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Why the Uptown Theatre Restoration is a Big Deal

After a 35-year long hiatus, the Roaring Twenties-era stage is returning to the spotlight.

Empty but prominent for decades, the Uptown is getting a new lease on life.   Photo: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Imagine what the elaborate interiors of the Uptown Theatre looked like in its heyday; a generation of Chicagoans and visitors have had to over the last three decades as the behemoth Roaring Twenties-era movie palace stood vacant. Thanks to an ambitious restoration plan which includes property owner Jam Productions and developer partner Farpoint Development, a $75 million overhaul will bring a new answer.

The costly overhaul of the long-shuttered Uptown Theatre is almost more akin to the major adaptive reuse efforts seen in downtown projects, representing one of the biggest public/private investments outside of the city’s center in recent years, and one that is likely to further catalyze the Uptown entertainment district and retail corridor.

The Uptown community has been pleading for action on the Uptown Theatre for a number of years now, but it seems that right pieces and players have only come together just recently, says Andy Pierce, a volunteer with the Friends of the Uptown Theatre group. A petition created by Pierce last summer garnered 6,000 signatures within six weeks. And despite previous grant deals and commitments to bring the Uptown back to life, Pierce believes that this latest effort is the real deal.

“We’ve never had the right team, momentum, and resources to make this happen, but now you have a combination of owner, developer, mayor, planning commissioner, and alderman working together to save the Uptown,” Pierce says. “This is a different level of commitment—we have construction industry professionals reaching out for blueprints and information, indicating a sign that something serious is happening.”

But like any other long-vacant giant being reimagined—think the Congress Theater in Logan Square, the Old Main Post Office in the West Loop Gate, and Cook County Hospital on the Near West Side—the Uptown Theatre cannot stand alone. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” Pierce adds, commenting on the other investments and major development that Uptown has witnessed in recent years. It’s yet another case of the chicken-or-egg scenario with neighborhood development: Would a restored Uptown Theatre have driven new economic development over the last few decades, or did it take years of investment in other arenas before it would finally reach the Uptown Theatre?

Martin Sorge, executive director of Uptown United, an organization focused on economic development in the neighborhood, believes that the city’s ongoing investment in public transit and improving CTA stations in the area has encouraged continued investment in older buildings in the neighborhood–which is one of the city’s most densely populated and diverse communities.

But with a restored Uptown Theatre comes new opportunities and some new challenges, Sorge suggests.

“The Uptown Theatre hasn’t contributed to foot traffic since it closed, but once it reopens, it’ll be a complete 180,” says Sorge. “We’re going to get a big influx of people coming for shows, but we want to think about how these venues can be used when concerts aren’t happening—what are some different ways to keep people coming five or six days a week to support the local businesses?”

While a restored Uptown Theatre is exciting to local stakeholders and preservationists, one detail that is likely to cause a stir is the use of public funds for the effort. According to the mayor’s office, the project will receive financial assistant via a buffet of public funds and tax rebates—to the tune of roughly $45 million. Preservation Chicago’s Ward Miller, a longtime advocate of Chicago architecture and historic preservation says that these types of incentives shouldn’t be viewed as giveaways.

“I think the incentives are needed in some areas,” Miller says. “Once you get people in there to start working on these projects, it starts getting very costly. These are big challenges and we’re sympathetic to the amount of time and money it takes to complete them.”

A similar project—the restoration of the Congress Theater in Logan Square—is also being performed with the help of TIF dollars. In addition, the Congress Theater redevelopment also includes a boutique hotel and a new 120-unit apartment building to be constructed on what is currently a vacant lot just across the street on Rockwell Avenue.

A renewed Uptown Theatre will not only set the stage for a thriving Uptown entertainment district, but it has the potential to become one of Chicago’s most important cultural and tourist attractions, says Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois. However, McDonald acknowledges that these major restoration projects can be some of the most challenging to accomplish, leading historically important structures like the Uptown Theatre to remain vacant and deteriorating over the years. And in many ways, neighborhood development is a game of follow the leader.

“These projects are complicated and the longer these buildings are neglected, there’s more deferred maintenance,” McDonald says. “It can take quite a bit of time to assemble the pieces and resources, but as developers start to see more activity happening, it can demonstrate to banks that there is a viable market.”

But if there’s any silver lining to the fact that the Uptown Theatre has sat mothballed as long as it has, it’s that there is now a lengthy list of successful movie palace restorations to study, Andy Pierce with Friends of the Uptown believes.

“We have the benefit of thirty to forty years of theater restoration to get this one right. It’s been closed for about that long, but unless there’s one hiding out there, this is last great theater to be restored.”

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