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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Is The Congress Theater Restoration Still Happening? ‘It’s An Eyesore,’ Neighbors Say As Delays Drag On

"We have been waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing's happened," one nearby shop owner said.

The 1920s-era Congress Theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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LOGAN SQUARE — For the last several years, Alan Gillman, owner of Gillman’s Ace Hardware, has been fielding the same question from neighbors and customers at least a few times a week: What’s going on with the Congress Theater?

“Same answer, same answer, same answer: I don’t know,” said Gillman, whose shop is across the street from the notoriously rundown 1920s-era theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.

No noticeable progress has been made on the $96 million Congress Theater restoration project that was set into motion five years ago — and neighbors are growing impatient.

“We have been waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing’s happened,” said Carlos Iniguez, owner of Milwaukee Shoes at 2100 N. Milwaukee Ave.

“This thing is very old and don’t look good. When that thing was open years ago, it used to bring a lot of people to our neighborhood — not anymore.”

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
The Congress Theater, taken Feb. 24, 2020.

The landmark theater looks the same as it did in 2015, when developer Michael Moyer bought it and promised to bring it back to its former glory. It’s unclear what’s accounting for the delay. Moyer hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment on the status of the project.

And within the last week or so, the scaffolding that covered the facade was taken down, which is raising even more questions.

“Why are they taking it down? Scaffolding costs a lot of money — to keep it up for seven years or better. … It’s mind boggling,” Gillman said.

Even Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) doesn’t know what’s going on with the project, though the alderman said he’s supposed to meet with Moyer soon.

“This is one of our most popular constituent requests for information, and we have done everything we can to reach out and establish a relationship with the development team,” Nicholas Zettel, policy director for La Spata, said in an email.

‘We have to start taking care of it’

The Congress was shut down by the city in 2013 after getting slapped with a string of code violations. The theater was also threatened with foreclosure after former owner Eddie Carranza defaulted on his loans.

The closure came after a series of crimes that occurred in and around the theater during shows, including the rape of a 14-year-old suburban girl. As a result, the theater’s former music genre of choice, electronic dance music, or EDM, was banned for all current and future owners.

In 2015, two years after the closure, Moyer bought the old movie palace for $16 million. Then-1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno said Moyer would “re-establish its reputation as one of the finest music venues in the nation.”

In 2018, Moyer received city approval for the restoration project, which called for a total overhaul of the theater 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, as well as the construction of a 72-unit residential building next door.

Also in 2018, Moyer scored $9.7 million in Tax Increment Finance dollars toward the multi-million-dollar project.

The rest of the funding would come from $29.4 million in loans, $22.3 million in historic tax credits and other financing and $8.6 million in equity, according to a city report.

Old theater restoration projects are costly and usually require a patchwork of funding, which makes them difficult to pull off. The Uptown Theater, which has sat empty since 1981, has seen many fits and starts to its rehabilitation.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Alan Gillman, owner of Gillman’s Ace Hardware, 2118-20 M. Milwaukee Ave.

Some interior renovation work has been done at the Congress since Moyer received final city approval, but it’s unclear how much.

In 2017, during a tour of the theater for Open House Chicago, project architect Mary Ward said Moyer and his team were working behind the scenes, securing permits and going back and forth with city, state and national officials on the best way to preserve the historic theater while making modern upgrades.

For example, there were no architectural drawings of the historic theater when they set out to do the overhaul, so Ward said they had to spend about a year measuring “every little inch” of the theater because the renovation project requires drawings.

Jon Timmins, owner of bike shop The Bike Lane, 2130 N. Milwaukee Ave. said when the scaffolding was first installed a few years ago, workers were “hustling and bustling” around the site, removing tiles and bricks. But over the last couple of years, it’s been “pretty quiet,” he said.

“I’m tired of seeing it dark over there,” Timmins said, adding that an up-and-running Congress would “bring more people around, people who are waiting in line and need something to do.”

Iniguez took over Milwaukee Shoes, a 40-year-old business, in 2013, the same year the Congress was shut down. He said a redeveloped Congress would revitalize the block, which has become sleepy in recent years.

“It’s been very, very, very quiet over here. We hardly survive. It’s nothing like the old years,” Iniguez said.

Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
Carlos Iniguez, owner of Milwaukee Shoes, 2100 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Gillman, whose family hardware shop has called the block home for about 70 years, said while he’s concerned about the traffic a redeveloped Congress would bring, he wants to see the project move forward.

“Right now, it’s an eyesore,” Gillman said. “I remember going into it, when I was kid, when they had movies. Beautiful place, but over the years it decays away. We have to start taking care of it.”

Built in 1926 as an ornate movie palace, the Congress Theater went on to host musical acts like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s an architectural gem and in 2017 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Neighbors are anxious to get in the venue again and enjoy everything it has to offer.

“I’m bummed/upset at how vacant the Congress has been,” neighbor Dan Schiller said in a written message. “I loved that venue, saw my first show there before they ripped the seats out.”

“I definitely thought the space would be up and running by now, so I’m confused as to what’s taking so long.”

Neighbor Chris Altruda, who lives at Milwaukee and California avenues, said he walked by recently and was struck by the new music promotional posters, which he likened to “rings on a tree.”

“When I walk by it, it’s almost like it’s been ‘x amount of weeks since…’ if you see the same album/artist promotional posters that have been put up on the facade,” Altruda said.

“When you see a new set of posters, it gives pause to think how long the refurbishment of the Congress has been going on… which has been since I moved into the city.”

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