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The ongoing Noyes Center/ Piven Theatre Workshop saga that began in July 2011 continued Monday night, May 6, before City Council’s Human Services Committee but showed no signs of reaching resolution any time soon. A proposal by Piven seeking a $2.2 million loan from the City coupled with the elimination of rent payments remained in committee awaiting answers to a growing list of questions.
Before the Committee on May 6 were the overall proposal and a second one that would authorize the City Manager to extend the current Piven lease, which expired at the end of 2012, at zero rent until the loan issue is resolved.
Speaking on behalf of Piven, Joel Freimuth, president of its board of directors, said, “We get it, aldermen. This is a tough conversation. Change always is.” A slide show then depicted the history of Piven and its impact on the Evanston community over the past 42 years.
The loan proposal, Mr. Freimuth said, would continue Piven’s mission, and the mission of the Noyes Center as whole, by allowing for immediate and needed maintenance and upgrades to the building.
The Noyes conversation began in the summer of 2011, when City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz presented the Committee with three properties he said were in need of repairs, the costs of which were beyond the City’s means. Of the three, the Chandler-Newberger building has been removed from the conversation, but the Harley Clarke mansion at Lighthouse Beach may be sold to a private party. (See story above.)
The Clarke mansion backgrounded the May 6 discussion as an example of the failure of the City to maintain aging buildings.
Of the some 50 citizens signed up to address the Committee that night, several directly referenced the Clarke mansion as an example of what happens when the City allows a tenant to occupy a building with no rent. The Evanston Arts Center was given a $1-per-year lease at the Harley Clarke mansion, the same rent that would be paid by Piven under the current proposal. The result, said the speakers, was a lack of funding necessary to repair and maintain Harley Clarke. The same fate was predicted for Noyes.
Larry DiStasi of the Actors’ Gymnasium, a Noyes tenant, said the proposal did not make sense economically for a number of reasons. First, he said, the estimate of costs required to make the proposed improvements at Noyes is far lower than should be anticipated, given the cost of current theater space. The Lookingglass Theater, he said, cost “$291 per square foot 10 years ago, plus 25 percent in soft costs. Piven predicts $218 per square foot” 10 years later, he said.
Ken Arlen of the Ken Arlen Orchestra, a former tenant, echoed Mr. DiStasi’s comments. The Noyes Center “was never designed to serve one majority tenant,” he said.
Greg Allen, a founding member of the Neo-Futurists Theater in Andersonville and an Evanston resident, questioned the scope of the project. Piven produces six public performances per year. Classroom space and offices he understood, he said, “but why a 200-seat state-of-the-art theater for a company that has very little production history?”
Tenant (and former tenant) after tenant approached the lectern to urge the Committee to reject the proposal. The Piven footprint was just too large, they argued, and tenants would be displaced, harming the current artistic diversity, spread between visual and performing arts, in the Center.
Two tenants, Gary Geiger, director of the Evanston Children’s Choir, and artist Maggie Weiss, were slated for eviction until a recent change in the method used to select ongoing tenants changed. Both spoke passionately about the proposal, with Mr. Geiger calling it “a detriment to the broader artistic community.”
Speakers universally praised Piven as an organization, but argued against the current deal as both unfeasible and unfair. “If you pass this proposal it is clearly a sweetheart deal for the Pivens. Who would not want a new multi-million dollar 13,000-square-foot build-out for $1 a year rent?” said Mr. Arlen.
Piven was not without supporters. Susan Payne O’Brien introduced herself as “a student and teacher at Piven for 25 years.” She asked the teachers in the room to stand up and introduce themselves, and about 10 persons did, each giving the length of time spent at Piven and briefly discussing how much Piven meant in their lives. The expansion proposal, they said, would allow Piven’s work to continue and grow, allowing them to reach even more people.
Given the chance to respond to some of the comments made, Mr. Freimuth took that opportunity to attack the plan submitted by Ken Arlen that proposed a self-sustainability model for Noyes under which Piven kept essentially the same amount of space it currently occupies. The Piven rent, which in 2012 was $62,135.25 per year and under the proposal drops to $1 per year, would be replaced and exceeded by increased economic activity on Noyes Street, alcohol sales, more performances and other income, he said. The Arlen proposal contemplated full occupancy and now spaces sit vacant, he said. Some have said the vacancies are the result of the uncertainty and of a proposal that assigns such space to Piven.
Before the Committee discussed the proposal, Mr. Bobkiewicz addressed the members, recommending that the Committee hold the matter while staff addressed questions raised during citizen comment and by the Evanston Arts Council. The Arts Council, which until recently administered the Noyes Center, sent an email to City Council May 3.
It became immediately clear that nothing would be decided at Monday’s meeting.
The Committee then formulated questions of its own. Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, asked that Mr. Bobkiewicz address 2013 rent. “We don’t know how long this is going to take,” she said, and allowing Piven to remain rent-free for the entire negotiating period was not something she was willing to do. She also asked how much money Piven would be required to bring to the project. Initially, she said, they were asked to provide $1 million in cash, but the current proposal requires only $355,000.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, provided a longer list of requests. She asked for a provision addressing long-term maintenance at Noyes. She asked Mr. Bobkiewicz to explain how the Piven proposal makes the Noyes Center more self-sustaining into the future. She asked what the repercussions of Piven’s proposed $1 per year rent would be on the rent of the other tenants in the building. She sought details of the proposed $2.2 million loan – and the ability of Piven to afford this loan – including money raised, money in the bank and general finances.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked for an impact study on the businesses on Noyes Street. The street currently closes down at about 8 p.m. every night she said, becoming a residential community. “What we’re proposing [a 200-seat theater and vastly increased performance schedule] is something different, changing the character of the community,” she said. She also asked about Tallmadge Park, part of which would be used for additional parking under the proposal.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, focused on the Evanston Arts Council’s questions, and sought a broader perspective on the “ongoing struggle between the visual arts and the performing arts.” The current debate, he said, is “not giving us great expectations for the future.”
Other ideas proposed initially, including a proposal to sell the building to a collection of tenants including the Actor’s Gymnasium, the Next Theatre and Piven, should be revisited, he said.
One thing was clear after the meeting finally ended: This issue is not anywhere close to resolution.