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Efforts to save Utah Theater continue despite city moving forward with sale

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – In what may seem like a done deal for end of the Utah Theater, advocates who are fighting to save the last ‘grand palace’ movie theater in the state say they’re not giving up yet.

According to the Save the Utah Theater website, the movie theater was purchased by Salt Lake City in 2008 for the “express purpose of restoration and a home for non-profit film and media groups.” It is the last 70mm capable movie theater in the state.

“This year, the Sundance Film Festival had a 70mm print of Apollo 11 that could not be shown in Salt Lake, because there is no 70mm projection house available,” it said. “Since the city’s purchase, in spite of a complete Salt Lake County rehabilitation plan, the theater has languished without city leadership to execute. Now, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (RDA) is pushing the City Council to demolish the theater and replace it with an office tower.”

It mentioned that if the theater is placed on the National Register for Historic Places, the city can receive up to 20 percent of the cost of restoration in tax credits.

(Courtesy: Save the Utah Theater website)

According to a fact sheet provided to ABC4 News by Matthew Rojas with the Salt Lake City’s Mayor Office, the theater building was constructed in 1918 with the previous owners making significant structural modifications over the years.

“These modifications have impacted the building’s overall historic integrity and thus negated its eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. As such, the building’s ability to be competitive for historic tax credits is limited,” the document stated.

Michael Valentine, one of the individuals leading the efforts to save the theater said an article by Building Salt Lake corrects this notion but the RDA is still ignoring that the theater can be put on the historic registries. Petitioners believe the Utah Theater has not been given a fair shake with the public having a full and informed say in the matter.

“Instead, the RDA is wrongly asserting that there are already too many theaters in Salt Lake and this one is too expensive to rehabilitate,” the website said. “The RDA saw fit to demolish three architecturally contributing buildings on Main Street and build the Eccles Theater, without voter consent, for $180 million. The cost to rehabilitate the Utah Theater is estimated to be a third of that.”

City officials said since the RDA purchased the property in 2010, much time and many resources were spent exploring various preservation and reuse options with third-party consultants and interested user groups.

“The RDA worked to identify a niche not already served by existing theater venues, engaging a variety of potential end-users at the local, regional, and national level, including entertainment, theater, media, events, hotel, office, and institutional companies and developers,” they wrote. “Other stakeholder groups engaged by the RDA to explore preservation and reuse options include local and regional arts alliances, charitable foundations, academic institutions, historic preservation groups, urban advocates, and City and County entities.”

As a result, they said outreach efforts did not yield an end-user that is willing and able to partner on the rehabilitation of the theater, leaving the estimate for public investment substantial.

In September 2018, the RDA provided a briefing to its board from an analysis of redeveloping the site with the rehabilitation and reuse of the theater structure. It said doing so was not financially viable without monumental public investment to address structural and code compliance deficiencies.

Adjacent property owners Hines and LaSalle then created a development proposal for a project that includes a mixed-use-tower, affordable housing, and public space.

RDA’s outline offered the following required components and public benefits:

  • Affordable Housing: Minimum of ten percent of residential units affordable to households earning 60 to 80 percent of the area median income
  • Public Space: Mid-block walkway providing publicly-accessible open space with connectivity to the interior of the block and the Kearns Building plaza
  • Historic Repurposing: Repurposing of theater elements to pay homage to the previous use of the site, and the re-use and preservation of elements for archival purposes.

Additionally, the RDA said they identified additional public benefits to further evaluate as the project is designed in order to identify the potential for participation:

  • Activation & Enhancement: Activation of Main Street and the public realm by weaving public open space, pedestrian connections, ground-floor retail, and dining options
  • Parking: Structured parking located to the rear of the tower
  • Public Art: Iconic public art centered on the mid-block walkway and prominently visible from Main Street. Hines’ and LaSalle’s properties

Valentine believes that unlike the Eccles Theater, there should be a vote to fund Salt Lake City’s portion before the Utah Theater is doomed for destruction. He said the city should have restored it years ago when it was purchased in 2010.

However, outgoing SLC Mayor Jackie Biskupski plans to move ahead with the sale of the theater to developers, not wanting to leave the task to incoming Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall. The Salt Lake Tribune reported her Chief of Staff Patrick Leary signed a formal sales agreement Thursday with global real estate firm Hines and Utah-based developer LaSalle. 

Rojas said it was a difficult decision for city officials, as renovations would cost tens of millions of dollars after the building sat empty for about 30 years. Now, Biskupski is pushing to discount the sale price of the theater, which is approximately $4 million, in exchange for concessions from the developers.

On Tuesday, dozens of supporters of the Utah Theater packed into RDA’s meeting to voice their concerns about the building’s sale for redevelopment into luxury apartments. Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency ultimately decided to delay the vote on the theater for another month. Valentine said they have another month to return with a counter-proposal to save the theater.

“Lots of work to do, but if it wasn’t hard, everyone would have the greatest cinema screen in the world. Good thing we’re going to rebuild it right here in Salt Lake City,” he wrote optimistically on social media.

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