19-year old Soren Dorr wanted a career in music. But the 2021 alumnus of Evanston Township High School says it was “very daunting” trying to break into that business right after graduation.
But then Dorr found out about the Butcher Boy School of Music Production, a non-profit organization at 1224 Washington St. that helps train Evanston teenagers in putting together songs and albums through hands-on experience.
“For me,” Dorr says, “this program was the way forward.” Besides picking up skills for a potential career, Dorr is now also interning at the school, instructing others.
But the Butcher Boy School of Music Production may be on the butcher block.
The school’s operator, Grammy Award-winning music producer Jim Tullio, faces financial troubles and a city zoning issue that may mean the end of the line.
Tullio is asking the city of Evanston for a zoning variance, that would let him split his property at Washington and Asbury into two parcels.
He would then sell one of those parcels, vacant land east of the former corner store that houses the production studio, and use the proceeds to help pay the mortgage on his building.
In a written application, Tullio said “I would likely go into foreclosure and lose the property” without the ability to divide the land and sell half.
It may sound like a simple case of private property rights, but there’s more to it than that.
The city requires all pieces of property in a residential zone (R-3) to be at least 5,000 square feet.
But Tullio’s property is too small for each section to be that size. The parcel with the building could be 5,000 square feet. But if that happens, the smaller vacant lot would be only 4,226 square feet.
So Tullio has asked the city for a variance, letting him divide the property into one code-conforming parcel and one non-conforming.
The answer from City Hall, so far, has been a resounding “no.”
Last week, on an 11-0 vote, the city’s Design and Project Review Committee recommended against the variance. While that’s not the final say, Tullio now has to try to convince another city body to override that recommendation.
The DAPR panel’s vote had nothing to do with the merit or lack of merit of the Butcher Boy school.
Rather, the agency looked at the city’s zoning code, and concluded that allowing an exception in this case could lead to a slew of similar requests.
City Engineer Laura Biggs said in last week’s meeting, “I don’t believe it’s a good practice for us to generate a substandard lot.”
Biggs added that “it’s likely neighbors would come out of the woodwork to complain.”
Tullio also has another obstacle. Splitting the property would reduce the percentage of open space — or permeable surface — on the corner lot below the the limit set by the zoning code.
So that’s another requested variance, and another one the DAPR committee did not like.
“We try not to cover all the green space,” Biggs said, “because it leads to flooding ” and goes against the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan.
Tullio says there are already plenty of non-conforming properties in residential areas, of less than 5,000 square feet.
He also told the DAPR committee that dividing the land and selling the smaller piece “would not affect either neighbor” near him.
Tullio has nearly half a century of music production experience, including two 1980s Grammy Awards for albums with the late Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman.
Tullio founded the Butcher Boy school after he says the COVID-19 pandemic decimated his work as an independent producer. Tullio lives upstairs in the century-old building. The studio, which is now the school, is downstairs.
Tullio bought the building in 2006, a structure he says the city was planning to condemn.
Tullio says a wealthy friend of his gave him a private mortgage, but after a locked in period of low interest, the rate, he says, has quadrupled.
“Raising the required amount,” Tullio wrote, “is not feasible in the timetable I have to save the building, so the only alternative is to sell the adjacent lot.”
Tullio says his mortgage benefactor is on the hook for property taxes, which selling some of the land will cover.
But there’ yet another wrinkle in this saga. While DAPR has recommended against the variances, the city’s zoning administrator, Melissa Klotz, is in favor of them, with a few restrictions on rebuilding the existing home/studio.
In a written report, she says, “When many lots are substandard to the minimum required lot size … one more similar sized lot should not be denied.”
The adminstrator also suggests that because the vacant lot is smaller than some other parcels, it could be turned into lower cost housing than is typical in the neighborhood.
The case now goes to the city’s Land Use Commission for a decision Wednesday night.
Tullio plans to be on the virtual meeting, and will have some support.
Matt Bufus, band director at ETHS, is sending a video, praising the Butcher Boy school for helping students learn music production.
Patrick Hughes, development director at Byline Bank, is a long-time friend of Tullio and a member of the school’s advisory panel.
Hughes tells Evanston Now he hopes the Land Use Commission will “look at Tullio’s world and what he’s offering to the community.”
Tullio says he has assisted more than 30 students cut 64 music tracks, the equivalent of six albums.
He also tells Evanston Now that that if he loses the variance request, his mortgage benefactor may take the building back. But Tullio says there’s also a chance the benefactor will simply pay the $250,000-plus in taxes, and then donate the building to the production school.
But that’s apparently not a lock.
As for the school’s unusual name, “Butcher Boy,” Tullio says the building was once a butcher shop, and contained a “Butcher Boy” freezer, an item that’s still in the building.
The question now, will the city let the Butcher Boy carve up his property?