October 8, 2013

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Around Utah


A Work of Art

New Performing Arts Center 50 Years in the Making

By Pamela M. Olson

October 8, 2013

In 1962, led by the Utah Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a group of community leaders formed the Downtown Planning Association, Inc., which laid out a blueprint for the city’s future. Using an optimistic, modernist tone, it was called “Downtown Salt Lake City’s Second Century Plan.” The vision listed several proposals that are now part of the cityscape—a farmers market, Main Street renewal, a convention center, a city-county government complex. 

Today, only one piece of the rendering remains unrealized: a performing arts center—but that is soon to change.

Urban Renaissance

In early 2014, demolition will begin between the blocks of 100 and 200 South, from Main Street to Regent Street. For the past five years, a lengthy planning process has led to designs for a 2,500-seat theater that aims to attract Broadway shows and other national entertainment. The plans include a black box theater, winter garden, rehearsal space and an office tower. What is now the dismal, vacant alley of Regent Street will become a walkable thoroughfare of shopping, restaurants and festival space that will connect City Creek to the Gallivan Center, creating a fluid corridor of city life and public space.

“We will add a whole layer of cultural opportunities,” says Art Raymond, deputy director of communications in the mayor’s office. “Our current venues are all fabulous offerings, but Salt Lake City is lagging behind and not on the ‘first-tier’ radar of touring Broadway and other first-run shows.”

In 1962, the planners didn’t list a “performing arts center” among the ideal projects; instead, it was blandly labeled “Art Museum and Gallery.” In 1990, Salt Lake County identified the need for additional arts facilities and recommended that a new, larger theater be built within 10 years. Then in 2007, the Downtown Rising mega-development identified this missing piece as a “signature project” and sent it on its current trajectory toward completion in 2016.

The development will bring another landmark of world-class architecture to Utah, akin to the Main City Library by Moshe Safdie. While the 1962 rendering of the art center was cool, highlighting the modern, stripped-down aesthetic of the New Formalism style of architecture with its monumental arches and Space Needle-like spindles, the new design by Pelli Clarke Pelli exemplifies the firm’s talent for creating layers of luminescence and impossible lightness and movement in solid structures.

New Giant in Town

Throughout the planning process, concerns have been raised that a new performance center will crush attendance at Salt Lake City’s current and beloved venues such as Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall, Kingsbury Hall and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center—or that the new center will never fill 2,500 seats. But Raymond points to research that a new center will not take more of the audience pie, but instead grow a bigger pie.

“The more experiences you can offer, the more people get converted. Far and away we found a net gain and saw these projects as audience builders,” he says.

A similar project in North Carolina demonstrates how large theaters of this type can actually benefit smaller venues in the community. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) opened in November 2008, and as of June 2013, among venues under 5,000 seats, it was third in U.S. attendance and 10th in U.S. gross ticket sales. Worries about other venues such as The Carolina Theatre losing audiences have so far gone unfounded. Last year, The Carolina was ranked among the top 100 theaters in the world in attendance for the first time in its history, and promoters credit the cross-promotion benefits of DPAC.

In addition to filling seats, these types of projects spur development in the surrounding blocks, says Steve Swisher of Garfield, Traub & Swisher, developer of DPAC as well as Salt Lake City’s venture. “This type of project generates a lot of development and investment in the area and also creates attractions and business after hours … a quality of life 24/7.”

Salt Lake’s art center will be in the heart of the city, not cordoned off in some distant “artocropolis,” Swisher says. “It will activate Main Street and create an entertainment district connecting to Gallivan.”

The 1962 dream of a “second century” city is just beyond the horizon. Salt Lake City’s downtown looks much different than it did 50 years ago, even 10 years ago. Will we recognize our streets in the next 10 years? These fluxes and big moments are what inspire involvement in city planners and developers like Swisher. “Our company really focuses on these catalytic, once-in-a-lifetime projects that change the nature of a city.”  

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