SALT LAKE CITY — After years of struggle to revitalize the more than century-old Utah Theater downtown, Salt Lake City officials are considering a plan to replace the historic building with a new skyscraper.
After buying the property for $5.5 million in 2009, the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency tried to find ways to rejuvenate the 101-year-old Utah Theater at 144 S. Main, but ultimately determined the estimated cost of up to roughly $60 million for restoration and seismic retrofitting would not be “financially viable without monumental public investment,” officials wrote in a recent staff memo.
So now, the city’s Redevelopment Agency and the developers Hines Interests LP and the Lasalle Group are proposing a 375-foot high-rise with 300 housing units with 10% set aside for affordable housing, parking, ground-floor retail space and outdoor public space.
They’re also proposing the skyscraper “pay homage” to the historical theater by reusing the building’s brick, theater ropes, the original sign board or other features if deemed usable, according to city documents.
“This approach recognizes that the amount of public subsidy required for restoration of the theater may be unavailable, and instead proposes a redevelopment strategy that maximizes other public benefits,” city officials wrote in a staff memo.
Danny Walz, the Redevelopment Agency’s chief operating officer, said past city analyses have determined it’s “just not economically feasible to propose preserving the theater as it sits now.”
If the Redevelopment Agency used a tax increment reimbursement agreement, a land write-down or a loan, “even all of those combined probably would not be enough to subsidize the cost” of preserving the theater, Walz said. The only other option would be to issue a bond or debt, and Walz said there likely isn’t much “appetite” to do that today, given other city priorities and the already significant investment in the Eccles Theater.
“We feel we are at a point that we need to move the project forward and propose an alternative to preservation and see what the board’s appetite is for moving forward with that option,” Walz said.
The Salt Lake City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency board of directors, was scheduled to review the proposal Tuesday, but the agenda item was pushed off after dozens of inland port opponents spent more than two hours of the meeting deriding the council for considering a $28 million tax increment deal for a warehouse development.
The proposed Utah Theater development is now expected to come before the Redevelopment Agency board in September, Walz said.
The historic theater, also known as the Orpheum or the Pantages, was built in 1918 and 1919, first for vaudeville and later for film, and was once among Salt Lake City’s greatest places for entertainment.
After the Redevelopment Agency purchased the theater in 2010, it partnered with the Utah Heritage Foundation to invite the public for tours inside the shuttered Utah Theater in an effort to gain feedback on how best to use the property.
Despite caution tape, cracking plaster and dust, visitors lauded the theater’s architectural and historical wonders, including original paintings, marble banisters and plaster friezes. Many commented on how the destruction of the theater would be a serious loss of history and heritage.
But city officials say too many costly issues stand in their way to rejuvenate the theater. Even though it was built more than 100 years ago, previous owners made “significant structural modifications” over the years, city documents say, which impacted the theater’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places and its ability to be competitive for historic tax credits.
The theater needs “substantial rehabilitation” to be code compliant, city documents say. Restoration of the theater, including the lobby and entrance hall, was estimated in 2014 to cost $42 million, but city officials wrote in a staff memo that estimate is likely low considering market-driven cost increases and more recent seismic cost estimates, which put seismic retrofitting costs alone between about $14 million and $20 million.
Additionally, Salt Lake City today has a number of theaters, including Abravanel Hall, the Capitol Theatre, the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center and the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater, making the case for a successful Utah Theater unlikely.
“This is an important piece of property for our downtown,” Walz said. “We think if we weren’t able to move forward with preservation of the building that we feel it’s important to at least include other public benefits within the project so that we’re building something that provides a benefit to the public and will be an asset to downtown.”