Rendering of possible dance/music venue on north side of Davis Street between Sherman and Chicago avenues.                      Rendering by HBRA Architects

At its Jan. 28 meeting, City Council heard a presentation of a study about the possibility of not just a performing arts center but an arts district in downtown Evanston. 

Aldermen voted to accept the study but some Council members, including Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, appeared wary of the potential cost.

“You did a wonderful report,” Mayor Tisdahl said. “It was very clear until we got to how to pay for it. Then, at least in my mind, it became murky.”

The Study: Three Arts Districts and an Arts Corridor

The study, prepared for the City of Evanston and the National Endowment for the Arts by HBRA Architects, Schuler Shook Theatre Planners, Arts Consulting Group and Construction Cost Systems, is a result of interviews with artists, artistic directors, Northwestern University representatives and others.

It identifies present or potential need for three specific types of performing arts venues and a location for each – winnowed down from 24 potential sites in the downtown area. Dennis Rupert and Aric Lasher of HBRA and Todd Hensley of Schuler Shook made the presentation.

The idea of a downtown arts district has been around for several years. This study expands that idea by identifying three regions or districts in the downtown area “that were each unique in architectural character and urban qualities” and tying them together as an “arts corridor.”

The report conceptualizes a performing arts venue that would fit into the context of each district. The “arts corridor … ties existing performance venues, the Downtown core and the Northwestern University campus … into the fabric of Downtown retail, restaurant and transportation hubs in a manner that provides mutual benefit to these urban amenities.”

None of these sites incorporates the remnant of the Varsity Theater on Sherman Avenue just north of Church Street, long touted as a possible site. The study found that rehabbing that site would not be feasible because of space and economic considerations.

Need for Space

Evanston is already home to several performing arts companies. Next Theatre, Piven Theatre Workshop, the Actors Gym and Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre all share the main stage at Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Theatre Zarko generally holds performances in its studio, and Piccolo Theatre plays are staged in the Evanston Arts Depot, below the Metra Station on Main Street.

Few Evanston arts organizations perform on the Northwestern University campus, whose spaces are for the most part used for University-sponsored performances. Two exceptions are the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, which holds four annual concerts at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, and Light Opera Works (which recently relocated its offices to Wilmette), most of whose performances are in Cahn Auditorium.

Performing arts companies, said City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, “look at Evanston for medium-sized space, but that space is not available [here].”

The three venues and their sites were identified as 1) two flexible theatres in a structure that would be built on the present site of the parking lot adjacent to the Library and the Woman’s Club along Chicago Avenue between Church and Clark streets; 2) a dance/music theatre on Davis Street (on lots and in buildings presently occupied) between Orrington and Chicago avenues; and 3) a resident theatre facility for Northlight Theatre company on the parking lot and adjacent buildings on the southeast corner of Davis Street and Maple Avenue.

Venue 1: Parking Lot Drama

The first venue – the two flexible theatres – “would likely be the most utilized and versatile venue and was thus deemed the venue of the highest priority,” according to the study. One theatre would accommodate 250 seats, the other 299 seats.

Since the City already owns the parking lot, the acquisition costs could be smaller than those of the other proposed venues, even in a public-private partnership. Rental space is available at the nearby Willard House and WCTU history center that could be used for administrative offices. The location links the downtown area with the University and could be used for University student or faculty productions. Finally, the study suggests, the site could be “developed as a mixed-use development and still incorporate all or some of the performing arts program elements required for Venue 1.”

The total estiated cost for the project at Venue 1 on the City-owned parking lot is $52.7 million.

Venue 2: Dance and Music on Davis

Venue 2 would house a 400-seat “fixed-form end-stage theatre for dance and music productions.” Because of its more formal character, it “would fit in well with the surrounding fabric that includes Fountain Square, the Chase Bank building tower and the adjacent Northwestern University building, a two-story historic structure at the corner of Davis Street and Chicago Avenue.

This venue’s location and potential programming also offer opportunities to lease part of the University-owned building for administrative offices or for a gallery. The study also suggests that the building might be purchased and renovated for use for galas and other similar events but conceded that the building could be too pricey to be feasible for this project.

The estimated cost for the Venue 2 project, including site acquisition, is $41.6 million.

Venue 3: Northlight, Come Home

Northlight Theatre, which began in Evanston but is now housed in Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, reportedly would consider returning to its roots.

As Venue 3, it would serve as an anchor to the West Davis business district. Parking and public transportation are both close by, and having Northlight there would “encourage economic revitalization of restaurants and retail along Davis Street west of the tracks,” the study found.

The total cost for a new space for Northlight Theatre, including site acquisition, is estimated at $49.3 million.

Next Steps: Role of the City

With cost the apparent stumbling block, some Council members appeared unsure of the next steps for the City.

Mr. Rupert said the report identifies needs and puts them into the context of downtown Evanston.

“It doesn’t mean that all three of these buildings would have to be built at once,”

Mr. Rupert said. He also said the City should try to form a public-private partnership that would allow the City “to orchestrate but not take the financial lead” in building an arts corridor.

The City should seek private funding from foundations as well as from Northwestern University. The University should also be in on the early stages of planning and fund-raising from the private sector.

In the meantime, said Mr. Rupert, the City should maintain momentum and push the projects forward.

“The only continuity here is the City,” he said. “The City should determine its role through public-private partnerships. Evanston Community Foundation has moved forward with the EvanstARTS program. Northwestern is clearly a major player.”

EvanstARTS was an initiative that sought community input over the past few months to help form a “roadmap to the arts in Evanston.” The EvanstARTS report is scheduled to be presented to the City Council in late March.

The study suggests that the City provide startup funds/seed money from the Washington National tax-increment financing (TIF) district for the next stages of the planning process, form a Community Advisory Task Force, form a new public-private partnership organization and initiate followup studies on utilization, economic impact, market demand, and funding and fund-raising.

The potential is there, Mr. Rupert said. The community will reveal whether the support is there, he said.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...