Fans of the historic Utah Theater have started a campaign to save the aging downtown structure after Salt Lake City leaders recently opted to explore replacing it with a skyscraper.
Daunted by an estimated $60 million price tag for restoring the 100-year-old former vaudeville and movie theater, the city’s Redevelopment Agency is in talks with two developers — Hines and LaSalle — about tearing it down to make way for a 30-floor tower, midblock walkway and park at the Main Street location.
The former Pantages Theater, built in 1919, is badly deteriorated. Under the latest RDA plans, some elements of the neoclassical-style venue, including its ornate interior sculptures and original bricks, would be incorporated into the new project, with the rest of the building demolished.
But some theater supporters note Utah’s capital lacks a grand theater devoted exclusively to film, even though it hosts the yearly Sundance Film Festival, and that a renovated Utah Theater could fill that gap. The city has spent larger sums on other projects, they note, including nearly $180 million to build the Eccles Theater nearby on Main Street.
Downtown business owner Pete Ashdown recently launched savetheutahtheater.org, which argues the public has not had an adequate say in the matter and urges residents to make their views on refurbishing the structure heard at City Hall.
“There is a base of people interested in seeing it preserved,” Ashdown said Wednesday.
In a recent opinion piece in The Salt Lake Tribune, Ashdown, owner of internet service provider XMission, accused the City Council, which oversees the RDA, of “pretending to wring its hands.”
“They claim to be agonizing over loss of the Utah Theater,” Ashdown wrote, “but they lack any and all courage to step up and define a plan to save it.”
But council members continue to discuss ways the performance hall might be preserved, even after approving new talks last month with Hines and LaSalle on the skyscraper project.
“Is there still time to work things out instead of demolishing it and losing it?” Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, whose district includes the theater, asked last week as the RDA board debated ways of funding the restoration.
RDA Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz has described the costs, including seismic retrofitting, as “monumental.”
“Given the size of that investment and other priorities and issues facing the city,” Walz said in response to Valdemoros, “this is not necessarily the best use of public funds at this time.”
The city, which bought the site at 144-158 S. Main a decade ago for $5.5 million, now envisions writing off most of that as an incentive to developers to save historic items from the theater, carve a walkway into that side of Main Street — and make up to 10% of the tower’s 300 apartments more affordable.
A 2012 study led by Salt Lake County documented nearly $42 million in costs to restore the theater, including its lobby and entrance hall, for use as a nonprofit film and media center. But RDA officials say that estimate is now low in light of rising construction costs and unanticipated expenses from making the building less vulnerable to earthquakes.
Ashdown noted that the Salt Lake Valley has lost several landmark movie theaters over the decades, including the Center Theater on State Street, now demolished; Millcreek’s Villa Theater, converted into a rug shop; and the Regency Theater, the city’s last venue capable of projecting movies shot on 70mm film.
“I am the first to applaud movies found streaming online,” he wrote, “but you can’t have a communal event in front of a television.”
Historic preservationists, meanwhile, also urge the city to reconsider the option of listing the Utah Theater on the National Register of Historic Places, with the potential of securing tax credits to help with restoration costs. RDA analysts had concluded the chances of qualifying for those tax breaks were harmed by the fact the theater is in disrepair and lacks much of its historic integrity.
But David Amott, interim director of Preservation Utah, said state officials who administer those tax credits, which could significantly offset restoration costs, say they remain a possibility for the theater.
At the very least, Amott said, if demolishing the theater goes ahead, the RDA needs a robust plan for documenting and archiving its many historic features, working closely with preservationists.
“This building deserves to be documented,” he said.