Wrecking cranes began gouging into the blond brick walls of the Utah Theater on Tuesday as a hotly contested demolition of the historic building finally got underway.
Even as subcontractors for developer Hines started leveling the Main Street relic of vaudeville days to make way for new luxury apartments and a park, backers of saving the century-old performance hall pressed ahead — apparently in vain — with their legal campaign to avert it being turned into debris.
Michael Valentine, who last June chained himself to the theater’s doors in protest of Salt Lake City’s deal with Hines to redevelop the downtown site, stood a half-block away, watching and streaming it all online as the theater fell.
“This is hard to watch,” Valentine said as a tall backhoe tore holes into the run-down venue’s outer walls. “This is a sad day for Utah. This is Utah’s greatest theater.”
Blocks away, other members of Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre sought anew for 3rd District Judge Robert Faust to intervene to stop the demolition. On Monday, Faust rejected their second request for a temporary restraining order after denying the first one in March, calling the case “an exercise in futility.”
On Tuesday, the group filed for a preliminary injunction pending an appeal of Faust’s ruling before the Utah Supreme Court. Allowing Texas-based Hines to proceed with the razing “will be irreversible,” they wrote in legal filings, and will “forever destroy the history and significance of the building to plaintiffs and the community.”
Lawyers for Hines, meanwhile, again urged the judge to reject that plea, saying theater supporters had no valid legal basis for interfering with the global developer’s construction plans.
In Hines’ opposing motion to Faust, lead attorney Bruce Baird called the latest effort “a cut-and-paste of prior errors and a pastiche of misunderstandings or misstating the facts and the law.”
Tuesday’s dueling motions before Faust brought no immediate response as the judge reportedly presided over an unrelated trial.
Casey McDonough, a co-organizer with Valentine of Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre, said Tuesday the group’s attorneys were readying additional motions for the state’s high court and would not back off on an underlying lawsuit against Hines and the city’s Redevelopment Agency.
In tandem with the RDA, Hines has been working since late 2019 toward building a 31-story residential tower, pocket park, midblock walkway and other amenities on the property centered at 144 S. Main.
Dusty Harris, a Hines managing partner based in the adjacent Kearns Building on Main Street, said Monday the demolition would allow the firm to do core drilling and test soils beneath the theater site as part of other engineering work needed to complete design of the new building, dubbed 150 Main Street Apartments.
Plans for the 400-unit tower include 40 rent-subsidized apartments affordable to residents making just under the region’s prevailing median wage.
A spokesperson for Hines said Tuesday that officials at the family-owned firm “care deeply about creating projects that improve communities, and we are committed to excellence and integrity.”
Hines has demonstrated that, the spokesperson said, with its “stewardship and preservation” of the Kearns Building, which the privately held firm has owned since 1988 and renovated in 2019 with a $25 million overhaul.
The project now proceeding on the Utah Theater site, they said, “has undergone extensive community review.
“Once completed,” the spokesperson continued, “it will provide significant public benefits, including much-needed affordable housing; a family-friendly park that can host outdoor film, theater and live music; public art installations; a midblock connection; and preservation to honor the theater’s legacy.”
That preservation, according to city documents, involves salvaging key theater elements — including its notable skylight, some of its decorative plaster features and marble flooring along the entrance hallway — and using those in the new Hines tower. Interior features of the neoclassical playhouse, opened in 1919, have also been extensively documented in a digital archive now maintained at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library.
Yet Valentine, as he paced back and forth on the sidewalk Tuesday, watching theater walls crumble, said those benefits seemed insignificant compared to losing the landmark building itself.
Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theatre and other supporters have campaigned for more two years to save it and have it restored to its former glory, a prospect the city deemed could cost upward of $30 million.
And though the building may fall, Valentine said, the group won’t retreat from its lawsuit alleging the site was illegally relayed to Hines nor from its accusations — steadfastly denied by city officials — of corruption in the deal at City Hall.
The filmmaker also said he will appeal a civil stalking injunction issued against him in February, which ordered Valentine to keep his distance from Harris and Hines property, including the theater. And he said he will also file as a challenger to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall when she is up for reelection in 2023.
“This,” Valentine said, “is definitely not over.”