A proposed construction contract for a $1.655 million theater and performing arts center at 727/729 Howard St. was rejected by City Council at its Jan. 14 meeting. A number of aldermen found the price tag – almost three times the anticipated cost – far too high. Funding would have come from the Howard Street TIF.
Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, tried in vain to cure her colleagues’ collective sticker shock. “I’m asking you to give this a chance,” she said. “You know, a million six, I don’t know that it’s that much.”
“There is a perception, a bias, a prejudice about Howard Street,” she said. But she cited the new Ward 8 restaurant and bar, and a new restaurant she said would be announced soon, as evidence of the revitalization of the corridor.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz championed the project, saying, “We really do need to move forward with the renovation.” He said that economic development required Council to take risks and sometimes roll up their sleeves and do some heavy lifting. The theater project, he said, is “exactly what the TIF was created for.” He called the completed theater the “tipping point project” that would allow for private investment to come to Howard Street.
The price tag, however, was just too high for most of Council. Ald. Rainey admitted that initially staff thought the project’s construction would come to about $600,000. The escalation, she said, came from plans by professional architects experienced in building theaters. They called for a professional black box theater that would pass Actors’ Equity scrutiny and allow for the broadest possible range of performances.
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “When it came in at $600,000 I was nervous” about spending even that much money on a single project. Now, she said, “we’re at $1.65 million” and the proposed tenant, City Lit Theater, cannot pay enough to cover that level of investment.
“I’d like to see the money go to a variety of projects. I just don’t see the numbers here,” Ald. Burrus added.
The theater would be occupied by City Lit Theater – an established theater group currently performing in a church space in the Edgewater area of Chicago – a lease-purchase agreement to be negotiated in the future.
Other Council members expressed a similar concern about City Lit’s ability to pay, or the ability of any other theater group for that matter. Like the rest, City Lit expected a building that would cost far less when they came to the project.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said, “I’m still not comfortable with the price tag on it. We’re not quite certain it will work. …” She asked to see the agreement with City Lit, including payment terms, before allocating such a large amount of money for construction.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said that he received calls and emails “asking questions about this that I can’t answer. I join the ranks of those who would like to wait and get a little more information.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked about alternative financing, either from Northwestern University or elsewhere, so that the City would not have to pay the entire $1.65 million.
At that point, it was clear the project would not go forward that night. “I am surprised,” said Ald. Rainey. “I thought there was support. Shame on me.” The item failed by a 6-3 vote, with only Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, joining Ald. Rainey in voting “yes.”
With more information and more time to digest the price tag, the matter may return in the future. But for now, Council is not willing to make so large an investment.