Like a revered old actor faded into retirement, Main Street’s Utah Theater stirs up emotions each time it steps back onto the public stage.
Salt Lake City is now within glimpse of fulfilling its contract to “sell” developers the vacant and decaying 103-year-old venue — at a zero-dollar price tag — as Hines and The LaSalle Group push their plans to tear down the theater and replace it with a dramatic 31-story residential skyscraper.
Yet even as that discounted sale of the city-owned site drew closer last week, supporters of saving the historic structure aren’t bowing out.
The City Council looked at new designs Tuesday for a publicly accessible pocket park and midblock walkway that developers are promising to put in and maintain next to the Main Street Apartments, a glass-clad skyscraper with a cantilever to be built on the footprint at 144 and 158 S. Main, next to the Kearns Building.
Having deemed the dilapidated theater too far gone after nine years of study and several unsuccessful proposals to preserve and reuse it, the city, under then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski, contracted in late 2019 to essentially sacrifice the downtown property — in exchange for affordable apartments in the new tower, a new park and walkway, and reuse of some of the theater’s historic features in the new construction.
At it stands now, the city anticipates discounting its full estimated $4.07 million sales price in exchange.
Opened in 1918, the neoclassical playhouse was a marquee venue in its day for local performances and touring acts. It is also remembered fondly as a popular movie house from the 1930s through the ′70s.
Tuesday’s review of the one-acre elevated park and terraced public easement connecting it to Main Street — one of the final steps toward the sale — also brought out residents adamantly opposed to losing the once-majestic theater and they pushed back again in public testimony.
“I’d like the city to preserve our history and say no to yet another luxury tower that would demolish a jewel of the city,” said David Berg, one of a dozen residents who spoke before the city’s Redevelopment Agency board, which doubles as the City Council.
Added Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance: “We need to save some of those things that make Salt Lake unique and cool and a place that people want to live.”
‘No other theater like this’
Backers of the former Utah Pantages Theatre have also launched two fresh campaigns to undo the city’s pending sales contract, which RDA officials said they consider a legally binding document.
Salt Lake City film enthusiast Casey McDonough and others have filed an initiative at City Hall seeking an emergency public vote “on the earliest date allowable” to declare the Utah Theater a landmark on the city’s register of cultural resources in hopes of preempting the sale and demolition.
They’ve also included a similar landmark declaration on the Salt Lake County-owned Capitol Theatre in their initiative as well, according to McDonough, to put the potential of a restored Utah Theater on a par with that renovated facility in the public’s mind.
“There really is no other theater like this in the country,” said fellow Utah Theater supporter Michael Valentine.
McDonough, Valentine and other members of Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre have also sent a detailed letter of intent to the city offering to buy, restore and reopen the Utah Theater, saying they’ve lined up willing donors and a team of national experts to help the effort.
“Not only can we restore our theater in a strategic way, but also for a fraction of the costs that have been estimated over the years,” the letter says. “Not only can our theater still be saved, it can flourish and be profitable for years to come.”
An expert quoted in the letter said the proposed demolition would be “akin to bulldozing Delicate Arch to put in an In-N-Out Burger.”
Valentine called their proposal for preserving the theater as a film center affiliated with the Sundance Film Festival and a host of other Utah arts groups “a very real offer. We’re putting the funding together.”
Valentine said the campaign also had backing from supporters of a historic Pantages Theater restored in Tacoma in 2018 as well as preservationist experts from the Maryland-based League of Historic American Theatres.
‘Above and beyond’
Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, who now heads the city’s RDA board, noted that signing the theater sales contract was an administrative act by Biskupski, not by the board.
As such, the RDA board’s scrutiny of the deal at this point, Valdemoros said, is focused on making sure developers fulfill conditions for the discounted sales price, including ensuring they build the promised open space.
The voter initiative, she said, was under review by city legal and financial officials in compliance with state law, and Valdemoros set aside public questions on the matter until that analysis is completed.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall and several veteran council members were clearly frustrated by last-ditch moves to reconsider the city’s agonized conclusion of just over a year ago, when leaders decided they couldn’t afford an estimated $60 million or more to repair the theater’s extensive damage and better protect the structure against earthquakes.
“It’s very far gone. It’s not a good space,” Mendenhall said Tuesday of the deteriorated performance hall, recounting how she once fell through one of its floors during a tour.
The mayor said derailing construction plans by Hines and LaSalle at this point would be “cutting off our nose to spite our face” and “such a loss for residents downtown, because we cannot afford a downtown park.”
The developers are offering to foot some $2.5 million in costs on building the pocket park and ensuring public access in perpetuity, including paying up to $69,000 yearly to operate and maintain the space “on their own dime,” said RDA Chief Operating Officer Danny Walz. “We feel that Hines has gone above and beyond what we as a city and an agency have asked them to provide within this space.”
Long-sought downtown park
Mendenhall and other officials noted that the city currently has roughly half the green space per resident of most municipalities, yet its own recent $3.5 million effort to create a new downtown park failed, in part for lack of available land.
Efforts to add downtown green space in Utah’s capital go back at least to 1995. “We’ve been trying for a long time,” the mayor said.
The city has secured guarantees from Hines of affordable apartments in the new tower, in the form of studio, one- and two-bedroom units. In February, officials unveiled an in-depth digital repository documenting the Utah Theater’s history and architectural elements, in advance of its razing, to be maintained at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library.
Hines is now pursuing approval from the city’s Planning Commission for its latest design plans for the Main Street Apartments tower, now estimated at 368 feet, which exceeds city height limits at that location.
The global developer, headquartered in Houston, plans nearly 400 apartments in the skyscraper, with about 40 of them kept affordable for residents making between 60% and 80% of the area median income, according to city documents.
The tower would have a parking structure beneath the new park and a wide-corridor walkway running east to west from Main Street.
Councilman Darin Mano said the city didn’t seem to be getting a full midblock walkway out of the exchange, because the one Hines wants to build only connects to the park — though Mano added his critique wasn’t a reason enough to withdrawn his support.
“To me, if I have to walk up a set of stairs and then back down another set of stairs or go down an elevator,” he said, “it’s not really a functional way to walk through a city.”
Several council members also asked for more details on Hines’ park and walkway proposals before they sign off on the discounted sale. Councilman Andrew Johnston said the plans didn’t fully match the council’s initial vision and lacked specifics, especially on how the space will be friendly to families.
Although demands on available city money are running high right now — particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic’s many hardships — the council also has left open the option of chipping in additional cash or other financial incentives for developers to enhance the new park and possibly add amenities.
“This is as close as we’ve come after trying this long to get a downtown park,” said Councilman Chris Wharton. “I don’t know why we wouldn’t investigate that further.”