Deseret Morning News, Friday, December 02, 2005

Theater plan downsized

Consultants lean toward 2 downtown venues

By Brady Snyder
Deseret Morning News

The effort to renovate the old Utah Theater on Main Street into a 2,500 seat Broadway-style playhouse hit a bump in the road Thursday: Independent consultants said it would be too costly and would cram too many seats into the historic structure to be practical.

"If you lean with (historic buildings) they become cost-effective. If you try to overwhelm them, they become very costly," Daniel P. Coffey, of Daniel P. Coffey & Associates said.

Instead, the consultants said money would be better spent building a brand new 2,500-seat playhouse from the ground up somewhere else in the heart of downtown.

Coffey, along with Chicago-based consultants HVS International, did recommend that the old theater be renovated but into a smaller, 800-seat theater, with potential to expand to 1,400 seats. That could be done for closer to $30 million, instead of the $63 million that a Salt Lake County study said a 2,500-seat Utah Theater would cost.

The consultants' recommendations, then, were for two new theaters in Salt Lake one a massive new facility and the other a smaller, renovated Utah Theater, on Main Street between 100 and 200 South.

"We need to look at other options," City Councilwoman Nancy Saxton said, after being briefed on the consultants' report. "We need to look seriously at the options that are presented to us by the consultants for a brand new theater built from the ground up."

The consultants were hired by Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the Salt Lake Chamber and the Downtown Alliance to examine the feasibility of creating a performing arts district downtown. The centerpiece of that district would potentially be the renovated Utah Theater. The consultants presented their preliminary findings to several community leaders Thursday and will release draft and final reports later. They maintained the new facilities could be compatible with existing playhouses and theaters and would allow existing arts groups to grow and expand.

Howa Construction, which owns the Utah Theater, has wanted to make the old theater into a 2,500-seat arena that could house first-run Broadway shows. Howa has wanted funding for that project to largely come from public monies.

After hearing the report Thursday, Howa director of development Dru Damico said the company is willing to build on a smaller scale if that's the political will.

"If the community and the politicians agree with the results of the study and it's realistic, we would certainly agree and support the Utah Theater at any size," he said. "Howa's intent all along has been for an economic development engine for Main Street."

The consultants examined other renovated theaters in Chicago that seat approximately 2,500. When adjusted for inflation the renovation costs of those theaters the Palace Theater and the Oriental Theater were $25 million and $30 million respectively.

The consultants based their conclusions on the idea that the Utah Theater would cost $63 million to renovate. At that price the theater would be more than double what similar projects cost in Chicago, the consultants said. The plan, then, is just too expensive for what the final product would be, they said.

Howa Construction, however, maintains it could renovate the theater for $31 million. That price, coupled with several million more for the property acquisition, would put a larger theater's total cost around $40 million.

Cost aside, the consultants said the backstage of the proposed Utah Theater was not workable for large Broadway productions and criticized the proposed design for having too much balcony seating and not enough seats on the coveted ground level.

The consultants pointed to a performing arts center planned in Schaumburg, Ill. Its price is $60 million and, built from the ground up, it would have all the stage bells and whistles, extra office and practice space that a renovation plan wouldn't.

HVS International also recommended against having Clear Channel manage the theater since they said that would create dissension in the local arts community. County Councilman Joe Hatch agreed with that recommendation since he maintains Clear Channel kills other arts groups when it moves into a city.

Howa has been backing a Clear Channel-run theater. Damico said Thursday Clear Channel is still the company's preference but they would bow to the political will of the community.

"If it's public policy that the county should continue to operate these theaters and it's financially viable, then we should focus our effort on this opportunity in building this theater and not debate the management," he said.

And while talk of the theater dominated the discussion Thursday, city and business leaders were happy that the consultants' report showed there is a great need for more theaters in Salt Lake City.

Besides a new Broadway playhouse seating 2,500 and a smaller 800-seat theater, the consultants said three new black box theaters are needed in addition to office, banquet and rehearsal space. Additionally, the Capitol Theatre needs to be downsized from 1,800 seats to about 1,500 seats. A downsize would make the theater more comfortable and attractive to patrons, the consultants said.

All those amenities could be grouped together to craft a new performing arts district downtown, the consultants said.

There was no recommendation on how to pay for all the new projects. The consultants said it would be up to the community to decide whether it should invest public dollars in a downtown cultural block. Similar projects around the nation have been completed though public-private partnerships but can't survive with public support, HVS managing director Thomas Hazinski said.

"It's up to the elected officials to make the decisions about where they want to go," Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency executive director David Oka said.


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