Neighbors got a look Thursday evening at plans for redeveloping the vacant Varsity Theater building downtown with 35 apartment units above an enhanced ground floor retail space that would open onto Bookman’s Alley.

The long-time owner of the Varsity building in the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, Steven Rogin, said he’s teamed up for the project with Chris Dillion, president of Campbell Coyle Real Estate, which is currently renovating the Sojourner Church building at 1101 Church St. into apartments.

Dillion said the development team plans to add enhancements to the alley that might include a canopy of lights and public art to help draw customers to the retail space.

A rendering of possible upgrades to Bookman’s Alley, just north of the Varsity building.

The retail would be topped with three levels of apartments, including three studio, 20 one-bedroom, five two-bedroom and seven three-bedroom units. Three of the units would be affordable units under the city’s inclusionary housing program.

A proposed plan for the second floor apartments.

Dillion said many of the apartments would have Juliet balconies.

The site has only three parking spaces now, which means that under city zoning rules the developers would likely need to lease an additional 25 spaces at one of the city’s parking garages.

Rogin said the development would likely increase the yield to local government agencies from property taxes on the property by 180% over current levels.

Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said, “Many of use would love it if the stars in the ceiling and the castle” designs on the auditorium’s interior could stay.

But Rogin said restoring the building, which opened in 1926 as a 2,500 seat single-screen movie palace, the largest in the metro area outside Chicago, was completely impractical.

“It’s not suitable for a historic tax credit, because you’d have to maintain the original use of building, and that’s not an economic model that works in Evanston,” Rogin said.

Steven Rogin

“We’ve had many conversations with professionals and gone knee deep into that,” he added, “but we’ve yet to find anybody who says that’s a viable option for us.”

Carl Klein

Resident Carl Klein urged Rogin to “find another use other than housing” that cold spark a revitalization of downtown.

But pressed by Rogin to actually suggest an example of such a use, Klein failed to name any.

Kelly suggested doing something that would make the site “more of a cultural destination.”

But Rogin replied, “Unless the city is willing to underwrite it, I don’t see how it’s economically viable.”

Dillion said the retail space might include a music venue of some sort — but it would likely also have to have another use — like a brew pub.

Chris Dillion.

The challenge right now, after the last to years of fighting to keep venues alive during the pandemic, Dillion added, is that this is not a time or place in which many of them are looking at expanding.

“Any opportunity would likely to have multiple revenue streams to drive it. It can’t be just a performance space,” he said.

Community Development Director Johanna Nyden said that while the project is too small in size to go through the city’s full planned development review process, it will receive a hearing before the city’s new Land Use Commission. The date for that meeting hasn’t yet been set.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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