By Susan Vernon
Special to Inside
The fate of the Uptown Theatre continues to wind through the legal system, as it forlornly sits padlocked and boarded up at 4816 N. Broadway. The primary question that litigation focuses on is, "Who is the legal owner?" With two lenders foreclosing on Lunn Partners and multiple interested parties claiming rights to their assets, according to Joyce Dugan, Director of Economic Development for the Uptown Community Development Corporation (UpCorp), a tangled web of who owns what—including the Uptown Theatre—has been the result.
One bright spot is that a receiver for the theater has been appointed. Peter Holsten, of Holsten Real Estate Group, has been charged with a full inspection of the exterior, including an inventory of the terra cotta façade panel by panel, and making necessary repairs to keep it safe and stable. Holsten is already involved in the neighborhood with his Wilson Yard retail and residential development, located at the triangular site between Montrose, Wilson and Broadway. Holsten’s group, which specializes in historic preservation and won HUD’s National Trust for Historic Preservation Award for their redevelopment of Belle Shore apartments, appears to be a good choice as receiver, but also raises a question. Could Holsten have a long term interest in the Uptown Theatre, expanding his expertise into non-residential developments? Whoever ends up ultimately controlling the property will probably hold onto it until someone with deep pockets comes along, since it has been inexpensive to own and Uptown continues to become a thriving neighborhood, making the theater more attractive. On the other hand, if the owner does not have the cash on hand for the minimum required upkeep of the interior and exterior of the theater, they might be motivated to sell it more cheaply and quicker than they otherwise would.
While the Uptown Theatre does have its detractors, it continues to have broad support. An independent petition effort is underway with over 500 online signatures and 300 hand-written ones to date, supporting the restoration of the theater for use as an entertainment venue. The petition is hosted at the Web site of Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads, a new not-for-profit publishing company located in Uptown. They are not attempting to raise money for the theater, but decided that, while they were in the process of building their Web site, the publishing house could use the site to help the neighborhood by providing a forum for people to voice their support and concern for the theater. "As local history falls under our general mission and goals, we created the signature drive with the hope of letting those with the power know how the neighborhood feels," said Joanne Asala, Compass Rose’s editor.
Friends of the Uptown also continues to be an active advocacy organization, composed of all volunteers who research and promote efforts to preserve the building, but do not solicit or accept donations. Friends was created almost seven years ago and is committed to raising awareness of the tremendous potential that lays dormant in what the Urban Land Institute (ULI) report calls the crown jewel of the district.
The city continues to support the Uptown Theatre, as well. "Ald. Smith is definitely committed to having the theater restored to its original splendor," said Greg Harris, of Ald. Mary Ann Smith’s 48th Ward office, and, he says, they spend a lot of time tracking any dealings affecting it.
While public support is important to have, and an entity that can afford the purchase price and refurbishment costs are vital, ongoing success of the property is dependent upon its use. Harris emphasizes three key factors that a prospective owner needs to seriously consider before deciding to purchase the Uptown. Have they identified appropriate programming to reach, build and maintain a loyal audience base that could fill such a large venue? Do they have financial capital to meet ongoing operating expenses in the meantime? Do they have a plan for parking? A potential buyer also needs architectural expertise for maintaining the historic façade.
Many parties, from Chicago and outside the area, continue to show interest, but the alderman’s office has yet to see a solid business plan that also has the wherewithal to back it up. Whoever ends up purchasing and refurbishing the theater would have access to state and federal historic tax credits, as well as to TIF funds of which Bridgeview Bank Financing would probably be a major local player, according to Cindi Anderson, Zoning Committee Chairman of the Uptown Chicago Commission, but a buyer needs more resources than incentives.
A panel of professionals associated with ULI spent a week studying Uptown in the fall of 2000. The resulting ULI report identified the Uptown Theatre as the linchpin for the Lawrence and Broadway Entertainment District. Dugan, of UpCorp, agrees that the Uptown Theatre could still be viable for entertainment, but that it needs something different that does not compete with the rock concerts of the Riviera and their 16- to 25-year-old audience, or the Aragon, whose patrons tend to be slightly older. She points out that programming for the 35 and over crowd is missing, but so are the necessary amenities to draw that market consistently, such as restaurants and bars for people to visit after an event, and parking. The problem is, those types of improvements tend not to be built until some other source brings customers into a neighborhood, which then makes it easier to make a commitment. It is the old chicken versus the egg dilemma. Dugan also notes that they work a lot with the Latino and Vietnamese communities and believes involving these groups could be key to the venue’s success.
At this point there is no specific plan for the Uptown Theatre or clear consensus on what the neighborhood could support. To help provide focus that has sway, UpCorp may run a symposium this spring or summer, in honor of the theater’s 80th anniversary on Aug. 18. It would bring together experts from a variety of disciplines throughout the country to seriously discuss what it would take to redevelop the theater, taking into consideration the condition of the building, inside and out, as well as its location.
The fate of the Uptown Theatre continues to be a complex issue in a state of flux, but agreement among all parties can be found in the immediate concern that this jewel—currently in the rough—not be allowed to crack and fall apart, while it continues to wait for someone to make a decision about what to do with it.