Inside Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Utah

The lights in the ceiling of the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City pay tribute to the popularity of stargazing in Utah’s many national parks and wilderness areas. The 2,500-seat theater is hosting national touring Broadway, concerts, comedy and other popular events.

 
Center of Attention

Eccles Theater steals the spotlight of expansive downtown Salt Lake City redevelopment efforts

BY GREG BENNETT

Nine years ago, then-mayor Ralph Becker recognized the need for a new performing arts center to anchor the redevelopment efforts he saw as vital for the health of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah is a national leader in consumption of the arts and the aging Capitol Theater, in operation since 1913, was limiting offerings available to the community due to its smaller stage.

“We reviewed the cost per square foot compared to other similar performing arts centers around the country. The easy way to say it is that the city received a very good return on its investment.”

Steve Swisher
Developer, GTS Development

“We were looking for ways to encourage development and take away blight,” says Justin Belliveau, former CEO of the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency. “Mayor Becker recognized one of the ways we could do this was by investing in the arts.”

MOVING DOWNTOWN
One major advantage Salt Lake City’s downtown redevelopment benefited from was the already vibrant downtown scene. The 2012 completion of the City Creek Center, a high-end retail and office development covering two full blocks of downtown Salt Lake City, and the subsequent developmental trickle placed the city in a great spot for downtown redevelopment. A vibrant office population kept things humming during the day, but an arts destination would give visitors a reason to stay downtown on nights the Utah Jazz weren’t playing.

“City Creek put us in a position through increased property taxes to invest in the arts,” Justin says. “It gave us a chance to issue bonds without burdening taxpayers.”

BUILDING A DISTRICT
The private-public partnership was solidified when the development firm of GTS Development joined the Redevelopment Agency and other government groups to complete the vision of the project.

“Our goal wasn’t just to build a building, but a district,” says Steve Swisher, developer with GTS Development. “We think we did that.”

Layton and Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and HKS Architects of Salt Lake City got involved together early and started the teamwork.

“In analyzing the site, we realized there was a fantastic opportunity to weave together the fabric to invigorate this piece of the city,” says Mitch Hirsch, principal with Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. “With City Creek to the north and the Gallivan Center to the south, we realized this location was meant to be the cultural heart of the city and the link between two important urban destinations.”

“This is a 100-year building that makes a very big statement. It exceeded our expectations. From my perspective as someone who had to report directly to elected officials, I had the utmost confidence in the team. Each member of the group made me feel like no problem was insurmountable.”

Justin Belliveau
Former CEO, Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency

Eventually, this vision was expanded and the space behind the performing arts center that opens onto Regent Street was developed into an open plaza that includes retail and restaurant space. The plaza also allows for easy access to the theater for crews loading and unloading.

“We were fortunate to be brought in early in the process and got to see the evolution of the design,” says Darcy Gray, Layton’s senior project manager on the theater. “It led to a continued effort to make sure we were a player in the translation from drawings and specifications and knowing how technically the building should be built, but to then interpret further to the level of expected quality.”

The high level of quality was achieved through the collaboration of all parties.

“While we were the architects and we held the architectural ownership of this project, this building was done with a large group of people,” Mitch says. “From Justin and his team to Steve Swisher and GTS, to Layton — they were all involved in those meetings, giving feedback that allowed this building to be what it turned out to be.”

ACTING NEIGHBORLY
A unique aspect to this “district development” approach is that an office tower —111 Main — shares a lobby with the theater and is built partially over the top of the theater. The building was completed with a separate developer, architect and contractor. Not surprisingly, the conjoined projects required constant coordination and communication from all parties.

“They built theirs upside down and we built our building sideways,” Steve says. “Layton gave us seven different possible construction schedules, depending on what was needed. Having that flexibility and teamwork from a construction manager was crucial.”

Layton’s experience in a number of areas — urban construction, performing arts, collaborative communication and even working with other contractors — all played a factor in the building’s success.

“After seeing theaters around the country, we thought our budget would give us something in the middle,” says Jeff Beecher, Layton executive vice president. “Our end product is top tier. We realized a better project than the budget would normally allow through our expertise, planning and coordination.

THE STANDING OVATION
The first touring Broadway show to open at the new Eccles Theater — “The Lion King” on March 23, 2017 — brought an estimated $20 million to downtown Salt Lake City in three weeks.

“This is an evening destination,” Steve says. “It creates an evening set of hours for local restaurants to get two or three turns around dinner. The theater brought the best holiday season to City Creek. It’s been a great reception.”

Plus, the shot in the arm the new facility gives to Salt Lake City also makes the Rocky Mountain hub a growing destination for national companies.

“This sends a message to the business community that Salt Lake City is competitive at a macro-level,” Justin says. “We’ve heard from Goldman Sachs, which doubled its footprint here, that Salt Lake City is at the top of the list of where their employees want to work. We’ve always had unparalleled outdoor opportunities, but now we are competitive in other areas, too.”

The Eccles Theater has already exceeded expectations and projections with regard to season tickets, ticket sales and public interest. It has also exceeded expectations with what it has done for Main Street.

And those expectations were big, even eight years ago.

“The design of this building celebrates and embodies the distinct architectural character of the city and the extraordinary landscapes and skies of the state of Utah,” Mitch says.

Eccles Theater Quick Notes

• Demolition of the city block was an arduous process, removing everything from asbestos to printing presses and printers ink tanks from the former press facilities of the Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers. The site was cleared to 20 feet below grade. Neighboring historic buildings also required shoring.

• The theater’s six-story grand lobby with glass curtain wall literally opens onto Main Street. Whether doors are open or closed, the inviting design and lighting serve as a beacon.

• Transitioning from the spacious lobby, patrons enter the 2,500-seat main theater, with its intimate design. Stage to backwall is only 98 feet, shorter than the 106-foot distance at the old Capitol Theater.

• The vibrant sandstone colors in the theater and star field on the ceiling are metaphorical representations for Utah’s canyons and bright starlit nights. The lights have already been incorporated into the production of The Lion King, and will undoubtedly be used similarly in future shows.

• The sloping topography of the theater site became a major design element. Patrons enter the northwest/Main Street grand lobby and enter the theater at orchestra level encountering no stairs. The site and the building slope down and away to the stage-level truck loading docks at the southeast corner of the building.

• When trucks are not onsite unloading or loading for a show, the truck dock area on Regent Street doubles as a public plaza for arts and entertainment, achieving the dynamic public space envisioned by the designers.

• Acoustics of the building are enhanced with four-feet-thick concrete mat footings and an 18- inch concrete theater backwall that dampen the vibrations and noise from passing TRAX commuter trains and automobiles.

• Over 1,000 HVAC plenum vents are discretely placed under the seats of patrons, providing low-velocity air flow to increase patrons’ comfort and reduce the noise and draft of traditional air exchangers.

• There are no columns in the main theater. The balcony loads are carried on the building’s massive outside concrete shear walls.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

Glass artist Paul Housberg designed the colored glass balconies, adding artistry to the space that can be seen from outside through the large windows in the front of the theater.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

The terrazzo floor design in the lobby was a public arts project completed by local artist Laura Sharp Wilson.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

Besides the Broadway-quality theater, the performing arts center has space for housing special events and meetings.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

The Eccles Theater was built to interact with Main Street and the downtown community at street level.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

When not providing easy access for production crews, the loading area doubles as a public plaza seamlessly connecting Regent Street visitors from City Creek to the Gallivan Center.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

The Regent Street Black Box Theater is a multi-use space perfect for smaller performances and gatherings.

Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City

Besides the traditional performance spaces, the Eccles Theater includes outdoor gathering areas with spectacular views of other downtown spaces — like City Creek.

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