Three-and-a-half years after Logan Square residents took a final look inside the Congress Theater during a community open house, the curtain has finally been pulled back on another major component of the plan: a 10-story residential building to sit on the corner of Milwaukee and Rockwell. One of Chicago's many grand movie palaces, the Congress Theater has a turbulent history, but a $69 million restoration is in the works to breathe new life into the structure and revitalize a once sleepy stretch of Milwaukee Avenue.
But is the Congress Theater’s costly overhaul coming to a halt?
False starts are nothing new when it comes to ambitious historic preservation projects. It's a theme that residents of the Uptown community are all too familiar with when it comes to the Uptown Theatre’s long struggle to be restored. But the Congress Theater is a different story. Milwaukee Avenue and Logan Square are booming, with thousands of new apartments being delivered in just a few short years and more on the way. There’s a political will to see the Congress Theater renovated and millions in TIF dollars and historic tax credits are being offered to help ensure its completion.
Its future, however, is tied to a plan that Congress Theater owner Michael Moyer presented to a local community group in Logan Square earlier this week. The developer made a pitch to deliver 117 apartments to Milwaukee Avenue, and, as Block Club Chicago reported, expressed a sense of urgency to see this part of the proposal approved. He went so far as to suggest that the Congress Theater renovation will stall unless the proposed 10-story rental building is passed.
While the plan to include a residential building is nothing new — formal paperwork filed by Moyer’s New Congress, LLC with the city in 2016 asked for 184 total residences and 50 hotel rooms — Logan Square neighbors are only just now getting their first look at a draft design for the proposed building. Renderings reveal a design from Woodhouse Tinucci Architects of a long, rectangular building with a facade that increasingly expands towards the street at each level. The dark, blocky ornamental panels speak a similar design language of other recent Milwaukee Avenue arrivals, such as 1611 W. Division, the L Logan Square apartments, and the infamous twin high-rises at Milwaukee and California.
As a concession for the added density, 30 percent of the units planned for the residential building are being offered at affordable rental rates as described by the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance — a substantial bump from the 10 percent typically mandated by the city. However, as a project within the Milwaukee Avenue ARO Pilot receiving TIF assistance, New Congress, LLC would have to provide a minimum of 20% affordable units for such a plan.
But as developers continue piling into Logan Square with upscale rental developments, some residents have grown weary of the constant construction, the strain on the already overburdened Blue Line, and the changing character and socioeconomic shift that these newer upscale rental high-rises represent, says Logan Square resident Daniel La Spata, who is running for the aldermanic seat in the 1st Ward. He adds that it’s also a tough position in which to place residents who have longed to see a renewed and revitalized Congress Theater.
“The public is already contributing to this plan with their tax dollars whether they asked them to be allocated or not,” La Spata says of the $9.6 million in public financial assistance being allocated for the site's renovation. “If you purchased this building with the intentions of a historic renovation, it’s unfair to say to the community that if they don’t agree to the density, height, and zero parking — things the community has strong positions on — then I’m going to choose to let this theater to sit idle.”
But as the construction boom continues into one more autumn, the rising cost of labor and materials, combined with competition among recently completed developments, has worried some real estate insiders of a potential bubble and subsequent credit crunch. Financing has also tightened, with lenders choosing to take safer routes instead of investing in more ambitious creative endeavors and historic adaptive reuse efforts.
As Jim Lasko puts it: “The unproven is hard to convince people as a great investment." The former executive artistic director of Redmoon Theater, which shuttered in 2015, has been working with his business partners to open Guild Row, a venture that will bring an event space and industrial kitchen, among other attractions, to a row of industrial buildings along the Chicago River in Avondale. “We needed to work with people who were excited about the mission and our idea to help foster a greater sense of self and cultural activity, and those people were ready to take a risk," he says. "But from a purely economic sense, it’s a tough sell.”
Still, many Logan Square residents remain hopeful that the Congress Theater will one day be revitalized and return as a contributing asset to a thriving Milwaukee Avenue. But residents can also do without the perceived politicking and fatigue from the constant debate over the flurry of major proposals for Logan Square, says longtime resident and Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association member Joe Kopera.
Additionally, Kopera adds, local stakeholders are ready to see more resident-driven planning initiations from the city-adopted Milwaukee Avenue Corridor Plan implemented, a document which Kopera and the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association helped shape. Community-focused ideas illustrated in the corridor plan includes an emphasis on streetscaping and amenities that foster pedestrian activity and recreation.
“I’ve always wanted to see the Congress theater restored and brought back,” Kopera says. “But not one resident idea has been implemented — only developer ideas.”