Emanuel unveils $75M plan to restore historic Uptown Theater

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The interior of the Uptown Theater. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Nearly three years ago, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) approached Mayor Rahm Emanuel with a warning about Chicago’s storied but decaying Uptown Theater with the potential to, as Cappleman put it, “destroy my political career.”

A $125 million plan to use Emanuel’s slow-starting Infrastructure Trust as a vehicle to restore the Uptown after owner Jerry Mickelson gave up ownership had fallen through when Gov. Bruce Rauner nixed a $10 million state grant and Emanuel pulled the plug on the Trust deal.

“I went back to the mayor…and said, `You’re now approaching a time where it will be too little, too late. Someone will have to make a decision to demolish it..I know it will destroy my political career. But it would be a white elephant. It wouldn’t be fair to the community. And I would be willing to make that awful choice,” Cappleman recalled.

“But before that happened, I was gonna fight like hell to restore this theater.”

On Friday, Cappleman’s “fight-like-hell” crusade had a happy ending.

Emanuel joined Jam Productions and Farpoint Development to announce a scaled-down, $75 million plan to restore the Uptown and fulfill the mayor’s 2011 promise to create an Uptown Music District that includes the Uptown theater at 4816 N. Broadway, the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theater, the Green Mill jazz lounge and the Uptown Underground cabaret.

The marquee at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The marquee at the Uptown Theater in Chicago. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

The long-awaited agreement will be made possible with $30 million in “equity and conventional financing” and a massive infusion of government money that far exceeds the taxpayer help that would have been required if only the Infrastructure Trust had succeeded in saving the 93-year-old Uptown.

That jigsaw puzzle of funding includes $13 million from the surrounding tax-incrementing-financing (TIF) district; $3 million in “Adopt-a-Landmark” funds; $14 million from the state’s “property assessed Clean Energy Act; $8.7 million in federal tax credits and $10 million from the Build Illinois bond fund.

Chicago taxpayers will also contribute $6 million to improve the streetscape that will define the Uptown Theater District.

Streetscape improvements along portions of Broadway, Lawrence, Wilson and Argyle will include a new pedestrian plaza, a sculpture and a public stage in the 4700 block of North Racine.

“This has been empty for three decades. If it was easy, it would have been done a long time ago,” Emanuel told the Sun-Times.

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman added, “You look at it as a jigsaw puzzle. I would say that it’s basically having many parties come to the table to share the risk that this project represents in a way that minimizes the possibilities of it failing.”

Cappleman noted that across the country, theater restoration has been done almost exclusively with public money.

“It’s very difficult now to do it with all private money. It can’t be done,” he said.

Friday was a day for Emanuel, Cappleman and Mickelson to celebrate, not to dwell on the earlier stumble.

They were just thrilled that the massive crown jewel of a theater — that has stood stubbornly vacant and decaying since the J. Geils Band left the stage on Dec. 19, 1981 — would be restored to its former glory and come alive again.

“From `75 to `81, we put on some of the biggest names in rock’n’roll: Bruce Springsteen, Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Rod Stewart, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Billy Joel . . . Everybody played it,” Mickelson said.

“The same type of acts are gonna come back and play it again. Except they’ll be today’s superstars.”

Emanuel first mentioned the idea of an Uptown Music District shortly before taking office.

“I had gone to see Adele at the Riviera. And I said, `We need an entertainment music district. It will be a shot in the arm in a way that the Old Town School of Folk Music was for the Lincoln Square community,’” the mayor recalled Friday.

“It’s taken us a little longer than I wanted. But here we are.”

Now, Emanuel can only hope that the complex deal he has cobbled together holds long enough to restore a building that was the world’s largest theater when it opened in 1925 and that Mickelson can keep it busy enough to make it viable.

“Jerry said he’s already got an artist calling who wants to book the next five New Year’s Eves” at the Uptown, the mayor said.

“Artists are always — I know this from my brother [Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel]. I know this from Jerry — looking for new venues, new settings where they can do something different. That’s also true for the music-loving audience…I have all the confidence. We have opened up multiple new venues and all of `em are doing well.”

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