Demolition of Utah Theater set to start Tuesday as judge rejects a final-hour effort to save it

Developer plans to tear down the historic Main Street playhouse and replace it with a luxury apartment tower.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Main Street facade of the Utah Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, as seen on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Demolition of the venue could begin Tuesday.

Developers have crews ready to start tearing down the Utah Theater in downtown Salt Lake City as early as Tuesday after a judge rejected emergency legal moves by historic preservationists to block demolition.

Third District Judge Robert Faust denied a temporary restraining order sought by a group called Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre, effectively clearing a Utah subcontractor for Texas-based Hines to begin leveling the century-old performance hall on Main Street.

The group’s members had scrambled Sunday to file the last-ditch request after an attorney for Hines filed papers Friday saying that the city had issued its permit for razing the dilapidated theater “earlier than expected.”

A hearing had been set for May 2 in the matter. But after an expedited 80-minute emergency review Monday in light of the permit, Faust said the group had not proved it had legal standing in the case nor its arguments that demolishing the structure would cause its members irreparable harm — essential elements to obtaining the order.

The judge also said the group’s underlying lawsuit alleging the city’s Redevelopment Agency acted improperly when it transferred the downtown property to Hines last year to build a 400-unit apartment tower appeared unlikely to prevail if it came to trial.

“I also have substantial problems,” Faust added, “with individuals who are not landowners being able to try to come in and control, restrict and limit what someone does with their private property.”

Is the legal fight over?

Casey McDonough, a co-plaintiff in the suit, said theater backers would seek a stay before the Utah Supreme Court early Tuesday. And even if the theater is demolished, McDonough said, the group plans to continue its legal case against the RDA.

”A lost cause is only lost when you give up,” he said Monday evening. “And we’re not going to give up. We’re continuing with every possible effort to challenge this deal.”

The theater group, two business owners and other residents initially sued the city and its RDA in late February, asserting that public officials had failed to comply with Utah law requiring more complete study and reports to state authorities before they sold the site to Hines.

They had argued that because of the run-down theater’s eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and the city’s expenditures of public funds on razing or rehabilitating it, state law required officials to assess and disclose potential negative effects of their plans to the State Historic Preservation Office.

But after hearing arguments from lawyers for Hines and the RDA, the judge called the group’s case “an exercise in futility” and rejected it for “myriad” reasons.

In a legal filing Friday, an attorney for the Hines subsidiary behind the project, HCD Main Street Tower Owner LLC, said it had finished all its pre-demolition work, including preserving some of the site’s key features and unhooking it from city utilities.

The firm, wrote Hines’ lead attorney, Bruce Baird, “has always intended to demolish the theater as soon as permits for the demolition could be obtained and has been unequivocal in its public position on that.”

Working with the city’s RDA, Hines intends to build a 31-story luxury tower dubbed 150 Main Street Apartments at the downtown site, along with an adjacent walkway, pocket park and other amenities. Its plans also include salvaging and repurposing key features of the building, which the city bought in 2010 but ultimately deemed too far gone to restore.

(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)

As part of the RDA’s deal with Hines, the luxury tower will also include nearly 40 rent-subsidized apartments affordable to residents making about 80% of the region’s median wages.

Theater backers say the playhouse’s destruction would represent an incalculable cultural and historical loss for the city and have been fighting on several fronts since late 2019 for it to be saved and restored as a downtown film hub.

Would demolition delays be costly?

Opened in 1918, the venerable venue showcased local performances and top touring acts of the day such as Abbott and Costello, Will Rogers and baseball legend Babe Ruth. The structure at 144-158 S. Main is best known as a popular movie house from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Baird noted Monday that Hines and city officials had extensively studied ways to restore the theater but deemed “it could not be rehabbed in any economic way.”

(Salt Lake City, via Modern Out West) Main auditorium and to-be-salvaged chandelier. Prior to 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.

There’s no possible way that saving this building from a wrecking ball tomorrow is going to make this building be restored ever again,” the attorney argued. “It’s just a delusional fantasy.”

Katherine Nichols, attorney for the RDA, said that equitable ownership of the property had been transferred to Hines in late 2019, but Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre had not filed its legal challenge until two years later.

That has caused extreme prejudice to the RDA and separately to the developer,” Nichols told Faust. “Here we are, years on after the transaction is closed, and they want to go back and unwind it.”

Dusty Harris, managing partner for Hines, sought to buttress the company’s insistence that delays in demolition would cost it up to $100,000 a day. Karthik Nadesan, attorney for Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre, called the number “pure speculation” and argued the daily costs were more on the order of $20,000, though Faust said they were likely about $80,000 a day, based on his calculations.

The judge noted that Utah law required him to hold the plaintiffs liable for those costs in the form of a bond if the project were delayed by a restraining order.

Harris also called Tuesday’s razing “critical path scheduling” and said the building needed to be leveled to allow study of soil conditions, so skyscraper design could proceed and keep the project on track financially.

“Every day of delay,” Harris said, “we view as a missed opportunity.”