Evanston aldermen tonight will be asked to spend nearly $1.7 million to convert two empty storefronts on Howard Street into a theater — nearly triple the preliminary cost estimates for the project.

The plan for the building is backed by Alderman Ann Rainey whose 8th Ward includes Howard Street. Rainey envisions the storefronts at 727-29 Howard that once housed a storefront church as the new home for the Chicago-based City Lit Theatre Company.

Top: A rendering of the completed theater conversion. Above: The vacant city-owned Howard Street buildings last summer.

Preliminary cost estimates from seven months ago suggested that the conversion work — including raising the roof to accommodate a theatrical stage — would run about $600,000.

But the low bid for the project, from Boller Construction of Waukegan, came in at $1.65 million.

The city is negotiating a lease-to-own agreement for the buiding with the theater company, but provisions of that deal were not included in the packet for tonight’s City Council meeting.

An earlier draft of an agreement with City Lit called for the theater group to pay $1,800 a month in rent and have the option to purchase the building for the $325,000 the city originally paid to acquire it.

The non-profit theater company, according to its most recent publicly available filings with the Internal Revenue Service, lost nearly $7,000 on revenues of just under $164,000 in its fiscal year ending in June 2011 and had liabilities that exceeded its assets.

memo to aldermen from Community and Economic Development Director Steve Griffin says the city will borrow money for the construction work from a line of credit it has negotiated with First Bank and Trust and eventually refinance the loan through bonds to be repaid from anticipated revenue from the Howard-Ridge tax increment financing district.

City Lit’s artistic director, Terry McCabe, and several other board members are Evanston residents.

Relate stories

More time sought for Howard theater plan (June 25, 2012)

City makes arts bet on Howard Street (Jan. 24, 2012)

Theater group seeks Howard Street space (Jan. 23, 2012)

Related documents

City staff memo on City Lit project (Jan. 8, 2013)

City Lit IRS 990 Form 2010 (GuideStar.org)

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Seriously?

    The city is considering paying 1.65 million for a theater, at a cost to the taxpayers-

    but they won't let a non-profit group for kids build out a city owned sports facility with no new tax cost to the taxpayers because they say we need to sell the building as we desperately need the money.

    There is only one way to summarize this- This town is whacked.

    Considering there are only two challengers for council, we'll get more of the same for several more years.   Anyone want to buy a nice house?  Wilmette looks better by the day.

  2. Does this come as a surprise?

    Judging by the architect's rendering the building is now more than two stories high. That implies they needed the height for their stage, are tearing off the roof and expanding the building quite a bit upwards. We have no information as to whether the costs include any of the lighting, stage and equipment or other specialties that a theater requires, let alone the seating, emergency exiting, fire suppresion and safety devices, air-conditioning, plumbing and enlarged washrooms, and so on. No doubt there is a bar or refreshement area that will compete with their new neighbors the "Wine Bar".

    It would seem that the original estimate was either naive or based on a very simple theater set inside the storefront and not a full-fledged theater building connected to another building that is to be used for what?

    Alternatively, could it be that the City overpaid and that many of the added costs realte to the actual condition of the building and the need to bring it up to structural standards and not even to deal with the special costs that the theater requires?

    I think the alderpersons need to step back and reassess the entire project. The figures given for the theater group would never sustain them for long and they are either expecting great increases in income with the new facility or they may fold quickly. Of course, they might also be expecting that the City will provide subsidies or ignore their loan if they cannot cover expenses.

    What is not indicated is whether the City plans to restructure the payments based on an increased cost for the project. do they still intend to sell the building for the same price they paid after more than 1.6 million in improvements or is this like the fabled "wine bar" down the street? 

    What I find hard to believe is that the Council gets a packet that does not even include the proposed lease deal. Apparently, given how the City staff intends to pay for the work and then borrow from the TIF, why even bother with rent. Just give the building away and let them run it into the ground. By the time the TIF ends and everyone discovers that there was no incremental tax growth, all the parties will have departed town.


  3. TRIPLE the cost ?
    How did costs TRIPLE in the span of 6 months? Sounds like a low ball estimate was used to gain support for this project, people become vested in the project, and now the City of Evanston is asking taxpayers to pay 3X ?

    What else should we know that we’re not being told?

    If this is such a great idea and City Lit will add to the Evanston Arts scene, then why don’t the Board members of City Lit and its staff go out and raise funds to help pay for this project? What is their skin in the game? It’s easy to ask taxpayers to fund this project, but a more sensible proposal would be to “share” the cost and risk of this idea.

    Evanston taxpayers should NOT have to bear 100% of the cost and risk of this project.

    Call your alderman TODAY before it’s too late

  4. Evanston – the city of bleating sheep

    This deal is crazy.

    Why in the WORLD would Evanston officials even consider spending $1.7 million on a theater group that is flat broke. City Lit lost money last year and has liabilities that exceed its assets.

    These building were purchased by the city several years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars and have sat vacant since. Now this.

    Evanston aldermen also bought other buildings for hundreds of thousands of dollars that also sit vacant. Just wait until Jewel Foods on Chicago Avenue closes in the wake of Evanston's sweet $2 million Trader Joe's deal.

    Our city taxes increased more than 20 percent in the past four years as property values declined.

    It's a damn shame only two aldermanic seats are being contested this election year. I always thought Evanstonians were active in their communities.

    Instead, they are a bunch bleating sheep.

  5. 8th Ward (Rainey) Theater
    Voting no and will make sure every citizen I know in Evanston will not vote in favor of paying a single penny in toward it! Seriously!

  6. How many new theaters does one ‘broke’ city need?

    Wow. Seems like a waste of our tax dollars. Is this theater in addition to the the three that council is proposing to build downtown? I like theater, but four theaters using tax dollars seems excessive when there are so many projects the city says we don't have money for— like the indoor sports complex in the old recycling center.

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