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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

Developer Drops Out Of Uptown Theatre Project, But Owner Says Plan Still On To Rehab Historic Venue: ‘It’s Got A Bright Future’

Farpoint Development no longer is attached to the project to rehab the historic Uptown Theatre, which hasn't hosted shows since 1981.

Eric Holubow
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UPTOWN — One of two main parties working to reopen the Uptown Theatre has backed out of the project, but plans to renovate the historic theater are still in the works, according to the venue’s owner.

Farpoint Development is no longer involved in the efforts to revitalize the Uptown Theatre, the legendary movie palace and concert hall that has been shuttered since 1981. Jerry Mickelson, owner of the theater and founder of JAM Productions, and Ald. James Cappleman (46th) confirmed the news Monday.

Mickelson and Farpoint Development joined city leaders in 2018 to announce a $75 million plan to restore and reopen the Uptown Theatre, 4816 N. Broadway. The project was meant to revive a landmark building that would anchor a revamped Uptown entertainment district, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the time.

Construction was originally slated to begin in summer 2019, but the date came and went.

Then the coronavirus pandemic swept in, causing a shutdown of the entertainment industry that endures one year later. Farpoint Development’s decision to back out of the project throws up yet another obstacle for the project. The Sun-Times on Monday first reported the news of Farpoint’s decision.

Despite the setbacks, Mickelson said his efforts to reopen the Uptown are moving forward.

“COVID has stopped a lot of the progress I was making,” Mickelson said. “We’re waiting for banks and funders to feel comfortable with what’s going on with COVID. There has been recent interest in the theater and, as the equity and debt markets begin to thaw, there will be more coming,” he said.

Credit: Eric Holubow
The Uptown Theatre’s grand lobby retains its historical features, even as it has been scarcely used since the 1980s.

Mickelson and Farpoint Development’s plans envisioned restoring the venue to its Jazz Age grandeur. On top of restoring the building’s facade and historic features, the project would have increased capacity from 4,300 to 5,800, installed removable seats on the first floor and added a new marquee.

The project was boosted by $40 million in public funding, including from an Uptown tax increment financing district and the city’s adopt-a-landmark fund. Project leaders were on their own to secure the remaining $35 million, which proved to be a challenge. By November 2019, Mickelson and Farpoint still needed to raise $26 million, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.

The coronavirus pandemic’s devastating impact on the live music industry has dried up investor pools for projects like the Uptown Theatre, Mickelson said. He declined to say how much financing still needs to be secured.

“We have a gap we need to fill,” Mickelson said. “It’s within reach.”

Mickelson said he is talking with other developers about joining the project, but said a development partner is not critical to its success. Because the building is already standing, an architect and general contracting firm could take over — so long as funding is in place, he said.

Farpoint Development Principal Scott Goodman did not return a request for comment Monday. Farpoint is one of the biggest development firms in Chicago and is leading the $3.8 billion redevelopment of the Michael Reese Hospital site in Bronzeville. That project received initial approval in February.

Cappleman said the project still retains its public funding and is likely to get back on track in a post-coronavirus world.

“[Mickelson] has the needed funds from both the state and city, and he’s now working with investors to get the needed portion to make this happen,” Cappleman said in an email. “This pandemic has of course slowed down efforts here, but it’s to be expected given COVID.”

Credit: City of Chicago, DNAinfo
A rendering of a restored Uptown with a new marquee, and the current Uptown.

Neighbors and historic preservation advocates have been working for decades to save Uptown Theatre.

Built in 1925, it was the largest freestanding theater ever built in its time. It was one of the nation’s grandest movie palaces and later morphed into a concert venue. From 1975 to 1981, Mickelson and JAM Productions put on shows from acts like Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead.

Burst pipes and the subsequent flooding forced the theater’s closure in 1981. It has been scantly used since, save for the occasional movie production. A compliance agreement with the city has required Uptown Theatre’s owners to continue maintenance and upkeep on the structure.

In 2014, the theater was listed among the state’s most endangered historic buildings.

JAM Productions has been working to revitalize the theater since 2008, when it bought the building for $3.2 million.

Mickelson said he did not want to place a new timeline on the Uptown Theatre’s renovation due to the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus pandemic. He did say that there will be “strong” demand for live entertainment once the pandemic has subsided, and he is optimistic that the Uptown will eventually be open to help meet that demand.

“The Uptown Theatre is one of the most iconic venues in the country,” Mickelson said. “It’s got a bright future.”

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