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$10 million in seed money could help save historic Uptown Theatre

Renovating the historic Uptown Theatre is the “missing piece” to creating an entertainment district in the North Side neighborhood, proponents say. And that effort just got a $10 million boost.

A House Bill which included the appropriation for the theater — pushed by Senate President John Cullerton (D) — passed both houses of the Illinois Legislature last week. It’s the first major investment in the theater since it was purchased by JAM Productions in 2008.

“We’re happy to help jumpstart that project. Of course we know it’s just upward of $70 million for the theater’s full renovation but he still wanted to jumpstart it,” said Rikeesha Pheon, a spokeswoman for Cullerton. “He thinks it could be the centerpiece of Uptown.”

The massive movie palace on Broadway, just north of Lawrence Avenue was built in 1925. It officially closed its doors in 1981. But it was still being used for tours, special events like weddings and dinners until about three years ago. Last year, the fourth Transformers movie was filmed in the theater. JAM Productions bought the theater in 2008 for $3.2 million.

The renovation estimate is being ballparked at between $50 and $70 million, according to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who said the theater’s revival is pivotal to reawakening the neighborhood.

“This is critical. The Urban Land Institute in 2000 said if we really want to have a really vibrant area, it’s dependent on three things,” Cappleman said.

Those things, he said, were:

• A big-box retailer — and there’s now a Target store.

• Fixing the Wilson Red Line station — and a $203 million project is underway.

• Saving the Uptown.

“Those three pieces are critical to really pushing ahead the retail in this area,” Cappleman said.

Cappleman and the city, backed by Mayor Emanuel, have big plans for a new entertainment district in the neighborhood. But there have been some recent troubles. In January, the city took the theater’s owners to court because of water damage due to lack of heat.

Still, Cappleman is excited about the entertainment district plans, which include a plaza in front of the Riviera Theater and an art installation near the former Borders building. He’s also working with the city’s Department of Planning to get parking in place to encourage a buyer for the Borders building. A portion of parking near the area would be lost to the planned CTA Belmont Flyover project.

“We’ve looked at all different types of scenarios but the latest is an attractive restaurant. That’s for people who leave the theater, to have more restaurant options,” Cappleman said. “We already have some incredible restaurants for when we have that huge crowd. But we want something that’s going to attract more foot traffic during the day. We’ve got the night life down. It’s now time to focus on daytime foot traffic.”

Andy Pierce is a former Uptown resident and founding member of Friends of the Uptown, a group supporting the theater’s restoration.

“With its three lobbies, 4,300 seat auditorium and auxiliary space, it needs to function for as many entertainment events [as it can] — concerts, conventions, meetings, special events, photos movies, you name them. Whomever wants to use that space, it needs to do as many dates as it can to pay its bills and to fund this really large complex historic buliding.”