After hurrying to tear down the Utah Theater, developers get another year to finish designs for its replacement

Officials with Hines argue that delays and distractions by playhouse supporters forced them to seek the extension on the 150 South Main Street Apartments tower.

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

Developers seeking to build a new luxury residential skyscraper on the site of the historic Utah Theater in downtown Salt Lake City said in April they needed to move swiftly to tear down the century-old venue.

With a city-issued demolition permit in hand, officials with Texas-based Hines told a judge that every construction delay was “a missed opportunity” — potentially costing the global development firm tens of thousands of dollars daily.

But after invoking that need for speed as it successfully fought off legal attempts by historic preservationists to halt the theater’s destruction, Hines has now been granted a one-year extension on finalizing its design plans for the 31-story 150 South Main Street Apartments tower.

The city’s planning commission approved the extension Wednesday, turning aside requests to hold a public hearing on the move after deciding such a hearing would not be legal.

Bruce Baird, a Salt Lake City-based attorney for Hines, said the need for an extension was forced on the company by delays created by opponents of razing the theater and replacing it with the new tower. He said an administrative appeal they filed last summer had disrupted Hines’ carefully crafted construction timeline.

“We had to know what was under the building to design the building,” Baird said. “And we were prevented from knowing what was under the building” by delays in the demolition, which was in turn delayed by the appeal. “That’s the only reason we needed the extension.”

A theater backer, however, told the commission via email that Hines’ request for more time to design its tower was instead evidence it had rushed to destroy the theater “in an attempt to dismiss our lawsuits and get out in front of the public outcry.”

How the deal came about

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demolition of the historic Utah Theater in Salt Lake City continued on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

The firm, which owns the adjacent Kearns Building on Main Street, won approval last July for its initial application to exceed the city’s cap on building height in that part of downtown, greenlighting the full design phase of its proposed residential high-rise of 400 apartments, 40 of them rent-subsidized, along with a pocket park and midblock walkway.

As part of a deal inked in late 2019, the city’s Redevelopment Agency has conveyed the dilapidated theater building and nearby properties on Main Street, which it bought in 2010, to Hines for zero dollars in exchange for the tower’s affordable apartments and other amenities.

The city approved the theater’s demolition in mid-April and supporters of keeping and refurbishing the storied performance hall went to court twice seeking a temporary restraining order. Both times, 3rd District Judge Robert Faust said they had no legal standing.

In those hearings, Hines said the timing of the tear-down was part of “critical path scheduling” and crucial to keeping the project on track financially. It estimated that delays would cost up to $100,000 a day, though Faust said that figure was likely closer to $80,000 daily, based on Hines’ analysis and testimony.

Opponents drop court case — for now

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The inside of the historic Utah Theater in Salt Lake City began to be revealed on Saturday, April 30, 2022, after recent demolition work.

Wrecking crews moved on the theater April 19 and have since razed much of the deteriorated neoclassical structure, leaving it “structurally compromised beyond repair,” according to court documents.

Attorneys for Hines have since filed court papers saying arguments over saving the theater are now legally moot. Opponents who sued Hines and the RDA in the matter dropped their case May 17, though they have reserved the right to refile.

Three weeks after demolition began, on May 11, Hines sought an extension on the city’s initial design approval, which is valid under city code for only a year. Hines executive Dusty Harris said in the request that an administrative appeal by opponents of the building height decision in July had forced the firm to pause crucial design work by up to 80 days.

That appeal was denied in October. Since then, Hines said it has “proceeded in good faith and with commercial diligence to complete the design and other predecessor activities despite being repeatedly delayed and distracted by the project’s opponents.”

Nonetheless, Hines said in its request, given the 80-day holdup last year — and the complexity of the new tower’s design and required seismic reviews — it now needed the yearlong extension, giving it until July 2023 to complete the process.

City Attorney Paul Nielson told the planning commission that city code did not authorize a public hearing on the extension request, given that the design review approval in July received a hearing and already had been the subject of an appeal.

“To allow comments and a public hearing on a time extension is sort of a back door on appealing that item again,” Nielson said. “The courts wouldn’t allow it.”