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On June 3, the Human Services Committee tossed the Piven hot potato to City Council, forwarding a loan proposal without a recommendation. Under the proposal, the City will lend the Piven Theater Workshop up to $2.2 million to complete renovations to the Noyes Cultural Arts Center and roughly triple the group’s space. The move shifts to the full City Council the task of completing a debate that has been roiling the arts community for some 18 months.

More than 80 citizens signed up to speak at the Committee meeting Monday night, the vast majority about the Piven proposal. But Committee chair, Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, announced at the meeting’s outset that the Committee’s desire was to forward the plan to Council for full debate there – meaning comments at the Committee level would not change the night’s result.

A compromise allowed four representatives from each side – pro-Piven and pro-Noyes tenants – time at the lectern. Still, about a dozen additional citizens lined up to speak afterward.

The issues remain largely the same. Under Piven’s recommended proposal, the theater group will expand from its current space of about 4,200 square feet to more than 11,000 square feet within the NCAC. The footprint of the building will not change; Piven will simply occupy more of it. As a result, some existing tenants will be squeezed out. The building houses and has housed artists, sculptors, actors, photographers, and other practitioners of the performing and visual arts.

How the loan will be repaid and the rent to be paid over the term of the proposed 30-year lease, during and after construction, remain issues to be ironed out should the measure pass Council. Until December 2012, Piven paid about $13 per square foot occupied, or roughly $4,600 per month, leading up to the renovation proposal.

Under the proposal, Piven’s rent will effectively become $10,000 for the first year, $20,000 in year two, and $1 per year thereafter. Piven will repay the loan at the rate of $4,166.67 per year for the first eight years and thereafter in payments based on an amortized schedule. If considered as rent, Piven’s per-square foot obligation will drop from $13 to $4.54 per square foot after renovations.

Speakers in favor of the proposal have long touted Piven’s reputation, its importance and its history. Those opposed uniformly praise Piven but question the financials and the wisdom of allowing a single tenant to occupy so much space at the expense of other artists in the community. They often say the numbers provided simply do not add up.

The Committee appeared unwilling to act without the buy-in of the full Council. Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, moved that the matter proceed on to Council but did not call for a vote on the matter. Alderman Judy Fiske, whose 1st Ward includes the NCAC, insisted that it be made clear in the minutes that the Committee was not making a recommendation one way or the other. Chair Braithwaite assured her that was the case.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said that he felt as if Council was in the same position it found itself a month ago, and requested clear financials so that the full Council would all be on the same page. The Committee heard claims and numbers during comment that were all over the place, he said. The staff memo concerning the proposal stated that it did not contain the most recent space allocation designs submitted by Piven.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz promised to provide in the next memo tables and charts and an explanation of rent. “The issue of rent is important,” he said, but added, “I think there are some fundamental policy questions” that Council would have to deal with outside of the raw numbers. “Whatever the decision, it’s a decision. Evanston will be better off,” he said, once a final decision has been made.

The Committee then voted to place the matter on the Council’s July 8 agenda for the beginning of a complete and final discussion. Everyone interested should plan to arrive early to claim a seat – the speaker list is likely to exceed 100 on that night.