Downtown Salt Lake City gained 400 parking stalls and some potential retail space this week, but it lost the Promised Valley Playhouse.
The 96-year-old landmark at 132 S. State will be largely demolished next spring by its owner, Zions Securities, and replaced with a parking garage.
"It's become the Utah way, unfortunately," said Don Mahoney, chairman of the Utah Heritage Foundation. The "Utah way" in these uncertain economic times is to save money instead of historic structures. The Salt Lake County Council voted in July not to acquire the playhouse, saying it didn't have the money to run it.
"If all this had come about a year and a half ago, the county commissioners would have taken a stand and put this out to public bond," Mahoney said. Now that the form of government has changed, taxes have risen and the economy is shaky, "they're in a save-everything-we-can mode."
Turning the building back into a performance space would cost at least $14.7 million, the Historic Landmarks Commission ruled Wednesday. So Zions' request to instead convert it into a six-level garage was granted — but only after the commission sat for a moment in silence.
"I think we're quiet because we're all depressed," said commissioner Scott Christensen. "It's a sad day" for Salt Lake history.
But Zions has promised to preserve the facade and turn the lobby area into 10,000 square feet of office and retail space, "depending on whom we can lease it to," said property manager Gary Chaston.
The demolition and renovation of the 90,000-square-foot building will cost about $6 million and take 15 to 18 months, he added — but "we have no intention of remodeling the facade" or changing its features.
Keeping the facade of the playhouse, with its ornate plasterwork and statues, smacks of the Brooks Arcade project at first look. But Mahoney says it's a different story.
"As you go by (the Brooks building at 300 S. State), you see a slender slab of sandstone," Mahoney said. The arcade's facade is all that's left, and "that in no way shape or form is preservation. It's an ignoble reminder off what we used to have." The Promised Valley project will retain much more as an elegant face for the offices and shops. Still, "I sure wish they weren't putting a parking garage," Mahoney said. "But it became too late for that building."
Zions' Chaston doesn't see such a bleak future. "We're not just doing this because we want to get rid of the theater," he said. But "you have to find a user for it. Many, many of these theaters are subsidized, and that's why we were looking to the county. The county subsidizes theaters" such as the Capitol and newly expanded Rose Wagner four blocks away. But the city also needs more parking for people who work downtown, Chaston added. "Obviously there's a need we're trying to fulfill . . . we're trying to keep downtown vital."