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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Cinespace Expansion Will Bring More TV Shows And Jobs To Chicago, CEO Says — But Lawndale Residents Say Studio Should Be A Better Neighbor

The soundstages being built at Cinespace in North Lawndale could create thousands of jobs. But neighbors say studio leaders should work with residents who now face longer commutes, closed streets and other headaches.

Cinespace film studios in North Lawndale.
Eric Allix Rogers
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NORTH LAWNDALE — A film studio based on the West Side will soon expand to bring more TV shows to Chicago.

Cinespace Chicago Film Studios shoots shows like “Chicago Fire” and “The Chi” at its North Lawndale campus at 2621 W. 15th Place. The studio recently announced it will add up to 19 more soundstages to its campus, about 50 percent more than the studio already has.

Chicago’s film and TV industry has grown enough that Cinespace has had to turn down several productions due to a lack of available soundstages, said CEO Alex Pissios.

“Last month, I had to turn away three shows because I didn’t have space,” Pissios said. “When you say no to shows, you’re saying no to hundreds of jobs.”

The additional stages will allow the studio to bring up to four more shows to the campus, which will come with 1,000-2,000 jobs, Pissios said.

To make space for the new soundstages at the main Cinespace building, the film studio bought a property at 19th Street and Rockwell Street, a few blocks south of its campus.

The studio’s storage and set construction operations will be relocated to the new facility, which will free up space at the main Cinespace campus that will be used for soundstages, Pissios said. The new facility is unlikely to create additional traffic or close more streets, he said.

But the expansion may still negatively impact residents, who often struggle to find parking and have their streets shut down when TV shows film in the neighborhood, said neighbor Rachel Azzarello.

“Even if they’re just using that lot for storage, it’s still gonna ultimately impact the neighborhood because they’re looking for places to film, they just kind of go into the neighborhood and they do act kind of like it’s an extension of the” studio, Azzarello said.

Cinespace’s expansion in recent years has been contentious among residents who say the film studio is not a good neighbor.

In 2019, the studio permanently blocked off several through-streets in Lawndale east of Douglass Park to create a closed campus accessible only to employees. The now-closed streets once connected the surrounding residential neighborhood to Western Avenue and allowed residents to easily get to the Western Metra station and the Pink Line’s Western station.

Neighbors organized against the street closures and asked the studio to allow them to access the closed streets and walk through the campus to the stations, but their request was denied, Azzarello said.

Now pedestrians must walk a longer route around the Cinespace campus to get to the Pink Line station, and drivers cannot get to Western Avenue directly.

The detour adds an “extra 30-minute walk, easily” to the commute to the Metra and CTA trains, Azzarello said.

“They cut off access to the Metra,” Azzarello said. “There’s no direct route for the neighborhood to get to Western.”

Neighbors worry this expansion could lead to more street closures, traffic problems and disturbances caused by TV crews filming in the surrounding neighborhood, Azzarello said. Few residents in the surrounding area work at Cinespace, so the expansion wouldn’t benefit the community, she said.

Soundstages have been in high demand since the pandemic started since it’s easier to film on a customized set than it is to shoot on location, Pissios said. But the film industry’s shift toward shooting on sets rather than on location may stick long after the pandemic ends, he said.

“I think it’s gonna make more sense for them, it’s easier for them, it saves more money for them to build more sets on the stage instead of going to location,” Pissios said.

The film studio bought another facility in 2019 at 31st Street and Kedzie  Avenue in Little Village, which has three soundstages. An upcoming legal thriller series executive produced by Michael B. Jordan, “61st Street,” is being filmed at that location.

The Little Village site could be a site for future expansion, Pissios said.

“There’s going to be great opportunities to do stuff in that neighborhood,” Pissios said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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