Abravanel Hall headed for ‘either a rebuild or a renovation,’ but Smith group wants it in sports complex

With significant repairs needed, symphony officials, along with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and hockey team owner Ryan Smith, say they “need to weigh all factors.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students from the Canyons School District and six charter schools from the Wasatch Front, some 2,475 5th graders, file into Abravanel Hall to hear the Utah Symphony for their annual school concert, Feb. 11, 2020. The Utah Symphony presents Symphony of the Hawaiian Birds.

Abravanel Hall, home of the Utah Symphony since 1979, is due for “either a rebuild or renovation,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson says. But which of those options officials will choose remains undecided as the Smith Entertainment Group begins making its pitch for a downtown sports and entertainment district.

Presenting to the Salt Lake City Council on Tuesday, Smith group representative Mike Maughan said: “We at Smith Entertainment Group want Abravanel Hall on-site,” part of the planned downtown revitalization zone near the Delta Center.

A petition with more than 10,000 signatures was started last week amid concerns that plans by Utah Jazz and NHL team owner Ryan Smith for new retail, restaurants and housing around his downtown arena could impact the 45-year-old performing arts center.

The Smith group, Wilson and representatives from the Utah Symphony said they met Monday to discuss how the iconic concert hall would fit into those plans.

They said in a joint statement Tuesday that “the conversations are in the very early stages. We need to weigh all factors, including the high cost of a renovation alongside the benefits of rebuilding.”

Salt Lake County, which owns the Abravanel Hall and Salt Palace lots downtown, has been working with the Utah Symphony on a plan for renovating the venue — including improvements to the acoustics, the heating and cooling, the front- and back-of-house facilities and technological updates — for the past year.

Maughan said that “the renovations would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix.” Salt Lake County Council member Jim Bradley estimated the cost at $200 million to $300 million. The heating and cooling system alone could cost $80 million, Bradley said, made more expensive because the system is shared by Abravanel Hall and the Salt Palace.

“The bottom line,” Wilson said, “is that we do have data back showing the exorbitant cost of a redo.”

Still, tearing down the symphony hall and building a new building carry risks, Bradley argued. The acoustics in Abravanel Hall are considered some of the best in the country, he said, a characteristic that pushes many symphony fans to believe that the concert hall is an elite venue in the western United States.

Bradley felt that rebuilding the hall could threaten its unique quality.

“This is my opinion, but I think it stands to be true, there is undoubtedly luck involved in” the acoustics, Bradley said. “The best engineers and architects can come together, but you can miss a little or hit on the head. If you could hit it on the head every time, all concert halls in America would be acoustically fine. But they are not. There are only about two or three. So there must be something more than good engineering.

“Tear it down, build it somewhere else,” Bradley added, “you are taking a major chance that it won’t be as good.”

Wilson, the Smith group and symphony leaders said in their statement they would continue to weigh the best path with regard to Abravanel Hall and are “committed to working collaboratively toward the mutual goal of ensuring that Salt Lake City continues to enjoy the highest quality symphony hall that meets the needs of its professional musicians and community.”

The creation of the sports and entertainment district, the joint statement said, “has the potential to accelerate and improve upon the ways in which these long-standing challenges will be addressed,” while expanding access to the arts, improving the experience for patrons and ensuring artists have “the best environment … to carry out their work.”

Said Wilson: “The net message is: This is still a conversation. Just speaking personally, I regret there wasn’t more time since the announcement of the team and word leaking out ... to actually engage with all stakeholders.”