City staff have worked out a proposed deal with Piven Theatre Workshop that will keep Piven in Evanston and allow it to increase its space at Noyes to about 11,000 square feet, an increase of about 250 percent. The deal will also provide Piven a source of funding to substantially rehab its space and convert its 70-seat black box theatre into a state-of-the art, flexible-type theatre with a box office and lobby.

The City Council’s Human Services Committee will consider the proposed deal with Piven on May 6. It will also consider the criteria to use in deciding which artist(s) or organization(s) might need to relocate from Noyes as a result of allocating Piven the extra space.

We think the Human Services Committee, and then the entire City Council, should ask some hard questions.

The Proposed Agreement with Piven

Under the proposed deal, as we understand it, Piven would be required to invest $3.2 million into the building – the vast bulk of which will enhance Piven’s space there. The City will lend Piven $2.2 million of the $3.2 million. Piven is required to raise $355,500 in cash by Dec. 31, 2013 (which date may be extended), and to invest that and “in-kind” donations for architecture work, construction work, legal work, and other associated donations of time to bring the value of its contribution in the building up to $1 million.

Under the proposed agreement, Piven will repay the $2.2 million loan at 2 percent interest over 30 years.

 If Piven raises the cash and the loan is granted, Piven will also pay $6,624.97 each year toward capital maintenance at Noyes. Its base rent will be $1 per year for the term of the 25-year lease. It has an option to extend the lease at five-year increments up to an additional 25 years.

If Piven does not raise the $355,500 in the time required, then it will pay its 2012 annual rental rate and execute a lease agreement in substantial conformance with its former lease.

Piven is undoubtedly a highly respected theatre workshop for youth and adults. Since 1977, it has staged more than 50 theatrical productions. We think the City should do what it reasonably can to keep Piven in Evanston, but the operative word is “reasonably.” We have these questions.

• What is it actually costing the City to keep Piven here?  This is a complex question, and needs to take into account the City’s $2.2 million loan, the below-market interest rate on the loan, the fair rental value of 11,000 square feet, the $1 a year rent, the cost of ongoing maintenance of the building, etc.  We assume the City has made these analyses. They should be laid out on the table, using assumptions that Piven will leave in 10, 25 and 50 years.

• The City is lending $2.2 million to enable Piven to improve its space, which may only have value to a small theatre company. If Piven leaves Noyes, do these improvements increase or decrease the value and marketability of the building? This should be taken into account in analyzing the cost and risk to the City.

• The proposed agreement requires Piven to work out a community engagement plan with the City by Dec. 13. It would be helpful to know before then what Piven is agreeing to do for the Evanston community.

• What assurance is there that Piven will be a thriving, nationally renowned theatre workshop in 10 years? In 25 years? In 40 years? Does the City have an out?

These are all basic questions that we assume City staff has carefully considered. Because this deal will potentially affect the taxpayers for the next 50 years, though, the City’s analyses on these issues should be laid out for everyone to see.

The Impact on Other Tenants and the Marketability of the Rest of the Noyes

Currently, there are five other performing arts groups that lease space at Noyes: Actors Gymnasium, The Evanston Children’s Choir, Fleetwood Jordain Theatre, Next Theatre and Theatre Zarko. We think these are all valuable Evanston institutions. Several in their own right have achieved regional and/or national recognition. There are also other artists who lease space in the building.

Because so much additional space has been allocated to Piven under the proposed agreement, it is possible that one or more organizations or artists will be squeezed out of the building. Others who stay may have limited opportunities to expand, and perhaps be forced out if they thrive and may need to expand.

At the Council meeting on April 22, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said that she and City Council thought the criteria to use in assessing whether an artist or organization should be asked to relocate should be “first consider if an artist or arts organization is Evanston-based and the number of Evanston residents served by the artist or arts organization.”

If the proposed deal with Piven goes through, the City is locking up a substantial portion of the building – by some estimates more than half of the first and second floors – for 50 years. The City should take into account the impact that has on the rest of the organizations in the building, and on the ability of the City to provide them space if they thrive and need to expand.  

Before kicking out one of these organizations or artists– either by a formal notice or by effectively precluding their opportunities to grow in the building – the Human Services Committee and City Council should explore creative ways, together with Piven, to meet the needs of everyone at Noyes.