Utah Theater takes one final bow before being razed to build a skyscraper

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The aging Utah Theater on Main Street shows its wear, as seen on December 3, 2019. Faced with prohibitive costs of renovating the theater, city officials are now negotiating plans for tearing it down to build a residentialskyscraper at least 30 stories high, with affordable housing, a public green space, parking structure and reuse of key elements from the historic theater.

A lone electric light continues to shine from the darkened stage of Salt Lake City’s Utah Theater, homage to an old superstition that every theater harbors ghosts.

The light ensures safety, but theatrical tradition also has it that ghost lamps, as they’re called, allow theater spirits to dance and perform at night, quenching their impulses to haunt real-world occupants by day.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Redevelopment Agency confirmed Friday that the single-bulbed incandescent lamp remains lit inside the shuttered theater, though it’s unclear for how long after a key vote last week to sell the city-owned property on Main Street to developers.

With Tuesday’s decision by members of the Salt Lake City Council to discount the city’s $4.07 million sales price for the old performance hall and 0.89 acres to zero dollars, the script for the Utah Theater’s final curtain call is now being written.

That 5-2 vote has all but extinguished long-standing hopes of some to restore and preserve the former Pantages Theater, built in 1919. Barring the unforeseen, a go-ahead for its demolition could be less than a year away.

RDA spokeswoman Amanda Greenland said Friday co-developers Hines and LaSalle will now focus on design work for the 30-story residential skyscraper they are planning to build at the 144 S. Main St. locale once the sales goes through and the dilapidated theater is razed.

(Renderings courtesy of Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency) Faced with prohibitive costs of renovating the Utah Theater, city officials have approved plans to sell the Main Street site to developers hoping to build with a skyscraper at least 30 stories high, with affordable housing, a public green space, parking structure and reused pieces elements from the historic theater.

RDA officials will closely review designs for the 300-apartment tower and other project details in talks that are likely to last six to nine months, Greenland said. The City Council, in its role of overseeing the RDA, will have final say over those plans.

Councilman Andrew Johnston, who voted against the property discount along with Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, said the city could use its power over the design to push for some kind of replica of the theater to be included on the ground floor — though he acknowledged that might be a long shot.

Greenland said the RDA would also now begin overseeing the documentation of historic elements and architectural details of the 101-year-old venue in advance of it being torn down.

Though heavily damaged by age, structural modifications and the effects of a once-leaky roof, the Utah Theater’s ornate interior still features an array of neoclassical sculptures, intricate detailing and inlaid marble flooring as well as a unique Tiffany skylight.

In its contentious debate Tuesday over the land discount, the City Council secured guarantees that 30 or so of the proposed skyscraper’s apartments will be rent-subsidized, in light the city’s need for affordable housing. The sales agreement would also require developers to cut a new midblock walkway north of the apartment tower, likely to boost pedestrian traffic.

A five-member council majority deemed the value of those benefits — plus a mandate that Hines and LaSalle reuse key historic relics in their new project — as a fair exchange for giving the site away for free.

That followed Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s decision on Nov. 7 to sign a sales agreement on the theater property with Hines and LaSalle, ending almost nine years of study at City Hall on ways to save and reuse the site, which the city purchased in 2010.

Biskupski, who leaves office in January, and RDA leaders have said the ultimate price tag for restoring the Utah Theater — estimated at between $35 million and $60 million — is too high in light of other city needs.

Pete Ashdown, who helped organize a campaign to save the theater, said Friday he saw no recourse for residents hoping to reverse the sale.

“I am not a lawyer, but I don’t see any way to challenge what the city has done,” Ashdown wrote in an email. “I’d be happy to be proven wrong.”

He and others have accused the mayor and RDA officials of not being transparent in their negotiations, which involved nearly four years of exclusive talks with Hines and LaSalle behind the scenes.

Acknowledging those concerns, Councilwoman and RDA Board Chairwoman Amy Fowler has promised a review of policies that currently allow the RDA to give preference to owners of land adjacent to its properties.

That little-known provision let the RDA enter exclusive talks with Hines, owner of the Kearns Building north of the Utah Theater, and LaSalle, which owns property to the theater’s south — without seeking public bids typical of other major city contracts.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Councilman Chris Wharton echoed concerns over a lack of openness at City Hall on the issue and seemed to encapsulate the council’s dilemma as it has sought to balance a priority for historic preservation with other political and financial realities.

Wharton, elected to the council in 2017, said he felt “a very personal connection” to the Utah Theater, after being deeply affected by a building tour. He kept a piece of theater rubble at his desk, he said, to remind him to exhaust all options for saving or repurposing it.

But selling the property, Wharton said, had been set in motion by the mayor, under her legal authority to dispose of city land — a move the council did not have the power to overturn. And after nearly 60 years of decisions that worsened circumstances for the historic theater, he said, a restoration that overcomes all its existing challenges “is not going to happen.”

“We don’t have the power as a council to undo the decisions that led us to this point,” the councilman said. “We can’t make a benefactor appear. We can’t create an end user for the site. And we can’t continue to let this property sit for another 10 years.”

Wharton said he was swayed to back the discount by the affordable housing it would bring, as well as the prospect of a new downtown park, which Hines and LaSalle are considering as part of the walkway. In approving the price write-down, the council sought further assurances that Hines and LaSalle will create the open space, which, according to renderings, would be called Pantages Park.

That negotiation will now be part of the city’s plan review.

The sales agreement also requires Hines and LaSalle to salvage and incorporate parts of the Utah Theater into their new construction, including distinct ropes and bricks, a portion of the stage, an original signboard, some of its interior gargoyles and the unique skylight.

That effort, though, is unlikely to satisfy historic preservationists who hoped to save a deeper sense of time and place from the theater for future generations, according to one expert.

Kirk Huffaker, former executive director of Preservation Utah, said that salvaging pieces from historic structures was “more about artifact collection.”

“You're treating pieces of a building as artifacts of what was there and placing them in new spaces in a new way,” Huffaker said, “and so it becomes more like urban archaeology.”

Tuesday’s vote also enshrined requirements that the theater’s interior be documented through measured drawings, filming, photographs and written data to provide a detailed record of the property’s significance, according to city memos.

Greenland, with the RDA, said the agency planned to work with the state Historic Preservation Office on that process.

And the ghost lamp on the Utah Theater’s stage, she said, will stay lit as long as the property is in city hands.