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Officials from Northlight Theatre, along with officials from Chicago-based Farpoint Development, unveiled plans Sept. 5 to move the theater company, currently based in Skokie, back to Evanston, where it was founded in 1974.

 The project, which is in very preliminary stages, would encompass the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, officials said at a meeting of First Ward residents at Evanston Public Library. The theater would anchor most of the project’s footprint, but would be flanked by a 37-floor, 395-ft. skyscraper composed of a boutique hotel, 152 rental apartments, and retail spaces.

 “Over all, the idea is one that not only draws traffic to Northlight, but it energizes the entire block,” said Farpoint principal Patrick O’Connor.
“The most exciting part for us is to come back to Evanston,” added Northlight Executive Director Timothy Evans. “The location for us is ideal.”

 Among features of the new theater would be a mainstage performance space, as well as a smaller performance space, rehearsal halls, and a lobby that functions as a community center.

 “We feel that we want to do [a gathering place] as part of our coming back to Evanston,” said Mr. Evans.  
 Many in attendance lauded the plans for the theater, but most residents who spoke were concerned both about the skyscraper and what local businesses would be displaced by the development. After the audience’s initial reaction about the size of the skyscraper, Scott Goodman, a Farpoint principal, said, “I heard the guffaws.” He then attempted to address their concerns.

 Mr. Goodman reminded the audience that downtown Evanston “had got quiet” with shopping options like those in Old Orchard. “We have the Northlight Theatre that wants to come here, and that comes with a lot of stuff.”
No public monies are being planned for the project, the developers said. Given the paucity of arts funding at the federal and state levels, Mr. Goodman said, the best chance to secure financing for a project like Northlight’s was a development of this scope. An audience member asked whether the skyscraper, which makes up a slender portion of the development’s footprint, could be reduced in height and expanded horizontally, leveling out above the theater space. Mr. Evans said the answer was no, as that would necessitate support columns within the performing spaces.

Kiera Kelly, who has been a vocal opponent of the Albion development a few blocks south at 1450-1508 Sherman Ave., noted that the project would likely require numerous variances from existing land-use regulations.

 “Are we just throwing zoning off the table and this is a free-for-all?” Ms. Kelly asked.

City Development Director Johanna Leonard emphasized that no formal proposals had yet been submitted to the City, and said that variances are considered on a case-by-case basis by appropriate committees and City Council.

Darren Oberto, a co-owner of the Alley Gallery, 1712 Sherman Ave., said the plans were “shocking” to him, since they would likely call for the removal of the alley, alongside which his business sits.

 “That real estate is precious to me,” he said. “…That is my home.”

 Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who said she was also seeing the plans for the first time, said, “I’m surprised our alley is gone. …This is one of the blocks in Evanston that really works.”

 She added, “It would break my heart to walk into Saville [Flowers] and tell them, ‘We’ll try to put you somewhere else.’”

 All the principals emphasized that the plans were in their initial phases, so Ald. Fiske said that another meeting of residents was likely necessary. She also asked that Farpoint and Northlight’s plans be made available through her website, so residents could offer comments and opinions, to which the principals agreed.