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Salt Lake City Plans To Sell 100-Year-Old Theater. Developer Would Replace With 375-Foot Skyscraper

Photo of the Utah Theater.
Nicole Nixon
Salt Lake City's Utah Theater, at 144 S. Main Street, could be replaced with a 375-foot skyscraper if the city moves forward with plans to sell the property to a developer.

Despite calls to save the Utah Theater downtown, Salt Lake City plans to move ahead with selling the property to a developer who plans to build a 375-foot skyscraper in its place.

The mixed-use tower would include office, retail, parking and residential space that will put aside 10% of its units for affordable housing.

The 100-year-old theater at 144 S. Main Street has sat empty and unused for about 30 years. The city purchased the property in 2010, but the Redevelopment Agency board found that at costs ranging from $43 to $70 million, restoring the theater was not feasible.

The theater was originally owned by vaudeville and film producer Alexander Pantages who opened it in 1918 as the Pantages Theater.

Outgoing Mayor Jackie Biskupski plans to move ahead with the sale. The Salt Lake City Council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) board, can approve a discount of up to nearly $7 million. That’s less than the market value of the property. In exchange, the city will get public benefits such as affordable housing.

That means, if the discount is approved, the property would change hands at no cost to the developer, who would then be on the hook for an estimated 30 affordable housing units, creating a public mid-block walkway, and reusing some historic theater elements in the new structure.

Photo of a man protesting the plan to sell the Utah Theater.
Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER
Michael Valentine protests Salt Lake City's plan to sell the Utah Theater to a developer. The city bought the building in 2010, and it hasn't been used in about 30 years.

Some city council members expressed concern at the thought of selling the historic property but recognized that the city’s options for saving the theater were running out.

RDA board chair Amy Fowler said it was “heartbreaking” to see the state of disrepair the inside of the theater has fallen into, but she said the city could not afford renovations costing tens of millions.

“This takes money and so does fixing our roads, and so does making sure that people don’t freeze, and so does all of the other things that we have the responsibility and the charge with taking care of as elected officials,” she said.

The city council controls the city’s budget, but as city executive, the mayor has the power to sell real property. Biskupski plans to move ahead with the sale, her spokesman Matthew Rojas said.

“The mayor recognizes that for 30 years this building has essentially sat vacant,” Rojas said. 

Despite years of outreach to arts groups, nonprofits, and exploring the possibility of restoring the theater and building a tower on top, no solution has panned out, he said.

“It just doesn’t pencil” out, Rojas said. He adds that Biskupksi came into office with the issue on her desk and doesn’t want to leave it for her successor, Mayor-elect Erin Mendenhall, to deal with.

About a dozen people spoke against the move, including some who remembered visiting the theater as children.

“You remember the building — the feeling you got when you walked in — sometimes more than you remember what you actually went there for,” said Kimber Pino.

Pino and others asked the city to save the theater for its historic status, architecture, and potential use as a venue for the Sundance Film Festival.

Photo of the van.
Credit Nicole Nixon / KUER
A van parked in downtown Salt Lake City is used to advocate opposition to the city's plan to sell the Utah Theater.

“So many great movies are made here,” said local filmmaker Michael Valentine before the meeting. “It seems like the city and the state love to take movie money when the productions come, but they don’t like to put that money back in and support the arts and invest in film.”

“I think it’s embarrassing, really, it’s an atrocity,” Valentine said. “This theater never should have been sitting here for 30 years. The city bought it in 2010. It should have been restored a long time ago.”

The city council, acting as the RDA board, will vote on the property discount in December. The theater could be sold by the end of the year.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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