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After a pandemic pause, developer picks up plan at Bridgeport’s Ramova Theatre

Tyler Nevius says his backers remain in place and he hopes to reopen the 1929 movie house as a performing arts venue by late 2022.

Developer Tyler Nevius outside the Ramova Theatre at 3518 S. Halsted St., where he plans a redevelopment of the former movie house into a performing arts center.
Mengshin Lin/Sun-Times

For anyone who likes old Chicago movie houses or performance venues, those ornate places meant to transport patrons of years past to a romanticized place far away, I have good news and — well — I won’t call it bad news, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

To the good news: Despite the pandemic, which has knocked the props from under any business in the performing arts or that requires crowds to gather, a developer is undeterred in his plans to restore Bridgeport’s Ramova Theatre at 3518 S. Halsted St.

The Ramova deal is one of those dreamy projects that seemingly had no chance against the economic imperatives forced by a pathogen that silenced some businesses, helped others and generally led investors in risky projects to say, “Whoa.”

But Tyler Nevius said he’s still ready and able to proceed at the Ramova, despite having to put plans on hold for a year.

“I think out of respect and to be totally fair to our lenders and others, we had to wait and see what things looked like on the other end,” he said.

Now, with more vaccines in distribution and public gathering spots slowly reopening, Nevius said the outlook appears better.

He said the pandemic taught him a lesson as a developer.

“The quality of the team is everything. You need a group that is product — and service first, besides being resilient,” he said.

Turning the Ramova into a community hub as a performing arts center, with a brewpub and a reimagining of the old Ramova Grill, was always a “cause-focused project.” The delay during our plague only reinforces that mission, he said.

A rendering of the renovated Ramova Theatre, 3518 S. Halsted St.
A rendering of the renovated Ramova Theatre, 3518 S. Halsted St.
O’Riley Office

The project has its necessary authorizations from the city, including an agreement for up to $6.64 million in tax-increment financing. Nevius said he now plans to begin work in late spring or early summer and have the project completed in late 2022.

He also said he’s lost no backers for the project. He declines to name most. Nevius said the Ramova has performing artists whose names are well-known around here inquiring about support in some manner, but he won’t drop any names yet.

“If you look at the totality of the city of Chicago, it’s unbelievably rich in its creative history. So there are people very excited about this,” he said. Nevius is a senior finance executive in the entertainment field, so he has helpful contacts.

One partner joining Nevius is David Baum, managing principal of Baum Revision, a development firm that’s an outgrowth of his longtime work brokering leases for retail space. Baum has won numerous honors for building renovations, including the Green Exchange at 2545 W. Diversey Ave., the former Cooper Lamp factory redone as an eco-friendly office building anchored by Coyote Logistics.

Remaining with Nevius as a partner is Kevin Hickey, a prominent chef and owner of the Michelin-rated restaurant The Duck Inn.

Neighbors will welcome any progress at the Ramova, which has been empty and decaying for about 35 years. The cinema was built in 1929, the work of architect Myer O. Nathan. It’s considered a twin of the Music Box Theatre on the North Side. Getting the Ramova back in shape would give Bridgeport a commercial anchor and do a little for South Side pride as well.

While the smaller Music Box has been lovingly preserved, the Ramova was neglected. The city got control and paid for emergency work in 2001 after water damage threatened to wreck the interior beyond salvation. Many who grew up in Bridgeport remember its lobby in the style of a Spanish courtyard and the faux stars in the auditorium ceiling.

Nevius’ $22.9 million plan calls for dividing the 1,800-seat auditorium into two performance spaces. The balcony can be converted into space for acts drawing about 200 people. He also has emphasized a desire to host events for schools and community groups.

Now, to the disappointment. It appears the pandemic has snuffed out a complex deal to restore the Uptown Theatre at 4816 N. Broadway, the landmark Rapp & Rapp design closed since 1981.

Jerry Mickelson, head of Jam Productions, has been trying to put together the fiscal pieces to restore it. In 2018, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Farpoint Development had joined with Mickelson to pull together the equity, loans, tax credits and incentives needed for an estimated $75 million project.

Sources said Farpoint is no longer involved because private money for the Uptown couldn’t be found. The company’s focus is the development of the former Michael Reese Hospital property. Farpoint’s founding principal, Scott Goodman, declined to comment. Mickelson could not be reached.

With 4,300 seats, the Uptown is massive. Its promoters long ago called it “an acre of seats in a magic city.” For decades, it’s been too big to fill. It can’t be knocked down, but it needs a reason to stay up.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel surveys the auditorium of the Uptown Theatre with owner Jerry Mickelson in 2018.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel surveys the auditorium of the Uptown Theatre with owner Jerry Mickelson in 2018.
Sun-Times files