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Council Rejects $1.7M Grant For Howard Street Theater

Evanston aldermen hesitated over the $1.7 million price tag for city funding for construction of a theater space at 727-9 Howard St., where the Chicago-based City Lit Theater is considering a second location.

Evanston aldermen rejected a proposed $1.7 million city grant to build a theater on city property at 727-9 Howard St. Monday, asking city staff to come back with more information on the project in the future. 

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th ward) has championed the theater along with several other city-backed renewal projects on Howard Street. Under the current proposal, funding for the project would come from a $2.2 million line of credit the council approved in August, split between two local tax-increment financing (TIF) districts, including the TIF district that stretches along Howard Street between the lakefront and Ridge Avenue.  

“I have been very positive about the TIFs, the redevelopment on Howard,” said Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th ward). “I just can’t support this much money on this one particular project when we have so much work to do on Howard.”

City officials purchased three properties on Howard Street in 2011, including the site where the theater would be located, with the goal of spurring redevelopment. The $1.7 million construction proposal called for a new roof and a new west wall for a one-story, 125-seat theater. The city would pay the money back through long-term bonds, using expected revenue from the two TIF districts. 

Evanston officials are currently in talks with City Lit Theater to fill the space. The proposal calls for a lease-to-own agreement with the 34-year-old theater, which currently operates at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr in Chicago. 

“There is going to be a small performing arts theater at this location. It doesn’t matter to me who as long as they’re competent,” said Ald. Ann Rainey. “I believe [City Lit is] committed enough and motivated enough to be the theater.”

While her fellow alderman praised Rainey’s advocacy for her ward, Burrus was not the only council member to question the project. Ald. Jane Grover (7th ward) said she was “not comfortable with the price tag,” and would like to see a formal agreement hashed out with City Lit before the city undertook construction or renovation. 

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st ward) said she supported construction of a theater on Howard Street, but suggested that the city try to partner with Northwestern University for funding and support. 

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz, however, said that when he and Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl met with Northwestern last year to discuss that subject, university officials said they were focusing their arts investments on construction of a new school of music. 

“While they were supportive of our efforts, they did not see a role for themselves,” he explained.

Ald. Rainey said she was surprised that other council members did not support the project. She said that the business climate on Howard Street was starting to turn around and argued that the city-backed projects were spurring other businesses to invest, too. 

Those projects include Ward Eight, a cocktail bar that opened in December at 629 Howard St., another one of the properties purchased by the city in 2011. Council members approved up to $100,000 in TIF dollars for improvements to the building, and agreed to loan the owners $130,000 toward setup costs. 

“It’s unfortunate for those who predicted its demise within a month, because that ain’t happening,” Rainey said. 

The third property the city purchased in 2011 remains vacant, but Rainey has promised that a restaurant will move in at that location to complete her vision of redevelopment along Howard. 

 “All the members of the Howard Street Business Association are asking, ‘Where is the heavy equipment that’s coming to do the theater?’” Rainey said. “This vision has legs, and it is going to happen.” 

Aldermen voted 6-3 to reject the $1.7 million city grant for the theater. Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward), Ald. Delores Homes (5th ward) and Ald. Rainey voted in support of the theater. 

Jennifer Fisher January 17, 2013 at 03:56 PM
I don't think that city officials had drawn up the terms of the lease to own before this meeting.
Jim Osburn January 17, 2013 at 09:52 PM
There is a much better location, and it would cost less, too. The former Asbury Market/Osco Drugstore property at Asbury & Oakton. 1. It's a much bigger building 2. It has parking. 3. No residential-to-commercial actions needed (which Chase is so famous for). 4. Public transportation (which is one of the attractions of the current proposed location) could be extended from Howard/Western or even the Howard Street El station when needed. 5. South Evanston could well use a "destination" establishment. Come on Council Members, let's think outside the box.
lucas January 17, 2013 at 10:09 PM
JIm Patch had lots of comments on this venture last year. Seems it was pretty obvious from day one this project was going to cost a lot more then they claimed. Why were they moving ahead with this without a commitment from City Lit Theater. The properties the city bought on Howard including this one and the Bar were bought after the Alderman was trying to keep store front churches off Howard. Claiming to many would hurt development. I agree the Asbury/Oakton location could be a good location for this type of business.
lucas January 18, 2013 at 01:19 AM
Does the 1.7M include what city paid for building? Building going to be worth 2 Million if they go ahead with this project.
Tea January 20, 2013 at 09:58 PM
Asbury and Oakton? Good point! However, a 7 story parking lot at the south end of Northwestern University? I just don't understand politics!

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