The consultant tasked with analyzing whether the former Varsity Theatre could be converted into a performing arts center determined that no, it could not. Then the consultant, the Community Land Use + Economics Group (CLUE), expanded its directive and determined that the former Giordano Dance Studio at 614 Davis would be the best spot for such a center. Both determinations were delivered in a report dated July 2011 but posted on the Downtown Evanston website on Aug. 21.
CLUE decided that asking whether the Varsity Theater space would work was “too narrow a question,” according to the report. Instead, CLUE broke the project down into 4 parts: “1. Is there, in fact, a need for a performing arts facility in Evanston? 2. If so, what type of facility is needed, and what might its ideal location be? 3. Might the Varsity Theatre building fit this need? 4. If not, what site might better fit this need, and what might the best use (or uses) be for the Varsity Theatre building?”
The Varsity Theatre, a former 2,500-seat movie theater on Sherman north of Church, was built in 1926 in the style of a 16th-century French chateau by renowned theater developer John E. O. Pridmore. It closed in 1984. The first floor was then converted into retail uses and is currently occupied by the Gap and Design Within Reach.
The redevelopment left the original theater’s balcony, projection room, bathrooms and star-encrusted-ceiling plaster work in place. A movement has been afoot since at least 1998 to recapture this space as a performing arts theater. Recently, the movement has gathered steam behind the efforts of Downtown Evanston and First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske. Commissioning the CLUE report was one step in that process.
CLUE has determined that the space will not work because the first floor cannot be recaptured and the renovations required for the second floor would be “physically feasible” but not “financially feasible.” A performing arts center, according to the report, requires a larger theater, a smaller “black box” theater, rehearsal space and classroom space.” The Varsity in its current configuration does not provide enough space.
Venturing outside their charter, CLUE then determined that Evanston does, in fact, need a full-fledged performing arts center, one that could be augmented by a smaller such space at the Varsity site. The report went on to suggest other spaces as viable performing arts centers within downtown Evanston. It focused on locations that were in the Washington Mutual TIF district so they could take advantage TIF of funds and were also eligible for federal historic district tax credits. These criteria pointed to 614 Davis, the former Giordano space.
Other spaces considered include the former Borders on Orrington, dismissed because it is outside the TIF district, the vacant lot at 605 Davis, dismissed because the vacant space cannot get the historic district credits, and 1010-1016 Church St. (See story on downtown music venue on page 2.)
The report will be discussed by the Economic Development Committee in September.