A shadow hung heavy over the neglected façade of the Utah Theater on Salt Lake City’s downtown Main Street on Tuesday, with the building set for demolition to make way for housing development. Yet from within that shadow a noble hero and die-hard cinephile emerged, chained to the front doors, vowing a hunger strike to stop the destruction of the historic and culturally significant playhouse.
Michael Valentine is the name of said hero, an activist and avowed preservationist. He and others throughout Salt Lake City allege serious abuses in the handling of the sale of the venerated venue. The city remains undeterred, however, and is proceeding with plans to raze the 103-year-old neoclassical theater in order to build a 31-story residential skyscraper and city park.
“This is not for the betterment of the city,” Valentine said, criticizing the city’s decision. Elected leaders “should be listening to the people instead of setting policy to make corrupt deals with billionaires.”
Valentine’s actions are speaking far louder than words ever could. He wrapped his arms and legs in heavy-gauge cables, threaded the cables through the venue’s front door handles, and locked himself in place.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in an interview that she supports Valentine’s activist convictions and free speech, but noted that he was trespassing and would not be permitted to remain chained to the building. “I’m confident the [sale] process has been lawful and ethical,” Mendenhall said, adding that she also stood by the city’s deal to demolish the theater in an effort to create more affordable housing.
The city is essentially turning over the Utah Theater to developers Hines and The LaSalle Group for zero dollars in exchange for 10 percent of the proposed 400-units being affordable housing, in addition to a new downtown open space next door.
Longtime opponents of the plans assert that the venue is a prime opportunity to be restored and turned into a regional film center, with ties to Utah’s annual Sundance Film Festival.
Meanwhile, Valentine and fellow members of Save the Utah Pantages Theater maintain that city officials purposefully balked at designating the venue as historically significant and protected. There are also allegations of inflated potential restoration costs. As a result, the group is adamant that the plans to redevelop the site be scrapped and key leaders in the city’s Redevelopment Agency, which has overseen the negotiations, resign.
As for Valentine, he ended his hunger strike late Tuesday night as an olive branch to the City Council and Mayor Mendenhall. On Wednesday, he offered the following plea on the group’s Facebook page:
“The objective truth of the Pantages [Utah Theater] is it can absolutely be restored and there is a very cost effective, strategic way to do it and it has already been done dozens of times successfully around America. There are a dozen ways we could pay for it and it would cost the city nothing, but instead be an incredible investment that would pay for itself 100 times over.”