Plans for the future of the Noyes Cultural Arts center took a dramatic turn Monday night just as aldermen were about to vote on a plan to expand Piven Theatre Workshop’s space in the building.

A rendering from the NEA-funded study of a hypothetical new theater that might be built on the parking lot near the downtown library.

Plans for the future of the Noyes Cultural Arts center took a dramatic turn Monday night just as aldermen were about to vote on a plan to expand Piven Theatre Workshop’s space in the building.

Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, offered a radically different suggestion — that the three performing arts groups now at Noyes should work with the city, the chamber of commerce and the Evanston Community Foundation to create a new performing arts space in downtown Evanston.

Tendam said he doesn’t think Noyes is big enough to hold both the city’s visual and performing arts groups.

He said a downtown theater would be more accessible, have more parking for patrons and be more convenient for people seeking a place to eat before or after a performance.

By comparison, he said, the visual arts could be well housed at Noyes with relatively minor upgrades.

The city has recently seen two different studies that looked at expanding arts offerings in town, the evanstARTs project with funding from the community foundation and a downtown arts study funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

But neither study offered any clear strategy for funding a new downtown theater.

Nonetheless, with estimates of the long-term cost to the city of the Piven proposal for Noyes ranging from several million dollars to several times that amount, aldermen seemed eager to give Tendam a chance to explore a different approach.

A rendering from Piven’s proposal of a revamped entry to its enlarged space at Noyes.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said the city was at least partly to blame for creating an adversarial situation which ended up pitting Piven against other tenants at Noyes in a competition for space.

“I apologize for that,” Wilson said.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said she had doubts about whether either the city or Piven “is nimble enough” to pull off the change of plans, but “I’m glad to let you drive this bus for two weeks.”

And Tendam said he would report back in that time on his success in pulling together support for the alternative approach.

He said he’d had a long discussion with Piven’s executive director, Leslie Brown, Monday afternoon and had also talked to the city manager about it.

“I think we can get commitments that the new approach is the right direction” in those two weeks, Tendam added.

Brown said she was open to the approach, saying that Piven’s participation in two-and-a-half years of development of its plan for Noyes shows its commitment to the city.

“But this can’t just be a way to kick the can down the road,” Brown added, saying Piven has been working on several different alternatives for its future at the same time “because we need to determine where we will settle.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who had previously expressed reservations about the impact the proposed theater expansion would have on the neighborhood around Noyes, said she welcomed the new approach and was confident the other aldermen who represent parts of downtown would also be interested in it.

The aldermen voted to introduce an ordinance embodying the existing Piven proposal, primarily as a placeholder for Tendam’s new concept, but postponed action on an accompanying resolution that would have renewed Piven’s lease at Noyes.

It was not clear from the discussion Monday whether a majority of aldermen would have voted for or against the Piven project if the alternative approach had not been presented.

Related stories

City deal doesn’t require Piven to boost audience

Council ‘accepts’ arts report, postpones action

Arts plans: So where’s the money?

Study eyes 3 sites for performing arts venues

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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