A rendering shows developers' plans to overhaul the Royal George Theatre into an apartment building. Credit: Twitter/Department of Planning and Development

LINCOLN PARK — Long-delayed plans to convert the old Royal George Theatre into apartments cleared a key hurdle to becoming reality.

The Chicago Plan Commission voted Thursday to approve Draper & Kramer’s rezoning request that will allow the developers to tear down the closed theater at 1641 N. Halsted St. and build an nine-story apartment building with ground-floor retail.

The plan now goes to City Council review.

The Royal George Theatre was a staple in Chicago’s theater scene. It closed during the pandemic in 2020 and never reopened.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said he was “in full support” of the project, as did business leaders from the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce and Steppenwolf Theater, which sits across the street and would partner with Draper & Kramer to rent out 15 percent of its apartments at an affordable rate for visiting artists.

But neighbors fiercely opposed the proposal, arguing the building would tower over neighbors in the nearby HOB neighborhood, named after Howard, Orchard and Burling streets.

“We are very concerned about the neighbors to the east of this project,” leaders from the Ranch Triangle and Lincoln Central neighborhood associations wrote in a joint letter. “This project looms over them and their voices have been silenced with the proposed negotiated deal.”

An earlier rendering of the Royal George Theatre development. Credit: Provided

Draper & Kramer first pitched the project to Hopkins in June 2021 as a 192-unit apartment building, which Hopkins told them needed to be scaled down before presenting plans to neighbors, said Rich Klawiter, an attorney for the developers.

Since then, the project has been scaled back to 131 apartments, Klawiter said. The size of the upper floors were also scaled back with setbacks on the top two floors.

Other changes include improving the building’s facade by using more brickwork at the ground level along with vertical terra cotta accents, Klawiter said.

The developers have also agreed to Hopkins’ request that they contribute $300,000 toward the construction of new parkland at the southwest corner of Larrabee Street and North Avenue, Hopkins said.

The park space, which was once a portion of Ogden Avenue’s right-of-way, will increase Park 598’s size ahead of the Chicago Park District’s planned makeover of the area, Hopkins said.

“The project will connect the entire park with the greater neighborhood by bringing it underneath the CTA tracks and all the way north to North Avenue,” Hopkins wrote to his constituents prior to the meeting.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) speaks during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Developers shared during a June 2022 community meeting the building would have a mix of studios, “traditional” one-bedroom apartments, loft-style one-bedrooms, two-bedrooms and three-bedrooms.

Because the site is 463 feet from the North/Clybourn CTA station, the building qualifies as a transit-oriented development, developers said last year. As such, plans for the building include 35 off-street parking spaces.

Residents would be restricted from getting on-street parking permits, Hopkins said.

One neighbor who lives in Ranch Triangle near the proposed development, said during the meeting she opposes the project because it doesn’t conform with neighboring buildings.

“The building would be more than double the height of buildings behind it on Burling,” she said. “One of the claims is that there’s ‘precedent’ for this development, but one of my concerns is the next developer will claim precedent for another massive building.”

Brooke Flanagan, executive director of Steppenwolf, said she felt the proposed building’s design would complement the “artistic” architecture of the theater, which debuted a new theater and education building in 2021.

She said the project would “increase vibrancy indicators of our neighborhood and elevate the community and density of our cultural corridor, increasing patronage at the many restaurants that call Halsted Street home.”

Kim Schilf, president and CEO of the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce, also said the apartment building would have a positive effect on local businesses.

“It will provide much-needed density to the corridor, increasing foot traffic and creating a larger pool of residents to spend dollars locally,” Schilf said.

The proposal will now go before the city’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards at its Sept. 12 meeting.

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