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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Neighbors Say Congress Theater Overhaul Being Held Hostage By Moreno, Developer

Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) spent much of the meeting defending the apartment project, saying it will provide "tremendous benefits" to the community.

New renderings show what a seven-story tower proposed next to the Congress Theater would look like.
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LOGAN SQUARE — At a community meeting held Monday evening, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) vehemently defended the controversial apartment building proposed next to the Congress Theater to skeptical neighbors.

As first reported by Block Club, the roughly $70 million restoration of the notoriously run-down theater depends on the money generated from the new residential project. In other words, the restoration work will come to a screeching halt unless the apartment building gets built.

The proposal calls for a seven-story modern apartment building with ground-floor retail on the vacant lot just north of the Congress Theater along Rockwell Street.

Longtime resident Carrie Cochran was one of several neighbors who lambasted developer Michael Moyer and Moreno at Monday’s meeting, held at Haas Park Fieldhouse, for passing off the building as a “fair trade” for the restored theater.

“Now [Moyer] is pleading poverty at the last minute. ‘I can’t afford to do the building at the last minute unless you accept this building,'” Cochran said. “I feel extorted.”

Cochran went on, saying, “We’re delighted someone wants to restore [the Congress Theater] — there’s been a lot of thought put into this. But the trade is to accept this thing that seems to offend so many people.”

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Longtime Logan Square resident Carrie Cochran was one of several residents who spoke in opposition to the project at Monday’s community meeting.

Said neighbor Julie Zamudio: “I think very few people are against the Congress being renovated. It’s the other building people have a problem with.”

RELATED: Congress Rehab Won’t Happen Until 10-Story Tower Gets Built Next Door, Developer Says

Of the 72 total units — a mix of studios, one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms — 30 percent of them would be reserved as affordable housing, which is more than the city’s affordable requirements ordinance requires. 

If approved, construction on the development isn’t expected to start until 2020.

Credit: Provided
New renderings show what a 7-story building proposed next to the Congress Theater would look like.

The proposed project is now smaller than what was pitched to the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association and other residents in September. That proposal called for a 10-story tower with 117 apartments.

The main difference between the two proposals, zoning attorney Rolando Acosta said, is the revised proposal incorporates a plaza.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
A hastily-taken vote at Monday’s community meeting.

The changes didn’t impress many of the neighbors at Monday’s meeting. They said the building is still too large and will add to what one resident described as the “Manhattan skyscraper” effect forming along Logan Square’s Milwaukee Avenue. Others took issue with its modern design and the fact that it doesn’t offer any family-sized three-bedroom apartments, which they say are desperately needed in the gentrifying neighborhood.

Moreno spent much of the hour-and-a-half-long meeting defending the project while also insisting that he hasn’t decided whether or not he will support the zoning change that’s required to get it off the ground.

The alderman said the project, particularly the affordable housing units, offers “tremendous benefits” to the community.

“Saying no is the easiest thing, but my responsibility is to do right-size development. We’re going above and beyond folks,” Moreno told neighbors, adding that he voted “no” on an Uptown project in City Council because the developer opted out of the city’s affordable housing requirement.

“These guys are going to 30 [percent affordable housing]. … It’s unprecedented. If you don’t like TODs, that’s OK, we can disagree. But there are huge benefits. It’s been proven in the articles.”

RELATED: Residential Tower Proposed Next To Congress Theater Shrinks After Neighbors Object

Moreno said new developments like the proposed tower have a positive impact on the city’s tax base.

“The MiCa towers [site] — it was paying $18,000 in property taxes. You know what it’s paying now? $525,000. I think it’s my responsibility to look at expanding the tax base instead of raising the taxes,” he said.

Moreno’s remarks came after Sally Hamann, member of Greather Goethe Association, slammed the alderman and the developer for holding the theater restoration hostage, for which she earned a round of applause.

“I want to know why we can’t have the renovation of the Congress without another TOD,” Hamann said. “Why are we being held hostage?”

To which Moreno shot back, “We’re not being held hostage,” before adding, “[Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association] wrote a pretty positive letter,” referring to the letter of recommendation neighborhood groups issue on zoning matters. 

At one point, Daniel LaSpata, who is running against Moreno for alderman of the 1st Ward, asked how the project will benefit the community, given that tax-increment finance (TIF) dollars will be used.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) addressing neighbors at Monday’s community meeting.

In response, Moreno said the Art Institute of Chicago will help market the apartments to artists before he criticized LaSpata, his aldermanic challenger.

“I do this in my office for a living. I know you don’t agree with my policies and you’re going to run against me. You have a political agenda and that’s cool,” the alderman said.

LaSpata has since issued a response on social media.

Moyer, who sat amongst neighbors, barely spoke during the meeting except to emphasize that the theater restoration is expressly for the neighborhood.

“It’s important that this is a community space. It belongs to the community. … I would expect the kids from Goethe [Elementary School] to graduate from the stage of the Congress Theater,” Moyer, said, earning him a round of applause.

Crews have been at work restoring the historic theater’s interior for about two years now.

The rehab project calls for a total overhaul of the 1920s-era theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave. and the construction of a 30-room hotel, 14 affordable apartments and 16,000 square feet of retail space in the surrounding 160,000-square-foot theater building.

In June, the city’s Community Development Commission unanimously approved allocating $9.7 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) funds toward the rehab project.

The development team is planning to take $800,000 in TIF funds generated by the residential building and use it to subsidize the restoration, according to Acosta. The TIF money won’t be used to subsidize the construction of the tower, however, the attorney has emphasized.

As part of the TIF agreement, Moyer is required to bring in 80 percent local retailers. It’s another win that should be considered when weighing whether to support the tower, Moreno said. 

“I think it’s very unique and a great amenity,” the alderman said. 

A couple neighbors spoke in support of the project at the meeting with one saying, “That part of Milwaukee Avenue has lagged behind for many years. It’s tough seeing other theaters get developed and not the Congress. If the money is what’s needed to develop the Congress, then I strongly [support the building] as well.”

Toward the end of the meeting, one neighbor asked Moreno if he would take a vote. But the alderman, along with Acosta, Moyer’s zoning attorney, quibbled with the neighbor over the phrasing of the question. It’s not “Do you support the tower?” — it’s “Do you support the entire Congress project?” (which includes the tower), the alderman and Acosta argued. 

Eventually, the latter question was posed. The alderman said he counted 20 “no” votes and 22 “yes” votes. The vote was taken so quickly that a Block Club reporter wasn’t able to count.

After the meeting, neighbor Em Jacoby said she doesn’t support the proposed project, adding, “I think we have enough towers that have gone up in this neighborhood.”

Like other residents, Jacoby, 32, questioned the link between the two projects.

“If the rehab is going to be so much more money, then maybe they should do it like a church or school does rehabs and fundraise over a long period of time,” she said.

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