Council balks on theater project
Updated: February 19, 2013 1:33PM
EVANSTON — The City Council on Monday froze plans to bring a theater group to Howard Street, citing the escalating price of the project and the need to consider other options.
Aldermen voted 6-3 against authorizing City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to begin negotiations with City Lit, a Chicago-based theater company, on a lease to own agreement to fund construction of a one-story theater at 727-729 Ridge Ave.
City officials, led by Alderman Ann Rainey, in whose ward the site is located, have been a prime force in moving forward. Rainey, the senior alderman, said the project would be a key piece in the revitalization of the street that received little attention from previous administrations.
With a wine bar, which recently opened, and a restaurant project around the corner, there “is a buzz on Howard Street right now,” the alderman declared. The theater project is “going to generate the vibrancy the street absolutely needs,’’ she said.
Other council members took issue with the cost.
“My issue with this is when it came in at $600,000, I was nervous, but we’re at $1.6 million, and we don’t have a tenant to actually pay rent,” Alderman Coleen Burrus said. “I’m kind of losing my appetite. I just don’t see the numbers.”
Others also expressed misgivings and suggested holding off on a vote.
“I’m still not comfortable with the price,” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th. She wondered whether the project could be “ordered in a different way.”
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st, suggested officials open talks with Northwestern University to see if the school would be willing to contribute. Bobkiewicz said the city did broach the issue a year ago, and that university officials said their focus was on their new music school and arts on campus.
Under the proposal, officials planned to fund the project through a $2.2 million line of credit issued from First Bank and Trust. The line of credit would be split between the Howard Ridge Tax Increment Finance District and the West Evanston TIF.
All projects funded from the line of credit would eventually fold into long term bonds, payable from what the tax increment developments in the districts would presumably generate, officials said. They are already looking at structuring the project different. Griffin said officials have met with City Lit representatives since the new costs came up, and told them the deal originally presented was no longer feasible given the costs of constructions.
He indicated officials had shifted in thinking, looking at the lease-to-own arrangement with City Lit.
“If City Lit is not the one able to provide the theater services that we had envisioned then we would go to another entity,” he said.
Bobkiewicz said sometimes officials have to take risks for payoffs.
“We never said this is a slam dunk but redevelopment is rarely a slam dunk.”
Citizen critics blasted the proposal during the citizen comment portion of the meeting.
The proposal amounts to “a give away tax deal approaching $2 million,’’ charged longtime budget critic Junad Rizki, who also criticized the city’s subsidy of the wine bar.
Another speaker, Jeff Smith, said he “had never seen so much money fly out the door of the council’s chamber on the basis of such sketchy back up.”