A development team is proposing to convert the vacant Varsity Theater building into a 35-unit apartment building with nearly 10,000 square feet of retail that would wrap the alley to the adjacent Bookman’s Alley property.
Steve Rogin, the property’s longtime owner, in partnership with developer Campbell Coyle, presented details of the project at a First Ward virtual meeting on January 13.
Chris Dillion, president of Campbell Coyle Real Estate, said the plan calls for ground-floor retail to run from the Varsity building in the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue to Bookman’s Alley.
“Obviously this is a beloved place and we really have a vision to improve and celebrate the space,” Dillion said.
The developers are proposing what they call a “repurposed reuse” of the Varsity building. The building’s ground floor had several retail stores, including the clothing store The Gap, which closed shortly before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the theater, with its bowl-shaped auditorium, has been empty at the top of the street since it closed in August 1984.
The 35 apartments will include studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom units, Dillion said.
Three units would be affordable housing in accordance with the Evanston Inclusive Housing Ordinance.
“And the one thing I would say is important about this project, given the size of the Varsity Theater overall, these units will tend to be slightly larger than many other comparable bed-count units on the market,” he said. Dillion.
Dillion said the project is expected to generate a significant increase in property taxes. “And we’re really excited about this opportunity to reimagine and enhance Bookman’s Alley,” he said, “and really think about it as a destination for downtown Evanston – obviously, as we’re emerging from the pandemic – thinking about the wonderful experiences that everyone can enjoy. share in that space.”
Saving the theater first preference of some
Some residents of the virtual gathering mourned the loss of the varsity under the plan and wondered if there were any steps that could be taken to save it.
When it opened on December 24, 1926, the 2,500-seat theater “was one of the largest suburban Chicago movie palaces ever built and also one of the most spectacular,” according to a description on the website cinematreasures.org.
“It was designed like a French royal castle from the era of François I, and no expense was spared in luxury by its original owner, Clyde Elliot, an Evanston native who worked in Hollywood for many years.”
Clare Kelly, First Ward Council member, meeting moderator and lifelong Evanston resident, recalled that she used to go to the movies at the theater and remembered “the stars on the ceiling and the castle.
“So, of course, many of us would love it if it could stay,” she said.
In 2018, Landmarks Illinois named the Varsity Theater block as one of Illinois’ most endangered historic sites.
The preservation group noted that Sherman’s 1700 block is one of the last remaining historically intact blocks in downtown Evanston.
“A survey of historic downtown buildings was conducted in 2007 by the Evanston Preservation Commission,” the group said. “This research identified the former Varsity Theatre, a building designed by JEO Pridmore in 1926, located at 1706-10 Sherman Avenue, as having historical and/or architectural merit, making its reference potential a topic for future discussion. These buildings are important contributors to the desired physical context and character of downtown Evanston.”
Several community members at the meeting submitted questions, asking if historic tax credits could be used to save the theater.
Rogin said the tax credits only apply if the original use of the space is maintained.
“This is not an economic model that works,” he said.
“We had many conversations with professionals about this. So unfortunately, both from a development financial standpoint and other things in terms of space usage, we still haven’t found anyone who says it’s a viable option.”
Theater size ‘simply not a viable model’, says owner
Posing another question about the possibility of an establishment like Music Box moving into the space, Rogin said he spoke with theater architects and others, exploring the possibilities.
“This is an incredibly large space,” he said. “When it opened in the mid-1920s, it was the biggest theater outside the city of Chicago. And today this model is not viable. The way the audience gathers and the size of the space is simply no longer a viable model in Evanston, or any small community.
“I’ve scratched my head many times over the years, long before I bought this theater, about ‘Why aren’t these theaters repurposed, reused?’” Rogin continued.
If there’s a reason, he said, it’s the economic model. “Unless you have a big donor or a big check from a county, it’s not feasible,” he said.
Carl Klein, a resident and historic preservation expert, pointed to the block’s status as one of the last blocks in downtown Evanston with intact historic buildings.
“We’ve been waiting since 1980, when the Varsity Theater closed, to develop this space,” he said. “What is two more years to find a use that can generate much more income than housing and help revitalize our downtown?”
Rogin challenged that premise.
“Specifically, what would you propose to awaken that vitality?” he asked.
Klein noted that Evanston already had many housing projects downtown.
“I’m not asking for this,” said Rogin, who has spent several years seeking city support for the theater space renovation.
“What specifically would you propose?” he asked.
The development group will next go ahead of the city’s Land Use Commission, seeking at least one major variation — permission to use only the three current parking spaces on site when the city’s zoning code requires a minimum of 28 spaces. . In similar situations, such as the Northlight Theater project, a developer agreed to make up the difference by renting space on a nearby lot or in one of the city’s garages.
“We are obviously working on the zoning process,” Dillion said. “This [the Ward meeting] marks the beginning of this process. And so we are looking to work with the city and community to navigate that process.”
He said the hope is that construction can begin this summer, leading to a completion in late 2023.