The Congress Theater, in the 2100 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, has been shuttered since 2013.

The Congress Theater, in the 2100 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, has been shuttered since 2013. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Sun-Times file photo

Congress Theater getting $69.2M renovation, including $9.6M city subsidy

Owners of Logan Square’s shuttered but historic Congress Theater got the go-ahead Tuesday for a $69.2 million renovation that will restore live music to a nearly century-old building where Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis once played.

With help from a $9.6 million city subsidy, developer Michael Moyer hopes to host up to 125 live music shows a year at the renovated 4,900 seat theater.

That would happen after his investment group completes a redevelopment plan at the venue, 2135 N. Milwaukee, that includes a 30-room boutique hotel, 16,000 square feet of ground floor retail and restoration of 14 now-vacant apartments that will remain affordable after the renovation.

The project also includes a 100 unit residential building adjacent to the Congress Theater with at least 30 percent of the units earmarked for affordable housing.

The plan unanimously approved by the Community Development Commission calls for the long-awaited project to be financed, in part, by a $9.6 million subsidy generated by the surrounding Fullerton-Milwaukee tax-increment-financing (TIF) district. Another $800,000 TIF subsidy will be earmarked for the residential building.

Legendary Chuck Berry, who died in 2017, played at the Congress Theater in 2011 at the age of 84. | Sun-Times file photo

Legendary Chuck Berry, who died in 2017, played at the Congress Theater in 2011 at the age of 84. | Sun-Times file photo

The Congress was built in 1926 — in the Classical Revival and Italian Renaissance style — and originally operated as an ornate movie theater.

Moyer served as managing member of PalMet Venture LLC, which was established to redevelop the $120 million historic mixed-use block adjacent to City Hall that included the renovation of the Cadillac Palace theater and the Hotel Allegro.

Tuesday’s vote marked a major turnaround for the Logan Square theater where Berry and Lewis once strutted their stuff.

Built during the 1920s, the Congress was designated in 2002 as a Chicago landmark and more recently earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

In April 2013, the city threw the book at the Congress Theater after the latest in a string of failed inspections.

The city’s lengthy motion detailed 26 violations at the theater, including a faulty electrical system, bare electrical cable wires strewn throughout the basement and defective lights.

“Based on the dangerous and hazardous nature of the building code violations, it is clear that the Congress Theater is a public nuisance and the continued operation of the business poses a continued harm to the occupants and the public,” the city’s motion said.

The theater’s ventilation system and a fire curtain tailor-made to prevent a fire from spreading were City Hall’s biggest concerns, but subsequently passed a city inspection.

That prompted a court order reducing occupancy on the theater’s first floor from 4,500 to 3000, and requiring then-owner Eddie Carranza to staff each event with two fire guards to help with overcrowding and guide concertgoers in case of a fire.

Concertgoers were further ordered to remain on the first floor of the theater because the second floor remained closed while staff worked to fix a backup generator.

The theater also agreed to have two fire guards and one stage fire guard at all shows to ensure safety and to guide concertgoers in case of an emergency, according to the order.

Five weeks later, the embattled Congress Theater was stripped of its liquor and business licenses.

It happened after a city hearing officer found the theater violated city codes “because within 12 consecutive months 5 separate incidents occurred on the licensed premises while the establishment was open for business involving acts that violated a state law regulating narcotics or controlled substances.”

In four disciplinary hearings, the city detailed alleged drug-related incidents and other alleged violations at the popular music venue in Logan Square.

They included allegations that staffers failed to call 911 to report a large fight during a Chief Keef rap concert in April 2012 and didn’t cooperate with police when seven underage concertgoers were let into a concert.

Carranza promised to appeal, but told the Chicago Sun-Times in a text message, “I don’t have the resources and money the city has to keep going on with court hearings.”

“We built a very strong music brand and revived a forgotten theater building. There will be plenty of buyers and operators interested in [taking] over our business,” Carranza wrote.

Carranza suggested then that he was being forced to sell. “The liquor commissioner sent a clear message he has some personal issue with me operating my theater,” he wrote.

The theater closed later that year and has been shuttered ever since.

In 2015, Palmet Ventures purchased the theater for $16 million.

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