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A new letter of understanding between the City of Evanston and City Lit Theater Company will give the parties another four months to come to terms about the size, cost and allocation of expenses for renovations to the property at 727-29 Howard St. that could be the company’s new home. Its present home is in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. Both parties appear to anticipate a lease-to-own agreement.
At its June 25 meeting, the City Council authorized City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to negotiate terms with City Lit’s artistic director, Terry McCabe, and managing director, Brian Pastor, on a lease-to-own agreement between the City and the theater company. The previous letter of understanding, signed in January, expired last month.
Most of the City’s funds for the project will come ultimately from Howard-Ridge tax-increment financing (TIF) funds. A memorandum to the Mayor and aldermen from Steve Griffin, director of Community and Economic Development; Nancy Radzevich, economic development manager; and Johanna Nyden, economic development coordinator, said that a recent issue of general obligation (GO) bonds included $900,000 for projects within that TIF. A reimbursement resolution allows the City to pay necessary C.I.P. costs and reimburse itself from the GO bond proceeds, according to the memo.
Mr. McCabe and Mr. Pastor have been working with City staff and with Michael Vasilko, an Evanston architect retained by the City, to design the space that would be appropriate and affordable for the company. The company plans to have the space designed according to the standards of the Actors Equity Association, which it hopes to join, Mr. McCabe said.
Ms. Nyden said City Lit has “a whole range of programming … different ways to use the space, such as concerts and movies. They want to have seven days [per week] of programming.”
The City will be a major player in this development, as it is with Ward Eight, the wine bar just a few blocks away. City Lit would like the City of Evanston to help offset the cost of rehabbing the space, which includes raising the ceilings to accommodate lighting grids and other theater equipment, electrical work, bathroom installation, and a working HVAC system. In tandem, the theater company will embark on a capital campaign to raise a portion of those funds.
“City Lit has been working on two fronts,” said Mr. McCabe. “We’ve been working with Mike Vasilko on the backstage design and we’ve talked with Actors Equity about their standards.”
Mr. Vasilko provided two options for the space – the one-story rehabbed building, as shown in the rendering, and a two-story building as well. A letter from Mr. McCabe to Ms. Nyden indicated that the 4,000-square-foot space in the single-story rehab would be barely adequate for City Lit’s needs for performance, storage, office and rehearsal space. Initial estimates of the cost of the single-story rehab project hover around $600,000 without the upgrades of the electrician and HVAC systems and the bathrooms.
Mr. Vasilko’s plans will be the base for developing requests for bids, and City Lit has outlined alternative ways of paying their share of the costs. The company has initiated a feasibility study for the capital campaign to obtain a realistic assessment of how much money they could raise, Mr. McCabe said. In a June letter to Ms. Nyden, he said a “realistic assessment of the amount of money City Lit can expect to be able to put into the front end of this project is probably in the very low six figure range.”
Although there was little comment from aldermen in their authorization to renegotiate a letter of understanding, two aldermen spoke in favor of the project.
“We purchased this property on Howard Street one and a half years ago, to control development there,” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward. It has exceeded our expectations.”
Mr. McCabe’s letter also said, “The City needs a theater company at the center of the development that can bring people to Howard Street, and can keep them coming back for years. City Lit can do this – has done it on Bryn Mawr Avenue and elsewhere for three decades. Small theatre companies are traditionally pioneers in neighborhood redevelopment.”
Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose 8th Ward the property lies, said, “I think this is absolutely “the most important development on Howard Street east of Ridge – except the 415 [apartment] building. … City Lit is so well-liked in the theater community, once we get them here we’ll just be very grateful.”