IN FOCUS Discussion: The future of Utah’s Pantages Theater

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – The historic Pantages Theater in downtown Salt Lake City was originally built in 1918, featuring many celebrities during its heyday such as Babe Ruth, Abbott and Costello, and Will Rogers. It featured exotic neo-classical style architecture, Alaskan marble, and a Tiffany skylight in the ceiling. The venue seated 1,700 people on the main floor of the auditorium and 600 people on the balcony.

It’s also been known as the Orpheum Theater and is now known as the Utah Theater. It functioned as a vaudeville venue through the 1920s, before it was converted into a movie palace during the 1930s and operated as such until 1988. Since then, it went through multiple ownerships, but has stayed mostly vacant ever since. Salt Lake City purchased the building more than 10 years ago and said their original intention was to potentially use it for a Broadway-style performance theater, which ultimately became the Eccles Theater across the street.

Needless to say, the venue’s endured a lot, surviving multiple events such as WWI, WWII, the Spanish flu, Roaring 20s, Great Depression, Magna earthquake in March 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) said they explored the idea of utilizing it as the home for non-profit film and media groups. It engaged more than 50 representatives from local and regional arts, business, community, entertainment, municipal, and other stakeholder groups, including Sundance, in an effort to find a financially-viable way for the theater to be saved. But they said it was ultimately determined to not be financially feasible, estimating that restoration and rehabilitation of the theater could cost as much as $60 to $80 million.

Eventually, the city entered into a contract agreement to sell the property to real estate development investment firm, Hines and the LaSalle Group, which owns several restaurants in the area. The plans are to build a glass-clad skyscraper with affordable housing units for residents making between 60 to 80 percent of the area’s median income, as well as a pocket park and a walkway to increase the green space in the city. Additionally, the developers would re-use some of the theater’s historic features in the new construction. The exchange for the $0 price tag is that the companies would foot the bill to maintain and ensure public access to the park and walkway.

However, a local group of filmmakers and their supporters have not given up their efforts to save, preserve, and restore the historic building during the last couple of years. The coalition submitted a voter initiative, made a formal offer to buy the theater from the city for $500,000, and wrote a letter of intent to summarize the details of their purchase offer.

The group said they see the theater as the future “Crown Jewel” of the Sundance Film Festival, after concerns were expressed that the event may one day outgrow Park City and move out of Utah altogether. They noted that that the venue is the city’s last grand theater, meaning it could seat more than 1,000 people. It is also part of a family of Pantages theaters across the country including Tacoma, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia that have also been restored in recent years. They said losing this would be “akin to bulldozing Delicate Arch to build an In-N-Out Burger.”

They argued that it is not too late to pursue their last-ditch efforts, as the requirements of the purchase between the City, Hines, and the LaSalle Group have yet to be fulfilled and the agreement gives the developers no real deadline to obtain planning approvals while the property continues to increase in value. The coalition said they’ve been in extensive communication with national experts and believes the RDA does not have correct information about how much it will cost to save and restore the theater, claiming it doesn’t match with current historical restoration happening in other parts of the country.

Their proposal includes working with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service to try and list the theater on the national register, which would bring tax credits of 20 percent that could go directly to the restoration costs to reopen the theater.

Michael Valentine, who is leading the efforts through Utah Pantages Cinematic Theater, along with fellow local filmmaker Casey O’Brien McDonough and architect Christopher Sipes joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on the CW30 News at 7 p.m. for an IN FOCUS discussion about their efforts and arguments to save the historic Pantages theater.

The RDA, Hines, and LaSalle Group either respectfully declined our offer to join the live segment or didn’t respond to our request. However, they did issue the following statements:

“On the offer to purchase, the RDA is under contract with another entity for the purchase of the property and is conducting due diligence accordingly, thus we will not answer any questions about our current agreement or obligations.

On the voter initiative, the City has received the application for the initiative regarding the Pantages and Capitol Theaters and, as required by Utah law, is processing and analyzing it.”

Lindsey Nikola, Director of Communications for Office of the Mayor at Salt Lake City

“Hines is a 64-year-old family owned firm with a proven commitment to excellence and integrity. We care deeply about creating projects that improve communities. Since 1988, we have demonstrated this in Salt Lake City with stewardship and preservation of the historic Kearns Building on Main Street. We are confident that our project will enhance our great city with 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 mid-block connection, and preservation to honor the theater’s legacy.”

Dusty Harris, Senior Managing Director at Hines

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Valentine, O’Brien McDonough, and Sipes, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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