City Council voted at its Jan. 23 meeting to pursue a “lease-to-own” agreement with the City Lit Theater to occupy city-owned property at 727-729 Howard St. While the project is still in the negotiating stage and many details still remain to be worked out, this move represents a major step toward making the Howard Street Theater concept a reality.
Previously, the City appeared close to reaching a similar agreement with the Polarity Theater Ensemble. Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said “We interviewed three different theaters,” including Polarity. “We asked them all to present us a plan,” she said and “it seems that the group with the most capacity is City Lit.”
City Lit, currently based in Edgewater on Bryn Mawr Avenue, has been performing since 1979, according to its artistic director and Evanston resident Terry McCabe. The theater produces primarily world premier plays adapting classic literature for the stage, he said. They have been located on Bryn Mawr since 1999.
City Lit’s proposal includes plans to keep the space open and operating seven days a week, said Mr. McCabe. While City Lit produces plays about 36 weeks a year, and performs generally only Thursday through Sunday, they plan to sublet the space to other theater companies when they are dark, he said. On her blog, Ald. Rainey said that she hoped Polarity “will be able to offer select shows at the new Howard Street Theater.”
On days when there are no theater performances, Mr. McCabe said that City Lit hoped to present movies. Digital projectors make cinema clubs or other movie offerings financially possible, he said.
Staying open seven days a week will bring continuous traffic to the street. Mr. McCabe said 36 weeks of three- or four- night-a-week productions brings about 6,000 people a year to the theater’s stretch of Bryn Mawr Avenue, and he believes the average patron spends more on dinner and drinks than on a theater ticket. Tickets, after discounts, average about $17 each, he said.
The City will pay the cost of renovating the space. As a part of the budget, the City estimated that the project would cost $600,000, to come out of Howard Street tax-increment financing, or TIF, funds. Ald. Rainey said that the initial estimate was $800,000, but a team of volunteers including architects, civil engineers, and theater experts was able to “value engineer” that figure down by $200,000.
Ald. Rainey added that she hoped the final cost would be less still. “We have not put this out to bid yet,” she said. Improvements include raising the roof about a half story to accommodate a traditional theater set up.
Mr. McCabe said he estimated that City Lit would put in an additional $100,000 in improvements, including seats, sound systems, signage, paint, and lighting, and similar fixtures a landlord would expect a tenant to provide. He said that the company has already initiated a capital campaign to raise such funds.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, has expressed reluctance to support using City funds for such projects in the past, but ultimately voted for this project on Jan. 23. He said that he understood the money was being borrowed and would be paid back out of the TIF over time. “It is helpful for the community to understand that we’re making an investment here. It’s not a giveaway,” he said, “but an investment in the stability and progress of the Howard Street community.”
Under the proposed Memorandum of Understanding, City Lit will pay rent of $1,800 per month. Rent will be kept in a separate account as a security deposit should City Lit exercise its option to purchase. The purchase price will be $325,000 “subject to City Council approval and City Lit only purchasing the property.” City Lit would have to pay back a portion of the City’s build-out costs if they were to sell the property within 10 years of purchase.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding, City Lit and the City have 90 days to execute a Definitive Agreement. If they cannot do so, then either party can back out.