Tyler Nevius of Brooklyn has a daunting to-do list for the new year. It includes raising nearly $5 million in equity and more than $10 million in debt and completing requirements for city and state subsidies, all to embark on a venture with a property that’s been unused for almost 35 years.
It’s a bold quest, and it will take substantial public support to pull it off. But if it works, Nevius could well become the toast of Bridgeport, the South Side neighborhood that hasn’t always welcomed interest from outsiders.
His task at hand is to revive the Ramova Theatre at 3518 S. Halsted St. It’s a movie house built in 1929, but it’s been a blight on the neighborhood since it closed. The interior, remembered for the starry-night effect of its auditorium ceiling and the Spanish courtyard style of its lobby, became a peeling, water-damaged mess. Had the city not carried out emergency repairs after buying the property in 2001, the place would have been a lost cause.
Its challenges have been too much for others over the years. But Nevius said, “We’re pumped for it.” He wants to make it a destination for live entertainment and community events and provide a restaurant and brewery on the site.
“It’s a great neighborhood that has all the components for success. But that stretch of Halsted has been slow to see improvements,” Nevius said. “There hasn’t been that anchor. … I think that we could have a tremendous impact in the community.”
Nevius is senior vice president at Endeavor, the giant talent agency whose co-CEO is Ari Emanuel, brother of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While Nevius said the brothers support the Ramova project, neither are investors. He won’t get into other equity partners yet, although he is working with Kevin Hickey, owner of the Michelin-rated restaurant the Duck Inn, for the dining component. Aside from the brewery, plans call for reviving the old Ramova Grill, a theater neighbor that closed in 2012. Nevius has signed on McHugh Construction as a general contractor and architect Dan O’Riley, formerly of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The project is budgeted at $22.9 million.
Nevius has worked for Endeavor or a corporate predecessor for eight years. Before that, the former Wicker Park resident was a management consultant. He also spent seven years as a soldier and officer in the Army.
His connections to top talent will help, along with experience with live music events. “We’re going to have bluegrass, R&B, country. There are a lot of bands that have grown up in Chicago that we would like to bring in,” he said.
The Ramova has an 1,800-seat auditorium. Nevius said it’s possible the balcony can be converted into its own 200-person venue to allow for a broader range of acts. “It’s critical for us to have community bookings,” he said. “We want Chicago police and fire events, local trade groups and schools. We have the staffing models so we can accommodate that.”
One reason his plan has advanced is that he has deals with adjacent owners to buy their property. Because it was designed only for movies, the Ramova has no room behind its screen. For a backstage, plus the dining, Revius’ firm, Our Revival Chicago, will buy two, two-story commercial buildings immediately north of the theater. For parking, he’s buying a lot southeast on Halsted. The three acquisitions will cost $4.05 million, according to city officials.
The other big piece is the government help. Under terms the city’s Community Development Commission endorsed Dec. 10, Nevius gets the city-owned theater and a vacant lot next to it for $1. They were appraised together at $570,000. There’s also tax increment financing worth up to $6.64 million.
The theater’s rezoning is due to go before the Chicago Plan Commission in January and the City Council shortly thereafter. The Ramova would get a landmark designation as part of the deal. Nevius said he hopes to start work this spring and be open by summer 2021.
The project is within the 11th Ward of Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, an enthusiastic supporter. He said it’s the first time he’s backed TIF money for anything other than public works. TIF has been broadly criticized as a gift to developers building ritzy neighborhoods, but that doesn’t apply here. “The Ramova is the poster child for what TIF was developed for,” Nevius said.
Bridgeport’s part of Halsted Street has been a laggard compared with the area’s strong housing market. It gets crowds from the White Sox games, but they have little incentive to stick around. A little more nightlife could help the commercial stretch and the Ramova could be just the ticket.