A rendering of what the Varsity Theater building would look like after renovation into a mixed-use retail and residential development.

Something as small as two parking spaces is the key to a multi-million dollar revitalization of a long-vacant building in downtown Evanston.

On Wednesday night, the city’s Land Use Commission recommended approval of a variance to allow the developers to provide just two on-site spaces behind the Varsity Theater, clearing one more hurdle towards making redevelopment of the 1926-vintage movie palace a reality.

Developers plan to turn the long-vacant theater into a mixed residential/retail project. Thirty-five apartments in the upper floors along with shops at street level are planned, at Sherman Avenue and Bookman’s Alley.

The parking variance now goes to City Council for a final vote.

That variance lets the developers put in fewer parking spaces than the city code requires for a building of that size and proposed usage and provide additional parking offsite.

The developers say they’re doing an urban, transit and walking-oriented project, where too much parking would be overkill, and would not fit anyway.

Under the city code, 28 parking spots would be needed.

But Land Use Chair Matt Rodgers said, “There’s no place that 28 spaces would fit because of the way the property was developed many years ago.”

As part of the variance, the panel also recommended that the developers lease 16 spaces in a nearby city lot or garage for tenant parking.

Besides offering a major increase in property tax revenue for the city, developers said the rehab will inject an old building with new life.

“We’re doing everything we can to preserve the shell and still bring a dramatic project to the city,” said theater owner Steve Rogin.

Right now, Rogin said, the Varsity Theater is just a “big cube of air.”

But by renovating the structure, Rogin added, “We’re trying to pay homage to the character” of an important building downtown.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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