City Council on Oct. 14 approved unanimously and without comment a special use permit that would allow Northlight Theatre to build a 37,800-square-foot cultural facility at 1012-18 Church St.
The three-story, 41-foot-tall building will house a 289-seat main stage, a public lobby with a café and lounge area, a multi-purpose rehearsal hall, a rooftop deck, theatre support spaces, administrative offices and an onsite box office.
A Sept. 12 memo from Community Development Director Johanna Leonard, Planning and Zoning Manager Scott Mangum and Development Planner Michael Griffith described the project and the context of its location within the downtown core. The Barn restaurant and its patio, on the southwest corner of the site, will remain and be screened by a 10-foot wall, but the other structures will be demolished.
Traffic: To avoid conflicts with street and bike-lane traffic, Northlight proposed an on-street drop-off on the east side of Oak Avenue; there is also a drop-off location on Maple Avenue south of Church Street.
The main entrance would be at the northwest corner and a second entrance is proposed near the alley on the west side of the proposed structure. There would be four bike racks along Church street, each for two to four bikes, and a rack at the rear for 11 bikes for employees.
Parking: While the zoning code requires 32 off-street parking spaces for a project of this type, the ordinance allows the project to be built with none. City staff believes the nearby City-owned garages will have ample spaces for patrons and employees.
Public Benefits: In addition to bringing its reputation for artistic excellence, Northlight projects it will generate $55,000,000 in new spending plus $427,000 in City tax revenue in the first five years and 115 full-time equivalent jobs.
The theatre says its youth programs serve 4,000+ students each year in 45 schools across the Chicago area, including seven in Evanston. Its program includes skills-based school residencies, student matinees of main stage productions and an original theatre-for-social change curriculum, and a commitment to ensuring every Evanston middle school student has the opportunity to experience professional theatre regardless of income level.
Under its Arts For Everyone program, Northlight will provide 1,000 complimentary tickets annually and offer pricing discounts for seniors. The complimentary tickets will be distributed through the Evanston Public Library and various not-for-profit organizations here. Northlight also says it will “activate the theater seven days a week beyond main stage performances and making space available for use by other local arts organizations and groups.”
The ordinance approving the special use contains several conditions:
• Implement a construction management plan that details staging plans, construction hours; site access, including traffic and pedestrian safety plans; contractor parking; damage control and vibration monitoring; construction exhibits; project communication and signage;
• Implement the Arts for Everyone program;
• Provide appropriate bird-friendly measures on the north building facade, including fritted glass;
• Employ at least three Evanston residents, with a goal of 10 Evanston residents, during construction;
• Install public art on the portion of the west façade visible from Oak Avenue.
Before the City will issue a building permit, the City’s Design and Project Review Committee must approve a parking plan, a multi-modal transportation plan and a way to manage the bike lane and street parking in front of the building on Church Street. At present, Northlight would like to remove the two on-street spaces in front of its proposed building. The staff memo did not support that proposal.
The theater began here in 1974 as Evanston Theatre Company and staged its first few seasons at Kingsley Elementary School, which School District 65 had closed. Four years later the company became North Light Repertory, Inc. according to information on the Northlight website, “The change came from the result of a marketing survey which determined that the Evanston name led to confusion about the professional status of the theatre. … The new Repertory name was used to communicate the regional professional status of the theater, and to communicate the artistic passion of the company. Greg Kandel [one of the founders], then the producing director, said of the new name: ‘The north light is traditionally the artist’s light; the purest light in which to create a work of art. Furthermore, our artistic thrust has always been toward contemporary plays which in some way enlighten.’”
When District 65 decided to re-open Kingsley, Northlight relocated to the Coronet Theater on Chicago Avenue. After what the history on the website terns “a nomadic phase,” Northlight moved in 1997 to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.
For years, there has been talk of a performing arts center in downtown Evanston, and many have publicly and privately mourned the loss of Northlight. Now, it seems, the City and the community will welcome its return.