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A closing act of defiance leads to arrest as protester seeks to save Utah Theater from demolition

Despite the sit-in and more preservation pleas, the city moves forward with plans to erect a residential skyscraper, pocket park and more in playhouse’s place on Main Street.

(Salt Lake City, via Modern Out West) Watercolor of Main Street exterior. Before demolition, the once-majestic Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s Main Street — a dilapidated and vacant 103-year-old performing arts hall once known as Pantages Theater — is being documented in a vast digital archive, hosted by J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

For another day in the 103-year-old life of Salt Lake City’s dilapidated Utah Theater, Wednesday presented a drama worthy of its stage.

Michael Valentine, a movie buff who had staged a brief hunger strike in June outside the shuttered performance hall, was arrested Wednesday evening on a trespassing charge after getting inside the building for a sit-in and movie screening to protest the playhouse’s pending demolition.

A fellow protester with Save The Utah Pantages, Casey McDonough, said Valentine was setting up chairs in the theater’s marbled entryway to show his self-produced documentary alleging city corruption in sealing its fate, when police showed up.

Officers were cordial, McDonough said. They ejected everybody else from the vacated building and let them go but brought Valentine out handcuffed and took him into custody, he said. Booking records at the Salt Lake County jail indicate Valentine eventually was released without having to post bail.

“Free at last!” Valentine joked later after being freed around 1 a.m. Thursday and walking five miles home.

Wednesday’s finale came hours later when the city’s Planning Commission approved plans for a dramatic 31-story residential skyscraper, midblock walkway, glassed lobby and elevated park to be built at 150 S. Main — once the theater is torn down.

(Courtesy of Hines/Dwell Design Studios, via Salt Lake City Planning Department) Global developer Hines has filed plans to build a 31-story apartment complex at the former site of Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s Main Street. The tower at 150 S. Main, to be called Main Street Apartments, will include more 400 apartments and stand 392 feet tall, initial plans show. (Jan. 12, 2021)

Nearly 30 witnesses begged the city to save and reuse the building instead in the lengthy hearing. The commission’s 6-1 vote in favor of designs from developer Hines is a major step toward cinching years of negotiations on the high-rise project — and the theater’s ultimate razing — with the city’s Redevelopment Agency.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall has said the deal will hand the theater over to Hines for zero dollars in exchange for up to 40 affordable dwellings, the pocket park and other amenities is proceeding toward closing — despite remnant opposition.

‘Hallelujah!’

The commission’s debate, which went late into the evening, centered instead on schematics from international developer Hines for building the 150 Main Street Apartments at the location, with 400 studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, 8,400 square feet of ground-floor retail space, the new pocket park and walkway aligned with Regent Street.

To be built on top of a parking lot, the park just north of the skyscraper’s lobby will be accessible by stairs or elevator and will feature an expansive lawn, gardens, a sloped amphitheater and wooded area, according to blueprints. Construction will also extend a midblock walkway westward into the block for public access to the park off Main Street.

“Our intention is to make the space somewhere for all to go and enjoy,” said Dusty Harris, senior managing director with Hines, owner of the adjacent Kearns Building.

(Image courtesy of Hines, via Salt Lake City) A rendition of the 31-story Main Street Apartments and an adjacent park, proposed to be built on the site of the dilapidated Utah Theater on Salt Lake City's Main Street.

The high-rise’s supporters say it will enliven that entire downtown block and adjoining intersection, create a new green space in a neighborhood that needs it, and bring affordable apartments to a luxury tower.

Senior city planner David Gellner said that counting rooftop utilities, the building would reach upward of 400 feet.

City staffers recommended the design approval and several commission members said that while they sympathized with theater supporters, they welcomed Hines’ plans. The panel put conditions on lighting, signs, tree management and ensuring the privately owned park is publicly accessible before clearing it to proceed.

“I’m so excited to have another big building in our downtown,” said commission member Sara Urquhart, who lives half a block away. “It is the vibrancy, the excitement that we’re seeing with more people on the streets, more people walking, more bars and restaurants opening up.”

The old theater “is an eyesore, and it’s dangerous,” she said. “So, as a neighbor, I’m saying, ‘Hallelujah!’”

The lone opposing vote came from commission member Amy Barry, who worried the 150 South Main Apartments would be too tall and that its ground-floor design would not adequately tie in with the surrounding streetscape.

The hours-long hearing had little legal bearing on a decision to raze the decaying theater. That plan was set in motion in late 2019 by then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council. All the same, people called in from across the country with renewed and passionate pleas for city officials and Hines to save the landmark or incorporate it into the new tower.

“We simply want to state our disappointment and frustration with the city’s actions,” said Kelsey Maas, representing the nonprofit Preservation Utah, which has weighed in repeatedly in opposition. “We are profoundly sad that the city is allowing such a vibrant and unique architectural space in the heart of the downtown to be demolished.”

‘Fantasyland’

Studies on ways to restore and reuse the city-owned theater came up with an estimated $35 million to $60 million price tag, which elected leaders deemed far too expensive. And although it has been out of use for more than two decades and is badly water damaged, opponents of dispatching the theater to oblivion decried the loss of its character, distinct architecture and historic charm.

HGTV celebrity host Nicole Curtis berated commission members Wednesday for not halting the theater’s demise and finding an eco-friendly way to adapt and reuse it. Curtis, whose specialty is rehabilitating buildings, also decried the environmental impact that razing the old neoclassical playhouse may have.

“You are all voting for all of this to go into a landfill,” she told them via teleconference. “This is anything but green. The greenest building is the one still standing.”

Brenda Case Scheer, who heads the Planning Commission, noted that an existing city master plan for the area contemplated repurposing the theater, but a lawyer for Hines called that “fantasyland.”

“That design,” said attorney Bruce Baird, “simply doesn’t function in the real world or from an economic sense.”

Mendenhall and officials with the city’s RDA have said their final sign-off on the deal with Hines is likely to happen in the coming months.

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