The fight over the redevelopment of the Utah Theatre will likely flare up this week. How did we get here?

The fight over the future of the historic Utah Theater will reemerge in the public limelight this week, as the controversial deal between the city and private developers will likely lead to a glimmering new highrise on Downtown Salt Lake City’s Main Street. 

A Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday will likely pit preservationists hoping to save the theater against city officials who have long held that the building is in such disrepair they gifted it to global real estate developers Hines two years ago.

The developers are seeking exception to D-1 zone height restrictions which otherwise prevent the construction of midblock buildings taller than 100 ft.

The Commission will have to decide on the quality of the 392 ft proposal, upon which the city’s Redevelopment Agency, as owners of the theater property, has also placed conditions.

Public outcry at losing the historic theater has been significant – and included accusations of corruption for giving the theater away to a developer and an attempt to put a measure on the November ballot to landmark the site.

Chances for big waves at the July 14 Planning Commission meeting are slim, but opponents are likely to bring their boards hoping for surf. The nature of the public exactions from the developer – for their requested increases in height and entrance setback – will be determined.

Context of the proposal

Situated in a prominent gap of Downtown’s skyline, the 31-story, 392 foot tower would join a wave of new highrises in SLC and would be among the city’s tallest buildings. The project would add 400 new apartment units in the center of the downtown core with 40 being listed as “affordable” at 60%-80% AMI. In addition, it would create a new outdoor park space accessible to the public but managed and maintained by the developers, as well as a mid-block path for pedestrians.

While these features might sound appealing to urbanists under normal circumstances, particularly during the current housing shortage, the planning commission will likely face a strong wave of opposition to the project because it requires the demolition of the century-old theater.

The vaudeville-era theater, formerly known as the Pantages Theater, which sits hidden from Main Street in the middle of one of SLC’s gargantuan city blocks and abuts the rear of the Capitol Theater, has been out of active use for nearly three decades.

With a stage and loading area too small for Broadway, the auditorium was heavily altered in the 1960s and used as a two-screen movie theater before closing its doors in 1988.

After purchasing the building in 2009 with the intent of supporting an eventual renovation, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) ultimately concluded that the costs were too high for such a project.

Figures of $60-$80 million for restoration, which would include seismic upgrades and extensive rebuilding of the auditorium itself, have been cited by the city but disputed by activists.

The RDA’s exactions on behalf of the public

Ultimately, the city’s Redevelopment Agency entered into negotiations with developers Hines and LaSalle and, in December of 2019, signed an agreement to transfer the theater property to the them for the sum of $0 under four conditions:

  1. Mid-block Walkway –the project must include a privately-maintained, publicly-accessible, mid-block walkway that extends into the interior of the block from Main Street.
  2. Open Space element –the project must include a park element that is privately owned and maintained but publicly accessible.
  3. Affordable Housing –Ten-percent (10%) of the housing units in the development must be affordable and available to those between 60% and 80% AMI.
  4. Historic Repurposing –The project must include the reclamation and incorporation of historic theater elements.
The midblock walkway in the latest renderings from Dwell Design Studio + Hines.

The first three of these requirements are addressed directly in the design review package that will be the subject of the design review meeting at the planning commission.

As part of the effort to satisfy the fourth requirement, the Utah Theater in its current state has been extensively documented and a 3D virtual reconstruction of the interior has been generated. The results are hosted online by the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. According to Hines, certain interior features of the theater will be saved and repurposed, including the Tiffany skylight.

The developer’s proposal (and hype)

Dwell Design Studio, an Atlanta-based group that opened a SLC office recently, described the project on its website in September 2020 (which has since been removed):

“Ahhh Salt Lake City…beautiful mountains, Winter Olympics, funky counter-culture, the city that made Bill Paxton less known for saying “Game over man!” in Aliens to saying “Game On!” in Big Love….well, get ready to add another beauty to the list baby! Dwell’s design of the Main Street Highrise for Hines is a glittering gem that will raise the architectural status of Salt Lake City on the national radar.

In some kind of mind-blowing fashion, Dwell’s design team strategically blended the lower half of the tower into the context of the surrounding architecture, then featured a sleek and elegantly modern upper half of the tower…all the while creating a well-composed iconic building design.

SLC loves it!!”

The proposal includes a parking structure with 262 stalls that would have vehicular and pedestrian access from 100 South and West Temple. The city requires 0.5 parking spaces per unit in this zone and out of the 262 total spaces, residents will be able to use 202 spaces with 60 being allocated to the neighboring Kearns Building.

Echoing the forthcoming Astra Tower at 200 South and State, the exterior of the tower showcases multiple façade materials that are intended to evoke other important architecture in Downtown such as the adjacent Kearns Building.

Plans of the first floor show an 8,400 sf retail space fronting Main Street with double-height windows as well as a leasing office and a large bike shop space. A “Sky Lounge,” split between the 21st and 22nd floors, is intended to offer unprecedented outdoor views of the downtown core and the mountains beyond.

This space, as well as a pool amenity space adjacent to the park, a gym, and a second-floor co-working space will ostensibly be exclusive to residents of the tower.

Latest elevation rendering of Dwell Design Studio + Hines’ 150 S Main tower. Image courtesy Dwell Design.

In addition to the 40 affordable units, documents show the tower incorporates 75 studio, 176 one-bedroom, 104 two-bedroom, and 5 penthouse units at market rates for a total density of 332.5 units per acre.

The Gallivan and City Center TRAX stations are both within 700 ft to the north and south of the property respectively.

“Pantages Park,” a new .52 acre green space privately owned + open to the public to be built on top of the parking structure, would be accessible via a landscaped walkway from Main Street.

Recently revised plans show elevator access from Main Street as well as from the northwest corner of the park and from the tower itself. Signage visible from Main Street will lure pedestrians into the new park.

 The developers have agreed to pay for the $2.5 million park as well as the estimated $69,000 annual cost of upkeep.

The Battle of the Pantages

Following the announcement of the deal with Hines in 2019, a group devoted to saving and renovating the Utah Theater was born. The efforts of “Save the Utah Pantages Theater” have ramped up in the past few months with activists first offering to buy the property for $500,000 and later accusing the RDA of corruption.

In March, a petition to add a ballot measure in the November 2021 election, which would have officially classified the Utah Theater as well as the nearby Capitol Theater as historic landmarks, failed to reach the required number of signatures by a city-imposed deadline of April 15th.

Because the city did not confirm the legality of the petition until April 5th, petitioners argue that it only gave them a limited window to obtain the required 8,048 signatures. After the city denied a second petition on the grounds that it was “identical or substantially similar” to the previous one, the activists filed a still-pending lawsuit alleging that these requirements were convoluted and arbitrary.

In June, one theater supporter tied himself to the front doors of the theater and started a hunger strike in an attempt to call attention to its impending destruction. He ultimately untied himself later that day but has returned frequently to post flyers on the doors calling for the resignation and investigation of certain RDA members and Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

The city has largely been silent in return, with the RDA issuing only a short statement at a June meeting saying that the pending litigation has limited what they can publicly say concerning the issue.

The RDA’s Amanda Greenland told us that “The cost, along with the opportunity to address multiple community needs is why a sale of the theater was negotiated. The development will bring more housing units, more affordable housing units, and other public benefits including a publicly accessible green space in the heart of Downtown.”

She also directed us to a discussion of the park space that took place at an RDA Board meeting in March, a recording of which can be found here.

Save the Utah Pantages Theater claims to have support from architects, designers, lawyers and Preservation Utah.

The group has its own vision to turn the Utah Theater into a “grand movie palace” and released its own ideas and renderings in a recent article. They argue that this better-fulfills a statement in the SLC Downtown Plan, adopted in 2016, which states that the city will “Repurpose the Utah Theater as a cultural facility and activity generator.”

In response, the city says it considers this statement to be “an aspirational vision or initiative” and that after “investigation and analysis conducted by the RDA and the Administration, it was determined that restoration of the theater was not feasible given the deterioration and upgrades that would be needed to the structure.”

The city also takes the position that the reuse of historical elements of the theater fits the use of the word “repurpose” and that the mid-block walkway and park, as well as the surge of new residents, will themselves be an activity generator.

The official design review packet for 150 S. Main, which can be accessed through the SLC planning department’s website, shows many public comments in support of saving the theater and also a few in support of the redevelopment.

For the Utah Pantages Theater supporters, the July 14th design review meeting represents a chance to voice their concerns and to try to stop public approval of the project. However, the meeting is only officially concerned with the requested exception to the code for the height of the proposed building, as well as a request for an increased (10 ft) setback for an entrance at street level.

With a conditional recommendation from the planning staff in hand, the commission is unlikely to bar the project from moving forward at this meeting. Even if it did, the applicant could resubmit an alternate design proposal or simply build a structure up to 100 ft tall by right.

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UPDATE: This story was updated to accurately reflect groups that support the effort to preserve the Utah Theater.