In plot twist, preservationists sue Salt Lake City to save the Utah Theater

They accuse leaders of violating state law, seek to keep downtown venue from being torn down.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The aging Utah Theater on Main Street shows its wear on Dec. 3, 2019. A new lawsuit has been filed seeking to prevent the theater from being demolished.

Supporters of the historic Utah Theater are suing Salt Lake City and its Redevelopment Agency in another attempt to prevent the downtown relic from being razed.

Invoking the century-old venue’s name of yore, a group called Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre joined two city residents and two business owners in the complaint filed Thursday in 3rd District Court, trying to invalidate the city’s sale of the site to developers wanting to erect a residential skyscraper there.

Historic preservationists, film buffs and other residents allege city officials failed to comply with Utah law requiring a more thorough study and reports to state officials before they sold the disused property at 144 S. Main to developer Hines last year.

This latest legal action asks a judge to overturn the deal while also seeking to prevent the city from issuing any permits for tearing down the playhouse.

Because the run-down performance hall’s eligibility for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and because city officials put public funds toward razing or rehabilitating it, the suit states, the city and its RDA were legally required under state code to assess and disclose the potential negative effects of their plans to the State Historic Preservation Office.

“Given that the buyer [Hines] intends to demolish the theater in order to replace it with luxury apartments,” says the 12-page suit, “it is undisputed that the undertaking will have an adverse effect on the theater, which is a historic property.”

“We feel it’s a strong case,” co-plaintiff Casey McDonough said Friday.

(Salt Lake City, via Modern Out West) Main auditorium and to-be-salvaged chandelier. Before demolition, the once-majestic Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s Main Street — a dilapidated and vacant 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.

A city spokesperson said attorneys were reviewing the filing and declined further comment. A spokesperson for the city’s RDA did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.

Joining McDonough as plaintiffs are resident Michael Patton and Ibrahim Fall, owner of Twist Roots, and Derek Bleazard, owner of Beckett & Robb. The two retail outlets rented ground-floor spaces in properties adjacent to the theater but have since seen their leases terminated by Hines and been forced to relocate.

Public outcry has flared intermittently ever since the theater’s sale was inked in late 2019 by then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski in the last weeks of her administration.

Her successor, Mayor Erin Mendenhall, has since defended the deal and the City Council’s ensuing and agonized decision to approve it and not to spend tens of millions of dollars renovating the theater. They backed selling the site for redevelopment, after several publicly funded studies showed reusing it wasn’t economically viable.

The RDA, the city’s main actor on the deal, transferred ownership of the theater valued at $4 million to Houston-based Hines and Salt Lake City-based 160 Main LLC in November for zero dollars, in exchange for Hines including affordable apartments, a pocket park and other amenities in the project.

(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)

Hines is now pursuing plans to build a 31-story luxury tower dubbed 150 Main Street Apartments where the deteriorated theater now sits. Its plans with the city also include salvaging and repurposing key features of the neoclassical building, which the city bought in 2010.

The same group now suing to preserve the Utah Theater has fought city and RDA officials at almost every step in their plans.

Patton, who also uses the last name Valentine, chained himself to the theater’s front doors one hot day last June as part of a campaign decrying the city’s actions.

He and others point to several other neoclassical theaters across the country, also built by Alexander Pantages, that have been restored to their full historic glory — a prospect city leaders deemed too costly.

An application to list the theater on the historic register drew an endorsement from the city’s own Historic Landmark Commission in November. That request is now pending before the National Park Service — although Hines, as the property’s owner, has legal power to block it.