also urged developers to design a striking and iconic skyscraper. “I want this building to be viewed as art,” Luke said. “I challenged you do do something that really stands out.”

But Tuesday’s decision still remained painful, at least for some.

In an interview, David Amott, interim executive director for Preservation Utah, said he was “at a loss” and “losing sleep” over the prospect of Utah Theater being demolished.

“The real frustration we face is that the building doesn’t really have a constituency,” Amott said, noting that members of the public have not been inside since the 1990s, when it was used for repertory theater.

He said, “It’s very hard to save a building that nobody knows, nobody has seen and nobody will see."