Our Pledge To You

Entertainment and Culture

Community Development Commission signs off on $75M Uptown Theatre restoration

The closed Uptown Theater in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The closed Uptown Theater in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A $75 million plan to restore Chicago’s storied Uptown Theatre and make it the centerpiece for an Uptown music district took a giant leap forward on Tuesday.

The Community Development Commission authorized the city’s Department of Planning and Development to negotiate a redevelopment agreement with Farpoint Acquisitions LLC and Uptown HM Investments LLC, an affiliate of JAM Productions, to renovate the landmark theater at 4816 N. Broadway.

The department was further authorized to sell a city-owned parking lot at 1130 W. Lawrence Ave. to those same developers for the bargain price of $1 for the Uptown’s use.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has long promised to create an Uptown music district that includes the Uptown, the Aragon Ballroom, the Riviera Theatre, the Green Mill jazz lounge and the Uptown Underground cabaret.

A look inside the Uptown Theatre on June 29, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A $125 million plan to use his slow-starting Infrastructure Trust as the financing vehicle after owner Jerry Mickelson gave up ownership subsequently fell through when Gov. Bruce Rauner nixed a $10 million state grant and Emanuel pulled the plug on the Trust deal.

The revised agreement approved Tuesday will be made possible with $26.3 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 the Infrastructure Trust had succeeded in saving the 93-year-old Uptown.

That jigsaw puzzle of funding: $13 million generated by 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 are scheduled to be completed this summer along portions of Broadway, Lawrence and Wilson Avenues, and Argyle Street. The project will include a new pedestrian plaza, a sculpture and a public stage in the 4700 block of North Racine Avenue.

Barring any unforeseen hiccups, construction is expected to begin in August 2019 with a certificate of occupancy and a grand opening at the new Uptown in February 2021.

Mickelson of JAM Productions said he has no doubt that the crown jewel of a theater that has stood stubbornly vacant and decaying since the J. Geils Band left the stage on Dec. 19, 1981 will come alive again, once it’s returned to its former glory.

RELATED: The Grid: Exploring the Uptown neighborhood

He noted that some of the biggest names in rock`n`roll played the Uptown. They include: Bruce Springsteen, Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Rod Stewart, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Prince, Rick James, Dire Straits, Hall & Oates and Billy Joel.

“It’s one of the nicest ever designed, ever built in this country. They’ll never do it again. It’s so grand, so ornate, so large. It’s got the same square footage as Radio City Music Hall. But, Radio City has more seats, which means that the lobbies, the loges are so spacious, so luxurious. It’s so unique in today’s world,” Mickelson said.

If the history is so great and the future so bright, Mickelson was asked why it took so long and such a lasagne of financing to put the deal together.

Community Development Commission members listen to developers of the Uptown Theatre discuss $75 million financing plans on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Community Development Commission members listen to developers of the Uptown Theatre discuss $75 million financing plans on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“To put $75 million into a theater in a neighborhood is really difficult. It took such a long time. Don’t forget, a lot of people passed on this theater. You had the Ilitch’s from Detroit who own the Red Wings that re-did the Fox Theater. They passed. You had Madison Square Garden look at it and pass,” Mickelson said.

“I was the only one who showed up at the foreclosure auction. It was a daunting project. We bought it in 2008. The economy cratered right then. And it wasn’t until Rahm got in office when it started to pick up and he realized the importance of that theater to creating an entertainment district for music.”

Emanuel added, “When I was mayor-elect, I said we were gonna make that an entertainment district and bring back the Uptown Theatre. You’re gonna see now that investment bear fruition…for the entire neighborhood. Uptown was an eyesore. Now, it’s gonna be a place for entertainment and jobs.”

Interior detail photos of the Uptown Theater, photographed Aug. 20, 1998. | John H. White/Sun-Times file photo.