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Facing stalking order, group sues Salt Lake City again over century-old theater

Casey McDonough, left, and Michael Valentine, right, co-founders of the Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater, share public records they've collected regarding Utah Pantages Theater on Feb. 8. The group filed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City over the future of the theater on Thursday.

Casey McDonough, left, and Michael Valentine, right, co-founders of the Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater, share public records they've collected regarding Utah Pantages Theater on Feb. 8. The group filed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City over the future of the theater on Thursday. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Pantages Theater, in its heyday, brought in such comedy legends as Will Rogers, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

But the theater's possible final act is turning into quite a drama.

In yet another turn in the legal fight over the future of the century-old downtown building, which is slated to be knocked down later this year, leaders of a group fighting to preserve the theater are suing Salt Lake City and its redevelopment agency over its 2019 agreement to sell the building.

The lawsuit was filed just weeks after the developer that now owns the building filed a stalking injunction against one of the group's founders, seeking to keep him away from the building before it's demolished later this year.

Members of the group Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater filed the lawsuit in 3rd District Court on Thursday. The complaint centers on the city's process and decision to transfer the theater to the global development company Hines for $0 in 2019. A spokesperson for Salt Lake City Mayor's Office told KSL.com the city is aware of the lawsuit and city attorneys are currently reviewing it.

The owners of two local businesses, Twisted Roots and Beckett & Robb, also joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs, stating the decision adversely affected them because they were forced to close and relocate their Main Street shops after the transfer of the building was finalized late last year.

The plaintiffs are seeking a judgment that would void the 2019 agreement, citing violations of Utah code. Since the city no longer has control of the building, they are also seeking an injunction that would prevent the city from issuing permits that would allow Hines to demolish the building.

The contractor hired by Hines to tear down the building filed a demolition permit request last month. Their request is still pending review as of this week, according to city records.

A representative for Hines filed a stalking injunction against Michael Valentine — one of the founders of Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater — a week after the permit request was filed.

The paperwork filed in 3rd District Court shows the company is seeking to keep Valentine away from the theater because of what they call "extreme threatening conduct."

Valentine also made a court appearance Thursday to plead his side in the injunction. He told KSL.com that he believes that it's all an attempt to keep him away from the theater before it's torn down.

"This is a pretty baseless stalking injunction. … They're trying to keep us away from this theater, away from this topic, away from the public, and I think (this) is just a continuation of that," he said a week after the injunction was filed.

He added later that he plans to file a counterclaim against Hines over the ordeal.

How we got here

Advocates for the century-old Utah Pantages Theater have squabbled with Salt Lake City over the fate of the building for nearly three years.

The Utah Pantages Theater opened in 1920 but it has been vacant for some time. Salt Lake City's redevelopment agency acquired the property for $5.5 million in 2010 and continued to publicly voice plans to preserve the theater through at least 2016; the information that the plaintiffs dug up in records requests shows how the mood had changed by 2018.

The city's RDA wrote on a website that it estimates it would cost between $40 million to $80 million to retrofit and repair the building, which is why it began to move away from the idea of preserving it.

Part of the contention is the cost. The estimates from similar theaters refurbished over the past decade indicate it could be done for less, Valentine says. A plan to restore the Pantages theater in Tacoma, Washington, released in 2018, for example, cost a little less than $25 million, according to the News Tribune.

Owners of the building could also be eligible for state and federal tax credits toward restoration projects if the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Then, in late 2019, the city agreed to the deal with Hines for $0. The developer's plans call for a 31-story, 368-foot high-rise on Main Street to replace the theater.

The lawsuit filed Thursday is the third lawsuit in the matter. Valentine and Casey McDonough, another founder of Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater, first filed a lawsuit against the city over a failed ballot measure. A judge sided with the city but it has since been appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

The latest case

What the plaintiffs argue in the new lawsuit is that the city violated Utah laws in its process of handing over the building for demolition.

While it's not on the National Register of Historic Places, experts from both Preservation Utah and the Utah State Preservation Office told city officials that it either was or could have been eligible for that status prior to the 2019 agreement, according to documents.

One state statute says redevelopment agencies must go through a series of processes before moving forward with a plan once a building is determined to be historic. Valentine says those procedures weren't followed, thus he believes the deal is illegitimate.

"We're saying the theater needs to be transferred back to the city and these processes have to be followed in an open and transparent way," he said. "They never submitted the theater (for the historic record), they didn't follow this code. They deny the theater was eligible right up through November 2021 when we finished our application and submitted the theater for the registry."

Casey McDonough, left, and Michael Valentine, right, co-founders of the Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater, share contents from a binder of public records they've collected regarding Utah Pantages Theater. during an interview with KSL.com on Feb. 8. The group filed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City over the future of the Utah Pantages Theater on Thursday.
Casey McDonough, left, and Michael Valentine, right, co-founders of the Friends of the Utah Pantages Theater, share contents from a binder of public records they've collected regarding Utah Pantages Theater. during an interview with KSL.com on Feb. 8. The group filed a lawsuit against Salt Lake City over the future of the Utah Pantages Theater on Thursday. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL)

The city's RDA website acknowledges that Utah State Historic Preservation Office was looking into the matter last year. In one letter from the state preservation office dated Nov. 6, 2019, before the $0 deal was announced, a member from the preservation office wrote that there weren't any guarantees the theater would land on the register, but they wrote "it does have a chance and is certainly worth trying."

According to the RDA website, the city contends the office didn't take up the issue itself until March 2021. Emails and other documents submitted as evidence in the lawsuit show the city's Historic Landmark Commission acknowledged on Nov. 4, 2021, that there would be a state meeting about the building on Nov. 18. The city still had possession of the building at the time since the agreement wasn't finalized.

But a Hines lawyer sent an email to the Utah State Preservation Office on Nov. 10, 2021 — the day the transaction was finalized — objecting to the nomination. Hines wrote that the building was "beyond repair and there is not a financially viable use for restoration."

And the matter apparently ended there.

Since city officials say they are still reviewing the lawsuit, they did not comment on it. A spokesperson for Hines said the company was unaware of the lawsuit.

Why care about the theater?

The new lawsuit is also likely not the last legal matter to be filed in the courts. The group is also looking into other possible missteps uncovered in public records documents, according to Valentine.

He and McDonough say they've been inside the theater and seen its potential, which is why they have invested so much time on the theater. Their ultimate goal is to return it to its former glory. They view it as a unique building that they believe can be a public space residents would enjoy and a venue that brings people in for big events.


It's been sort of a historic preservation moment of talking about these buildings in our city. It has started a conversation, which is cool.

–Michael Valentine


At the same time, they are city residents who continue to question how the deal shook out. Valentine has a real estate background and says he's unsure how any building — even an aging theater — lost value from $5.5 million in 2010 to $4 million nine years later when the rest of the neighborhood property values skyrocketed. That's even before the $4 million was waved off.

The lawsuits, they explained, emerged after they said they were rebuffed by city officials every time they tried to bring up questions and begin dialogues over the plan for the theater.

"If it was a private developer and a private developer exchanging property, making a deal, then we wouldn't have any argument," McDonough said. "But we have an RDA using our tax dollars with city property making a deal with this billion-dollar developer."

Valentine and McDonough say that it's also been worth the fight because it's brought preservation issues to the forefront, which is why they don't foresee themselves giving up anytime soon.

"It's been sort of a historic preservation moment of talking about these buildings in our city," Valentine adds. "It has started a conversation, which is cool."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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