Members of the City’s Design and Project Review (DAPR) Committee backed Northlight Theatre’s proposal for a nearly 300-seat theater at 1012-18 Church St., seeking more details on how theater officials expect to manage parking at that downtown site.
The committee’s backing on Aug. 28 is a first step in the process that will continue with Northlight officials appearing before the City’s Plan Commission, also an advisory body. The issue will eventually go to the City Council, which has final say on the matter.
Northlight officials are seeking a special use permit to allow construction of a 37,800-square foot, three-story building at 1012-18 Church St. The development would include a 289-seat main stage theater, cafe and lounge, multipurpose rehearsal hall, administrative offices and on-site box office.
Northlight’s request calls for several waiver allowances, including one that requires the applicant to provide 32 parking spaces.
At the Aug. 28 meeting, Craig Smith, Northlight’s architect on the project, and Timothy Evans, Northlight’s Executive Director, said the theater plans to make use of the City’s garages, as well as some smaller surface lots in the area, to handle parking.
At Northlight’s current home in Skokie, the North Shore Center for Performing Arts, most patrons drive, officials said. They estimated a sold-out production would generate a total of 115 vehicles.
Based on the proximity of CTA and Metra stops, as well as a number of patrons living within walking distance of the site, officials estimate that 20% of the attendees at their performances in Evanston will walk, bike, ride share or use public transit to performances.
Mr. Smith said one of the first things Northlight representatives did finding the Church Street site was to pace off the distance to the Maple Street Self Park garage. It came to 250 paces, he told Committee members.
“It’s so close,” he said.
Mr. Evans said theater officials believe a number of patrons who do drive will want to have dinner in the area. In that case, Northlight can direct them to the public garages, he said.
In discussion, staff members pressed for a more comprehensive plan. “We all understand this will take a little bit of give-and-take,” said Johanna Leonard, the City’s Director of Community Development. She said some iterations will probably be needed in time, pointing to the theater’s plans for pick-ups and drop-offs in the area as probably one.
Michael Rivera, the City’s interim Parking Division Manager, agreed with Northlight’s assessment that there is ample parking for the development at the City’s 1800 Maple garage and the Sherman Plaza Garage at 821 Davis St. Combined, the two offer some 3,000 spaces, which are less than 50% used after 5 p.m., he said.
He said the City would prefer that the theatre not use the smaller surface lots in the area on Oak Avenue and Maple Avenue, which already serve existing businesses. Mr. Rivera also asked the Northlight representatives to consider entering into a validation program with the City to offer parking to their patrons, possibly building in the cost in performance ticket prices.
That way, “patrons will know that they are going to have parking with their ticket prices,” and can head directly to the Maple or Sherman garages ‘instead of getting to the area and trying to navigate,” asking, “Where are we going to park? Where should we park?” he said.
He said the City would also like to offer discounted parking for Northlight employees. A valet operation would also work well, he said.
Northlight’s plan calls for preserving the Barn Steakhouse in its historic structure on the site as part of the project. Officials maintain the new theater will “enhance the pedestrian experience along Church St., with the lobby functioning as a ‘public square’ for the downtown community.” The design, along with the façade “is extremely transparent, drawing passersby into the cultural context of the theater,” they said.
The plan also points to the “enormous economic impact” of the project. “In our current location in the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, we bring in audiences of 50,000 each season,” officials said in their statement. “We anticipate that number will grow when we are located in Evanston.”
Moreover, they maintained, “the theater will bring a major new entertainment and cultural use to support the mixed-use pedestrian and transit-oriented nature of the downtown.”