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The Utah Theater is pictured in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) (Photo: )

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, File

Group seeking to preserve historic Salt Lake theaters sues city after ballot initiatives denied

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - May 4, 2021 at 9:04 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The fight over having residents vote on the historic status of a pair of downtown Salt Lake City theaters is now headed to court.

The leaders of a group seeking to preserve the two landmarks filed a lawsuit against the city after they were told both of their efforts to put an initiative asking residents to vote on providing historic status for the structures didn't qualify for the November election.

Casey McDonough and Michael Valentine, both from Salt Lake City and lead members of the group "Save the Pantages Theatre," filed the lawsuit in 3rd District Court on Friday. It lists Salt Lake City recorder Cindy Lou Trishman, Salt Lake City attorney Katherine Lewis, and the city as respondents of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit follows a pair of attempts by the group to add an initiative that would grant preservation protection status to the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, and Utah Pantages Theatre, 144 S. Main, with the latter of the two slated for demolition.

The first attempt for an initiative was filed on March 17. It would have designated Utah Pantages Theatre and Capitol Theatre as landmark sites under city code.

The lawsuit alleges that the backers of the petition, including McDonough and Valentine, were told they needed to receive 8,048 verified signatures by April 15; however, they said they weren't allowed to gather signatures until the city finally confirmed the legality of the proposal, which was April 5.

"The local initiative procedural requirements made it impossible for the (ballot petitioners) to fulfill all such requirements, including the requirement to deliver all signatures on the petition by the (April 15) deadline," the group alleges in the lawsuit.

The initiative failed to make it on the ballot because the group didn't get enough signatures. So on April 16, the day after the deadline, they filed another initiative tied to the matter.

The goal of the second initiative would also designate both structures as historic landmarks but through the establishment of a "Downtown Historic Theatre District." It would also amend the city's zoning map to add the district within the Historic Preservation Overlay District.

According to documents attached to the lawsuit, Salt Lake City officials informed the group on April 22 that the second attempt didn't qualify for the ballot because of a state law that bars petitioners from filing "identical or substantially similar" proposed laws within two years of a failed proposed law initiative.

Speaking with KSL.com Monday, McDonough and Valentine said they believe the city erred in their interpretation of the law. That's also what they argued in the lawsuit. More specifically, they argued that they weren't given a specific reason as to what "identical or substantially similar" means and that they believe the second initiative didn't qualify as "substantially similar."

The lawsuit states the second initiative would prohibit the demolition of the Utah Pantages Theatre, which is something that wasn't specifically included in the first initiative. McDonough explained that it would also seek three total historical designations compared to one from the first plan in addition to the zoning code amendment.

"We believe that it's a clear indication that it is substantially different," he said. "I try to stay positive when I deal with the city but I keep asking questions and they keep giving me, I guess, the same answers — kind of the canned answers, just talking point answers. We're hoping that the lawsuit will make them explain themselves, so we can move forward with the initiative."

McDonough and Valentine also blasted the April 15 deadline in the lawsuit as "arbitrary" and called it and the state's two-year period on initiative requirements "unconstitutional." It calls on the court to overturn the decision made by city officials and allow the group to collect signatures needed for the second initiative to qualify for the ballot.

Salt Lake City has yet to formally respond to the lawsuit in court; however, in a statement to KSL.com Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office said city attorneys were aware of the lawsuit filed Friday and in the process of reviewing it.

As for the initiatives, they contended that the second initiative was denied due to state law that prohibits "an application for a substantially similar law" to a measure that failed within a two-year period, such as the first initiative.

"Utah law says a city must reject an application to initiate a law if the proposed law is substantially similar to a proposed law the city received in the past two years," the statement read, in part. "For that reason, (Salt Lake City) complied with the law and rejected the April 16, 2021, application."

A group's fight to preserve the theater

The Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency purchased the theater for $5.5 million in 2009; however, a decade later, it estimated it would cost up to another $60 million for restoration and seismic retrofitting. The agency argued it just wasn't worth it to preserve the theater.

The City Council and the city's redevelopment agency board voted in December 2019 to sell the building land to a developer for $0, who would then construct a 30-story, 300-apartment skyscraper in its place. So far, the demolition of the 103-year-old building has yet to happen as the planning of the new skyscraper continues.

A firm began surveying the building last summer for a project that would allow people to take a virtual tour of the building so people could at least experience its history on a digital scale.

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The city's decision in late 2019 came to the dismay of the "Save the Pantages Theatre," which first organized earlier that year. The group leaders acknowledge that the building is in need of repair but argued that it provides the city historic and cultural value. It's something they still believe today, and that a recent restoration of a similar theater in Washington was proof that the cost of renovation may be cheaper than currently believed.

They've since included the Capitol Theatre in their fight because it also hasn't received historic status and both buildings originated in the same decade. Utahns have had the opportunity to experience that building's value while it's been decades since people could say the same about the Utah Pantages Theatre.

"Their stages actually touch each other in the back," McDonough said, of the two buildings, "and I kind of think of the two theaters as siblings that are holding hands. They're both significant in the architectural history and their cultural history and their connections to the nation's history."

In it for the 'long haul'

There is no clear timetable for the issue to be resolved in the courts and it could be dragged out. McDonough said that he hopes the issue will be resolved quickly but that the group seeking to protect the Utah Pantages Theatre will seek every possible option to stop the city from allowing it to be demolished.

That could mean an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court if the 3rd District Court rules in favor of Salt Lake City. To that point, leaders of "Save the Pantages Theatre" revamped a crowdfunding effort to help pay for the legal fees tied to the court battle.

They have also reached out to various preservation and film organizations because the court battle over the initiative could only be the beginning of the group's battle to preserve the theater and then possibly revitalize it.

"Basically we're in this for the long haul," Valentine said. "We've been doing this for two years and our voter initiative is one piece of this. We have a lot of other stuff going on. I'm working with architects and all kinds of people — we released a render a few weeks ago about what we kind of envision the theater to be in the future."

Despite the city's previous decisions on the Utah Pantages Theatre and the ballot initiative, both he and McDonough said they are confident that not only will they win their legal battle but that the measure would pass in the November election should it be on the ballot.

A photo of the interior of the Utah Pantages Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City take in February 1921. Among other things, the downtown theater was one of the first buildings in the nation to feature an air conditioning system.
A photo of the interior of the Utah Pantages Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City take in February 1921. Among other things, the downtown theater was one of the first buildings in the nation to feature an air conditioning system. (Photo: Utah State History)

That's because they believe the buildings they are trying to preserve are ones residents would agree are worth preserving. They also said they don't feel alone, especially from the feedback they have received from other residents, and after their online petition to preserve the building received over 7,500 signatures and counting.

"Everyone's rallying to save this theater and the more we talk about it, we get more momentum and support every day behind this," Valentine said, noting that he believes there's a "crazy misconception" that the theater is beyond disrepair — something his group has fought against.

"I think the city will totally rally to save this theater because it's our theater," he quickly added. "We really see this as a community theater and as a space for everybody."

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