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Panel puts Piven plan on hold

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Evanston's Human Services Committee put the Piven Theatre expansion plan on hold Monday while it seeks an array of additional information about the project from city staff.

The vote followed emotional testimony by scores of people who criticized the project along with endorsements from current and former Piven teachers students and staff.

Top: A rendering of Piven's plan for an expanded entryway at Noyes shown during the presentation by Piven Board President Joel Freimuth (above).

Joel Freimuth, the president of Piven's board of directors, said the city needed to have a "tough conversation" about the project, in light of all the opposition to it.

But he said that the project, when completed, would revitalize the community and make the Noyes Center a cultural landmark.

He also claimed that the project would bring $10 million in economic benefit to the CIty of Evanston and insisted that Piven has the capacity to complete the project.

Larry DiStasi of Actors Gymnasium.

Larry DiStasi, artistic director of The Actors Gymnasium, another Noyes tenant, said Piven was low-balling the cost of the project by as much as 50 percent — based on the cost of similar recent projects in the Chicago area.

He said the near-tripling of its space Piven is proposing is asking for more than it can afford and is forcing other arts groups and artists out of the building.

"A smaller footprint would be fiscally responsible and the right thing to do for the arts community in Evanston," DiStasi said, imploring the alderment to "please ask Piven to reduce its footprint for all of our sakes."

Gary Geiger of the Children's Choir.

Gary Geiger, founder of the Evanston Children's Choir, said he didn't want to villanize Piven, but that the city had become myopic in focusing mostly on Piven in its plans for Noyes to the detriment of the broader artistic community.

Jack Lerman.

Jack Lerman of 2412 Park Place said he and his wife, visual artists and teachers, are Noyes tenants. He said the center lost diversity as City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has tried to free up space for the proposed Piven expansion. "A portrait artists, a writer, a photographer — are all gone." Lerman said.

Aldermen raised a variety of questions they wanted answered.

Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she wanted more information to determine whether the deal would make the Noyes Center more self-sustaining as a facility and what the affect would be on rents for other tenants.

She also asked for more information about the structure of the planned $2.2 million city loan to Piven and its ability to afford to carry out the project.

Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said he wanted to get answers to what he called "many good questions" raised about the project by the city's Arts Councl last week.

Tendam suggested that to resolve the conflict the city might need to expand Noyes or find a separate venue either for the visual arts or performing arts.

The project as now conceived, Tendam said, "is not really giving us much optimism or great expectations for the future."

Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she had concerns about the potential impact of more late-night theater activity on a business and residential district along Noyes Street in which "everything shuts down at 8 p.m." She appeared to be leaning toward the idea that downtown would be a better location for an expanded theater operation.

Fiske said the city also needs to consider what might happen to the space if Piven were to leave, suggesting it could be hard to find another theater tenant.

Bobkiewicz said he hoped to have answers for those and other questions in time for the committee's next meeting, June 3.

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