It’s done. Salt Lake City closes its sale of the Utah Theater, makes way for new skyscraper

Preservationists and others trying to save the century-old playhouse vow to fight on, but path forward just got even more difficult.

Salt Lake City has clinched its controversial sale of the Utah Theater to developers.

Final papers cleared on Wednesday on the long-negotiated deal, the city’s Redevelopment Agency announced late Friday, letting Houston-based Hines take ownership of the Main Street property for zero dollars and enact its plans to demolish the historic playhouse and replace it with a residential skyscraper, small park and other amenities.

The conveyance marks a final step, the RDA said in a statement Friday evening, in moving ahead with nearly $100 million of residential and commercial development to revitalize that downtown neighborhood, including an infusion of affordable housing tucked inside in a 31-story luxury tower to be called 150 Main Street Apartments.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall called it “unfortunate that under previous ownership the theater experienced decades of intentional and unintentional degradation” but said “it’s heartening that the forthcoming 150 Main development will bring with it so many of our city’s current needs into the heart of our downtown.”

The final transfer, Mendenhall said, fulfills a set of RDA obligations signed in late 2019 “and closes this chapter in the city’s role in the project.”

That final ink on a sale negotiated since 2017 is likely a decisive blow to grassroots campaigners hoping to save the century-old entertainment venue. They have delivered hundreds of hours of public testimony in opposition to the deal and pushed on several administrative, legal and election fronts to avert the theater’s destruction.

Michael Valentine, who in June chained himself to the theater’s doors to protest its sale and was later briefly detained on a trespassing charges for entering the shuttered marble entry, vowed late Friday to fight on to save it.

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

He said organizers of Save The Utah Pantages Theater had secured an upcoming meeting to lobby Mendenhall and that they planned present a legal strategy for getting out of the Hines deal. And through a newly formed Restorative Society of Utah, Valentine said, theater backers would widen their campaign to rally support for other disused but beloved historic sites in Utah’s capital, such as Warm Springs and the Fisher Mansion.

”There is still a great chance for her to listen to the people and come out the hero in all this,” Valentine said Friday evening. “The truth is, people love the Utah Theater, and we think it deserves to be saved.”

(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.

Though badly damaged, the former Pantages Theater boasts remnants of an original and dramatic neoclassical interior and other features that dazzled generations and still speak to its glory days as a popular turn-of-the-century vaudeville hall and, later, a memorable multiscreen movie house until it closed in the early 1990s.

Yet estimates for fixing the building topped $60 million when then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski authorized the sale in late 2019.

Under terms of the final discounted sale, Hines is essentially getting the theater and 0.89 acre in exchange for including 40 rent-subsidized apartments in its new 31-story, 400-unit luxury tower, affordable to residents making between 60% and 80% of the city’s average wages.

The international development firm, which owns the historic Kearns Building north of the Utah Theater, is required to build a pocket park accessible to the public by a new midblock plaza extending west from Main Street, adjacent to the apartment tower.

Other RDA conditions say Hines must salvage key parts of the theater, including a portion of the stage, an original signboard, some of its interior gargoyles and its skylight, and incorporate those into its new project.

The city has already signed off on an extensive multimedia archive documenting the theater’s features and history, now hosted at https://pta.lib.utah.edu by the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.

City Council member Ana Valdemoros, who also heads the RDA board, praised the new development for bringing “the added public benefits of affordable rental units, repurposing of the building’s original elements, public art, and a green, publicly accessible open space.”

“Although this section of Main Street will look different than it once was,” Valdemoros said, “we look forward to the transformation of our downtown.”

(Image courtesy of Hines, via Salt Lake City) A rendition of the 31-story 150 Main Street Apartments and an adjacent Pantages Park, proposed to be built on the site of the dilapidated Utah Theater on Salt Lake City's Main Street.

Only last week, the city’s Historic Landmark Commission gave its support for adding the vacant playhouse to the National Register of Historic Places as part of newly filed request by theater supporters, now under review by the State Historic Preservation Office.

Inked as the property’s legal owner, Hines now has a crucial say over the historic-register request under federal law and on Wednesday, documents reveal, the firm filed its formal objection as the matter heads to a vote next week before the Board of State History, in advance of a final review by the National Park Service.

Attorneys for Hines asked in the letter that the board instead only determine if the theater property is eligible for listing, noting that its legal objection effectively bars the property from being added without its consent or that of a future owner.

“The unfortunate reality,” wrote Salt Lake City lawyer Bruce Baird, representing Hines, “is that the property is beyond repair and there is not a financially viable use for restoration.”

Baird assured state preservationists that in addition to the affordable housing, park and walkway, Hines’ designs for 150 Main also included “public art installations” and “a family-friendly park that will accommodate outdoor film, theater and live music to honor the property’s legacy.”

Salt Lake City-based executives representing the firm did not immediately respond to a request Friday evening for comment on the official sale closing.