Movie buff chains himself to Utah Theater in last-ditch bid to save it from demolition

He and others allege the sale was flawed, but city leaders stand by their decision to bring more housing to Main Street.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Valentine is chained to the Utah Theater in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 8, 2021.

Remnant opposition to Salt Lake City’s pending sale of the Utah Theater on downtown’s Main Street broke into public view again Tuesday when film buff Michael Valentine chained himself to the shuttered hall and vowed a hunger strike to save it.

He and other die-hard supporters of the dilapidated playhouse sought to draw attention to allegations of “serious abuses” in the city’s handling of its late 2019 deal to sell the historic site to developers, who are pressing plans to raze the 103-year-old hall and build a 31-story residential skyscraper and city park.

“This is not for the betterment of the city,” Valentine said of the theater’s impending demolition as he plopped down on the sidewalk beneath the theater’s old marquee and locked his arms and legs in heavy cables threaded through its door handles, vowing to stay for days — or until city leaders heeded his concerns.

Elected leaders, he said, “should be listening to the people instead of setting policy to make corrupt deals with billionaires.”

It marked the latest attempt by the venue’s backers to derail the city’s long-debated contract to dispose of the historic theater, which essentially sacrifices the run-down city-owned property for zero dollars in exchange for concessions from developers Hines and The LaSalle Group to build affordable housing and a new downtown open space next door.

Hines is seeking city approval for Main Street Apartments, a glass-clad skyscraper with a cantilever to be built on the theater’s footprint at 144 and 158 S. Main, next to the Kearns Building — with about 10% of its 400 apartments to be kept at more affordable rents.

The city is standing by its contract, with officials confirming Tuesday the Utah Theater deal was proceeding apace and just months from closing, even as its backers maintain the venue can still be restored and turned into a regional film center, with ties to Utah’s yearly Sundance Film Festival.

Opened in 1918, the neoclassical playhouse was a marquee venue in its day for local and touring acts and was a popular movie house from the 1930s through the ′70s. Though studied for other uses for nearly a decade, city officials reluctantly deemed the building too expensive to save.

Sale opponents have offered to buy the old hall, though at a fraction of the city’s $5.5 million purchase price. They’ve unsuccessfully sought a public referendum to reverse its fate. They’ve enlisted studies by historic preservationists in other cities with similar Pantages theaters that have been fully restored to become community treasures.

Valentine and other members of Save the Utah Pantages Theater now say the city had played down options for officially designating the old playhouse as historic and inflated possible restoration costs, among other allegations. They’re calling on key leaders in the city’s Redevelopment Agency, which has overseen the negotiations, to resign and for the deal to be scrapped.

Later Tuesday, he and other theater supporters dialed into an RDA meeting to highlight their claims and urge members of the City Council to change course. “This was a bad deal on almost every front,” argued resident Casey McDonough, who with others asked city officials to investigate the contract.

RDA Chairwoman and City Council member Ana Valdemoros said she and other board members were sympathetic to Valentine’s passions for the theater and supported his free speech rights, but that chaining himself to the doors posed “a safety issue for him and for the city.”

Valdemoros said a potential lawsuit in connection with the Utah Theater limited the city’s ability to comment on Valentine’s allegations, but she added officials took “the concerns very seriously and are taking the time necessary to review this issue.”

A spokeswoman for the RDA said Valentine’s allegations that top officials in the RDA staff hid key information about the theater from elected leaders “are untrue” and that records instead show the city working hard to find a use for the property and to preserve its history.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in an interview that she, too, supported Valentine’s free speech rights but noted that he was trespassing and would not be allowed to remain chained to the building.

She said as of Tuesday evening, city first responders were checking regularly on his welfare but hadn’t moved to displace him.

Mendenhall turned aside Valentine’s assertions of wrongdoing in negotiations, saying instead the city’s dealings on the Utah Theater had been aboveboard and transparent through documents and public meetings “over a decade.”

“I’m confident the process has been lawful and ethical,” Mendenhall said, adding that she also stood by the city’s deal to deploy the theater to secure more affordable housing.

Restoration at this point, she said, “would take millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to bring it back as a safe and stable building,” she said, and then “it would literally be a gilded venue, only for people who can afford to pay for entry.

“Today, Salt Lake City is in a housing crisis,” the mayor said, “and that’s why a sale of the Utah Theater was negotiated, to bring more units and more affordable units into a higher opportunity area of our city to benefit our residents who need it.”