A rendering presented at the Jan. 13 First Ward meeting depicts the Varsity building converted to residential use, with spruced-up ground level retail. (Campbell Coyle Real Estate rendering)
A rendering presented at the Jan. 13 First Ward meeting depicts the Varsity building converted to residential use, with spruced-up ground level retail. (Campbell Coyle Real Estate rendering)

A development team is proposing converting the vacant Varsity Theater building into a 35-unit apartment building with nearly 10,000 square feet of ground retail space that would wrap around the alley to the adjacent Bookman’s Alley property.

Steve Rogin, the longtime owner of the property, teaming up with developer Campbell Coyle, presented details of the project at a virtual 1st Ward meeting Jan. 13.

Chris Dillion, President of Campbell Coyle Real Estate, said the plan calls for ground-floor retail to wind from the Varsity building on the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue to Bookman’s Alley.

“Obviously this is a beloved place and we really have a vision of enhancing and celebrating the space,” Dillion said.

The developers are proposing what they term a “readaptive reuse” of the Varsity building. The ground floor of the building has had a number of retail shops, including The Gap clothing store, which closed shortly before the pandemic.

The theater, meanwhile, with its bowl-like auditorium theater, has sat vacant atop the building overlooking the street since closing in August 1984.

The 35 apartments will include studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom units, Dillion said.

Three units would be affordable housing, in conformance with Evanston’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance.

“And the one thing I’d say that I think is important about this project, given the size of the Varsity Theater in general, these units will tend to be a little bit larger than a lot of the other comparable bed-count units in the market,” Dillion said.

A rendering presented at the Jan. 13 1st Ward meeting shows the retail space stretching along the ground level of the Varsity Building and running into the alley. (Campbell Coyle Real Estate rendering) Credit: Campbell Coyle Real Estate rendering

Dillion said the project is expected to generate a significant increase in real estate taxes. “And, we’re so excited about this opportunity to reimagine and enhance Bookman’s Alley,” he said, “and really think about that as a destination for downtown Evanston – obviously, as we are emerging from the pandemic – thinking about the wonderful experiences that everybody can share in that space.”

Saving theater is the first preference for some

Some residents at the virtual meeting expressed regret about the loss of the Varsity movie theater under the plan and wondered if there were any steps that could be taken to save it.

When it opened Dec. 24, 1926, the 2,500-seat theater “was one of the largest suburban Chicago movie palaces ever built and was also one of the most spectacular,” according to the website cinematreasures.org.

“It was designed as a French royal chateau of the era of Francois I, and no expense was spared on luxury by its original owner, Clyde Elliot, an Evanston native who had worked in Hollywood for many years.”

First Ward Council member Clare Kelly, moderating the meeting, and a lifelong Evanston resident, recalled that she used to go to movies at the theater and remembered “the stars in the ceiling and the castle. So of course, many of us would love if that could stay,” she said.

In 2018, Landmarks Illinois named the Varsity Theater block as one of its most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois.

The preservation group noted that the 1700 block of Sherman is one of the last remaining historically intact blocks in Evanston’s downtown.

“A survey of historic buildings in the downtown district was conducted in 2007 by the Evanston Preservation Commission,” the group reported. “This survey identified the former Varsity Theater, a 1926 J.E.O. Pridmore-designed building located at 1706-10 Sherman Avenue, as possessing historical and/or architectural merit, making their landmark potential a topic for future discussion. These buildings are important contributors to the desired physical context and character of downtown Evanston.”

Several community members at the meeting submitted questions, asking whether historic tax credits could be used to save the theater.

Rogin, the property owner, said tax credits apply only if the original use of the space is maintained. “That is not an economic model that works,” he said.

“We’ve had many conversations with professionals knee-deep into that,” he added. “So unfortunately, both from a financial standpoint for the development as well as other things in terms of use of the space, we’ve yet to find anybody that says that’s a viable option.”

Size of theater ‘just isn’t a viable model’

Fielding another question about the possibility of an establishment like the Music Box movie theater moving into the space, Rogin said he has had conversations with theater architects and others to explore the possibilities.

“This is an incredibly large space,” he said. “When it opened in the mid-’20s, it was the largest theater outside of the City of Chicago. And today that model is not viable. The way audiences congregate and the size of space, it just isn’t a viable model in Evanston anymore, or in any small community.

“I’ve scratched my head many times over the years, long before I bought this theater, about ‘Why don’t these theaters get repurposed, reused?’” Rogin continued.

If there is a reason, he said, it’s the economic model. “Unless you have a super-big donor or a huge check from a municipality, it’s just not feasible,” he said.

Carl Klein, a resident and historic preservation specialist, pointed to the block’s status as one the last blocks in downtown Evanston with historic buildings intact.

“We’ve been waiting since 1980 when the Varsity Theater closed, to develop this space,” he said. “What’s another two years to find a use that could generate a lot more income than housing and help spark the revitalization of our downtown?”

Rogin challenged that statement. “Specifically, what is it that you would propose that would spark that vitality?” he asked.

Klein observed that Evanston already had many housing developments downtown.

“I’m not asking that,” said Rogin, who has spent a number of years seeking city backing for a renovation of the theater space. “What specifically would you propose?” he asked.

The development group will next go in front of the city’s Land Use Commission, seeking at least one major variation: permission to use only the current three on-site parking stalls when the city’s zoning code would require a minimum of 28 spaces. In similar situations, such as with the Northlight Theatre project, a developer has agreed to make up the difference by leasing spaces at a nearby lot or at one of the city garages.

“We’re working through, obviously, the zoning process,” Dillion said. “This [Ward meeting] marks kind of the beginning of that process. And so we’re looking to work with the city and the community to navigate that process.”

He said the hope is that construction could start this summer, leading to a late 2023 completion.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I too grew up in Evanston. Varsity, Valencia, Cornet, Evanston 1& 2. I went to all of them and have many great memories. Even Cinemark on Benson has provided some good ties and that got built with $ from the city. It too is now closed. At least its format would still meet today’s theater Standards. I now live near downtown in a 10-year-old highrise. I use to shop at Woolworths, had my first savings account at Evanston Federal Savings. My last office was at 1601 Sherman and I watched the property now comprising Sherman Plaza being torn down, the vacant pit, and the new building being built. Things change. Give the owner the variances requested. Based on the artist’s rendition, it looks like the exterior along the alley will be a great improvement. Turning the property is a risk the developer is willing to take. The tax base now for most of the property is based on it being vacant. Apartments, commercial space upgrades will bring it back to a more realistic use and productive property taxes. Just look at Sherman plaza taxes 15 years ago to what the property pays now. Even with inflation, we are talking millions for the schools, pensions, City services. So much of Evanston is off the rolls. Please the schools and city need development and revenue for services we all demand from it.

  2. One strange remark from the article relates to the applicability of the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit / the County’s Classification L incentive. The principle reason these incentives exist is to facilitate adaptive use, or new uses, in rehabilitated historic structures. The idea that the project wouldn’t qualify for these because the proposed use was non-original is not accurate.

  3. Evanston is not a “small town”. Evanston has a very strategic location because it bridges one of our Nations largest cities to the south with the North Shore, which is one of the most affluent areas in America. Evanston also plays another key role within a vital urban area in that it is the host City to Northwestern University; a large nationally- renowned institution of higher learning. Maybe Northwestern would like to take over the Varsity and make the site a cornerstone of the Helen Hayes School of Drama and performing arts. Have other creative ideas been exhausted?

  4. I grew up in Evanston and loved the Varsity Theater. I would love to see it as a theater that shows foreign and other art house films. There could be rooms for people to remain and meet in after the show. It would be great if visiting film scholars and NU professors would be available to continue with a lecture or discuss the film and others like it. It would also be nice to have a coffee shop nearby.

  5. Steven Rogin has been diligently researching the highest and best use of the former Varsity theater for years. Evanston can benefit from the additional tax income generated by this development.

  6. Some of these folks just don’t make sense to me. If the theater closed like 35 years ago and NO ONE has been able to make a plan that would make a theater work again there by now what makes them think they just need a couple more years to find a way? New residences in this beautiful building sounds like a great idea to me. Maybe they could make part or all of the theater area a common space for the building with tables etc for gathering, maybe a some pool tables and some ping pong tables so residents (especially the younger ones) have a safe space to socialize.

    1. Evanston should learn from the Highland Park Theatre debacle. Movie theaters are a dying business. Developing the property will benefit the neighborhood and city. One can’t live in the past.