The Utah Pantages Theater is on its way to gaining national landmark status. Will it matter before the city sells it to developers?

All the hearings are over. No more public presentations, reviews, or comments are required. The Utah Theater property at 144 S. Main, owned by the city’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA), is teed up to be sold to developers as soon as the parties can agree on contract terms.

The deal – essentially giving away the theater property for 40 affordable units and publicly accessible green space on top of the parking garage – is all but done.

Developer Hines’ plans for a 31-story, 400-unit residential tower to replace the 110-year old Utah Pantages Theater follows the RDA’s longstanding insistence that the theater is not eligible for listing on the national register of historic places.

Yet a local group, SavethePantages.org, has readied an application to landmark the theater on the National Register. If it’s successful, federal and state tax incentives follow. No protection against tear-down exists until a building is listed on the local register. 

Local landmarking of the Utah Pantages Theater is likely to face political headwinds at Salt Lake City hall. For over a decade, the Mayor and City Council (acting as the RDA Board) have made explicit policy choices leading to the theater’s sale and imminent demise.

National Register application ready to be submitted?

SavethePantages.org hired local preservation expert Kirk Huffaker, former Executive Director of the nonprofit Preservation Utah, to prepare the theater’s application to the National Register of Historic Places. Huffaker currently consults privately on preservation projects. 

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 dictates the conditions for listing on the National Register that the states must follow. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) is instructed to work with local applicants and governments on preservation issues relevant to the National Register. 

Huffaker told us that information from both SHPO and the RDA helped fill out the Utah Theater’s nomination application. The RDA Board required extensive historical documentation of the existing elements of the theater as a condition of its sale and imminent demolition. 

Given the feedback they received from the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service’s federal preservation office, the applicants think they have successfully nominated the theater for the National Register of Historic Places. 

Their first stop is the Utah Department of State History Board on November 18th, according to Huffaker. 

That body may do a number of things, from advancing the proposal to tabling it for more information. The Feds promise a 30-60 day turnaround on nominations once submitted from a state, Huffaker told us.

Local reaction

None of this is likely to matter to local decision makers if the national listing isn’t lawfully submitted for city consideration. Yet it can’t be ignored, per federal rules.

City ordinance limits local historic site nominations to the property owner, the mayor, and a majority of the city council (21A.34.030.C.5.a). An application which fails to meet those criteria will be rejected within 30 days, the city’s Planning Division told us.

That seems to be the fate of the local register application filed by SavethePantages.org’s Michael Valentine this week at the city (PLNHLC2021-00925). 

But the city is going to have to air the petition for federal listing, Huffaker told us. Federal law directs a hearing at the “local certifying authority” in the national designation process, a “courtesy,” Huffaker noted, required before the nomination’s review at the state level. 

That would mean an information-only briefing is coming to the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission sometime this fall, in anticipation of the November 18 State History Board meeting.

It’s yet to be determined whether the next city council, with five of its seven seats up for election in November 2021, will support the local register nomination to move forward. A majority of the council is needed.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall, a former City Council and RDA Board Member, has repeatedly expressed her doubts at the viability of restoring the Utah Theater due to what she perceives as the prohibitive costs of preservation, estimated at upwards of $50 million.

RDA spokesperson Amanda Greenland told us “Negotiations on the purchase and sale with Hines remain ongoing. We don’t have a timeline for the closing.”

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