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A local architect expressed his concern about the City’s procedures for evaluating proposals after the City offered the contract for architectural services for the theater space at 721-23 Howard St. to a Chicago architect.

On March 13, City Council approved a contract for $150,000 to Ross Barney Architects to design the space for Theo Ubique, a cabaret-style theater now operating in the No Exit Café in Rogers Park. This will not be Ross Barney’s first foray into Evanston design. Even though the firm is based in Chicago, Ross Barney is no stranger to the North Shore. The firm designed the City’s Levy Center on Dodge Avenue and, just across the street, the synagogue for the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. Last fall, the City engaged Ross Barney to scale down a proposal for the theater space on Howard Street – designed for a different theater company – from a $5 million to about a $1.4 million project.

Because of that change in the scope of the theater project and in the theater company, last fall the City issued a new request for proposals “to provide architectural design and construction administration services for the new theater based on the Ross Barney preliminary floor plan,” according to a staff memorandum in the packet for the March 13 City Council meeting.

The City received six proposals, four from Chicago firms, one from an Evanston firm, and one from Michael Vasilko, an architect who lives in Evanston and has offices both here and in Chicago. Over the past few years, Mr. Vasilko has volunteered his time toward the project, and in 2012 he was retained by the City to design space on Howard Street for a different theater company.  

During citizen comment at the Administration and Public Works Committee meeting on March 13, Mr. Vasilko questioned the process by which the proposals were evaluated and asked that the committee withdraw the proposed contract “and future discussion about the Howard Street Theater Project from consideration until an independent review of the Howard Street Theater Project in its entirety can been conducted.” He said he had sent emails requesting that to the City Manager, the Mayor and all Aldermen.

The selection criteria used by City staff, as presented in their memo that accompanied the recommendation to award the contract to Ross Barney, were the qualifications and experience of the firm, how well the firm members understood the project, the cost of the project, the willingness of the firm to execute an agreement, the organization and completeness of proposal, and the firm’s participation in the Minority/Women/ and Evanston-based business (M/W/EBE)  practices of the City. Mr. Vasilko’s participation was in M/W/EBE rated zero, and he said he felt this was because he had listed his Chicago office rather than his Evanston office. Giving his Evanston office as his address, he said, would have increased his overall score. 

Mr. Vasilko went so far as to criticize the process as subjective and easy to manipulate. “It’s an unfair method,” he said. He also said he felt his firm was rejected because last year he had pointed out what he considered a major error in the amount of money it would take for the scaling-down project, after which “there was a changing attitude toward me and my firm. … So I’m suggesting that you allow enough time for someone independent to look in to how these things are handled. … I would encourage you – I’d be happy to, I’d very much like to sit down with someone who can look at these things without bias.”

The committee members did not take Mr. Vasilko up on his request  to hold up the contract to Ross Barney but approved forwarding the contract for a vote at City Council, where it passed by a 7-1 vote. Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite did not attend the meeting. Ninth Ward Alderman Brian Miller, who chairs the Administration and Public Works Committee, voted against the contract and the accompanying lease to Theo Ubique theater company, both at the committee and the Council meeting. (See sidebar.)

Council Approves 10-Year Lease to Theo Ubique

By a 7-1 vote, City Council approved a lease of the 721-73 Howard St. property to Theo Ubique, a cabaret theater currently based in Rogers Park. The lease of the 3,663 square-foot building will be $3,500 per month for the first three years of a 10-year lease. Rent in years four and five will be $4,500 per month, and rent in subsequent years will be determined based on the consumer price index.

Theo Ubique will make six payments totaling $204,450 to the City to cover a portion of the costs associated with renovating the building at 721-723 Howard St., and, during the term of the lease will be responsible for rent, utilities, maintenance, and any applicable property tax. The City will inspect the property annually to ensure it is well maintained.

The lease also includes four options of five years each. After 20 years, the tenant would be able to purchase the property, based on a current appraisal and subject to Council approval, but would receive no credit against the purchase price for prior rent or investments in the property.

According to a March 13 memo from Assistant City Manager/CFO Martin Lyons and Capital Planning Bureau Chief Lara Biggs, the Howard-Ridge tax-increment financing district will issue debt and pay the debt-service costs for the architectural and construction costs for the theater project.

Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, voted against the award of the architectural contract to Ross Barney and of the lease to Theo Ubique. He told the RoundTable he thought Theo Ubique would not be able to raise sufficient funds for the buildout costs, and he felt TIF funds should be distributed to the schools rather than spent this way.

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...