In a plot twist, conservationists are suing Salt Lake City to save the Utah Theater

They accuse the leaders of violating state laws and are trying to prevent the downtown venue from being demolished.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The aging Utah Theater on Main Street shows its wear and tear on December 3, 2019. A new lawsuit has been filed to prevent the theater from being demolished.

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Supporters of the historic Utah Theater are suing Salt Lake City and its Redevelopment Agency in another attempt to prevent the destruction of the downtown relic.

Citing the once-name of the century-old venue, a group called Friends of the Utah Pantages Cinematic Theater joined two townspeople and two business owners in the complaint filed Thursday in the 3rd District Court, seeking to have the city sell the site to developers for to declare invalid to erect a high-rise apartment building there.

Historic preservationists, film fans and other local residents allege city officials failed to comply with Utah law, which requires a more thorough investigation and reports to state officials before selling the disused lot at 144 S. Main to developer Hines last year.

This latest lawsuit is asking a judge to vacate the deal while trying to prevent the city from issuing permits to demolish the playhouse.

Because the derelict performance hall is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and because city officials provided public funding for its demolition or rehabilitation, the states in lawsuit, the city, and its RDA were required by law to assess and disclose any potential negative impacts of their Plans to the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments.

“Because the buyer [Hines] intends to demolish the theater to replace it with luxury housing,” the 12-page lawsuit states, “it is undisputed that the project will adversely affect the listed theatre.”

“We believe it’s a strong case,” co-plaintiff Casey McDonough said Friday.

(Salt Lake City, via Modern Out West) Main auditorium and salvage chandelier. Prior to demolition, the once-majestic Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s Main Street — a derelict and vacant performing arts hall once known as the Pantages Theater — is documented in a vast digital archive hosted by the J. Willard Marriott Library being hosted at the University of Utah.

A city spokesman said lawyers are reviewing the file and declined to comment further. A spokesman for the city’s RDA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Joining McDonough as plaintiffs are Michael Patton and Ibrahim Fall, owners of Twist Roots, and Derek Bleazard, owner of Beckett & Robb. The two retail outlets leased ground floor space in lots adjacent to the theater but have since been terminated by Hines and have had to relocate.

Public outcry has flared at times since the sale of the theater in late 2019 was signed off on by then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski in the final weeks of her tenure.

Her successor, Mayor Erin Mendenhall, has since defended the deal and the city council’s resulting and agonizing decision to approve it and not spend tens of millions of dollars on the theater’s renovation. They supported the sale of the site for redevelopment after several publicly funded studies showed that reuse was not economically viable.

The RDA, the city’s key player in the deal, transferred ownership of the $4 million theater to Houston-based Hines and Salt Lake City-based 160 Main LLC in November for zero dollars, in exchange for Hines, including affordable housing and a pocket park and other amenities in the project.

(Courtesy of Hines/Dwell Design Studios, via Salt Lake City Planning Department) Global developer Hines has submitted plans to build a 31-story apartment complex on the former site of the Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s Main Street. The tower at 150 S. Main, to be called Main Street Apartments, will contain more than 400 apartments and be 392 feet tall, preliminary plans show. (January 12, 2021)

Hines is now pursuing plans to build a 31-story luxury tower at 150 Main Street, where the dilapidated theater now sits. Plans with the city also include saving and repurposing key features of the neoclassical building the city bought in 2010.

The same group now suing to preserve the Utah Theater has fought city and RDA officials at almost every step of their plans.

Patton, who also uses the surname Valentine, chained himself to the front doors of the theater on a hot day last June as part of a campaign against the city’s actions.

He and others point to several other neoclassical theaters across the country, also built by Alexander Pantages, that have been restored to their full historical glory—a prospect city guides deemed too expensive.

A request for the theater to be placed on the historical register was approved by the city’s Historic Landmark Commission in November. That application is now pending with the National Park Service — although Hines, as the owner of the property, has legal authority to block it.

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