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While everyone seems to be behind plans to renovate the former Varsity Theatre space and convert it to a performing arts center or other theater venue, the project continues to struggle to gain footing. The latest setback, the failure of City Staff to use the correct City of Evanston identifier on its application for National Endowment for the Arts funding, was revealed by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz just days after a tour of the space by interested parties assessing feasibility and discussing options.
The June 1 tour, led by the building’s owner, Steve Rogin, and attended by First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, EvMark Executive Director Carolyn Dellutrie, the RoundTable, and two other guests of Ald. Fiske, showed both the challenges and the potential of renovating the space. The theater closed in the mid-to-late 1980s, at which point the lower level was converted to retail space. A second floor, including the balcony, was created during the conversion; and it has remained empty, unused space since. The bottom floor of the old theater is now occupied by the GAP and the Design Within Reach furniture store. Both tenants have long-term leases, said Mr. Rogin.
Currently, the second-floor space is accessible only by scaling a narrow ladder wedged between a plywood platform and HVAC equipment that threatens to rend the clothing or flesh of anyone who attempts the upward climb. All staircases were removed during the conversion process.
Though the seats have been removed, the balcony remains intact. The walls still have the French royal chateau architectural features designed by architect John Pridmore and built around 1926. The stars that once decorated the ceiling have been removed, leaving behind a dark glue residue, but the ceiling appears sound. Its grandeur still impressed everyone on the tour, even Mr. Rogin, as they swapped stories and Mr. Rogin provided history.
At the top of the balcony, the projector room looks much the same as it must have for decades, and two ancient projectors still point authoritatively toward the now-blank projection screen wall. A toilet and sink are still in the projector room, evoking memories of a lone projector spending hours on end in that room replacing reels, taking meals and using the restroom, leaving only after the curtain fell for the last time on a given day.
The women’s lounge, with ample room for divans and chaise longues, but only three stalls (compared to ten urinals on the men’s side), still has its subway tile and many fixtures. Those on the tour said a large room on the Sherman Avenue side would work well as a restaurant or bar, or even a smaller side theater, while the atrium, even though reduced drastically by the conversion, is still large enough for a smaller bar.
The biggest physical obstacle to redevelopment, said Mr. Rogin, is access. Access from the alley is probably not possible because of fire codes, while the entire front-facing lower level is occupied by tenants on long-term leases. A feasibility study would address possible solutions to the access problem.
The largest overall obstacle is funding. Gone are the days when a project could go forward with the expectation of incremental government funding. Projects must be fully funded from the start, said Mr. Rogin. The key, he said, is to get all interested parties sitting around a table discussing solutions. With an enthusiastic Alderman Fiske, the support of City Council as evidenced by a March 8 vote to fund a feasibility study, and EvMark’s belief in the project, momentum seemed to be building.
By June 4, however, that momentum had slowed to a crawl. An e-mail from City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to members of City Council and others revealed that because the City used the wrong identification number when submitting its application for NEA matching funds to conduct the feasibility study, the application had been rejected.
According to the e-mail, the City filed its initial application “a couple of months ago.” The e-mail continued, “In late April, we received word that the application had passed the initial round of review and the City was asked for additional information. This information was submitted in late May. The City was notified shortly after the second submission that the information submitted was not accepted … because the City used the wrong identification number for the City of Evanston that is registered with the Federal Government’s grants.gov website. …” Efforts to correct the mistake were too late, and appeals to the NEA were denied, according to Mr. Bobkiewicz’s e-mail.
The application was to be prepared by the Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department working with the Community and Economic Development
Department, according to minutes of the March 8 meeting. Mr. Bobkiewicz’s e-mail did not identify the party responsible for the error.
The future of the Varsity Theatre project is in doubt, though the e-mail concludes, “The City will continue to work with the owner of the Varsity Theater and Downtown Evanston on options for the renovation of the theater.” Mr. Bobkiewicz also noted that “we will be taking steps to ensure that this does not happen again by eliminating the multiple City of Evanston ID numbers with grants.gov and working toward submitting all future Federal grants a few days before the deadline.”