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Salt Lake residents try to convince city leaders to not sell Utah Theater

(Artist rendering of proposed skyscraper, Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency)

SALT LAKE CITY – The landscape of downtown Salt Lake City is likely to change soon, as the city government takes one more step toward selling the historic Utah Theater.  Technically, the deal hasn’t been approved, yet, and some city residents are trying to fight it.

The city took control of the shuttered theater back in 2009 for $5.5 million.  Leaders have tried to find ways to either renovate or preserve it, but, the city was never able to find enough funding to restore it to what it used to be.

However, art lovers in Salt Lake say the city should keep trying.  Advocates like Darby McDonough say the theater is too historically important to just tear down.

“The Utah Theater is part of a historic chain built over 100 years ago called The Pantages, and there are mirroring theaters around the country.  Two of which were in worse [condition] than the Utah Theater is now, and have been saved,” McDonough says.

She’s hoping to spread the word of fundraising efforts that are happening that she believes could save the theater from a wrecking ball, but, she acknowledges it’s a tough battle.

McDonough says, “I believe historic architecture actually changes the nature of a city.  It changes how we think and how we interact with each other.”

However, Matthew Rojas with Mayor Jackie Bisupski’s office say the theater is well beyond needing just renovation.  He says the building would have to have serious seismic safety upgrades, and that would cost between $40 million and $60 million.  He says the city can’t justify spending that kind of money on what would become a single-screen movie theater.

“If the [Redevelopment Agency] were to bond to cover that cost of just $40 million, it would essentially limit the RDA’s ability to do any further bonding for the downtown RDA project area until about 2050,” Rojas say.

There are benefits to selling the building at a loss.  Rojas says in order to qualify for the write down, the developers would have to agree with certain terms.  For instance, “We can require the developer to include affordable housing for a period of about 50 years,” according to Rojas.  He also says the new owners would be required to preserve the historic features that are still inside the theater, and they would have to provide for a downtown green space.

The mayor has agreed to sell Utah Theater to Hines Interest LP and the Lasalle Group, who are proposing a 375-foot high-rise building with 300 apartments.  The RDA hasn’t agreed to this deal, yet, but, Rojas expects the agency to discuss it again in December.