LOGAN SQUARE — A plan to overhaul the rundown Congress Theater is gaining momentum as the city is poised to commit $20 million toward redeveloping the historic music venue.
Developer Baum Revision is pursuing a $70.4 million plan to rehab the theater at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave., as well as the surrounding apartments and retail space, according to a city report. The ambitious plan was first reported by Block Club last year, but now the city is stepping in to allocate $20 million in Tax Increment Financing funds to support the project, city officials confirmed.
The city-backed proposal to use funds from the Milwaukee/Fullerton TIF district for the theater is scheduled for a vote Tuesday before the Community Development Commission. The proposal also needs full approval from the City Council.
The proposed TIF allocation — double what was awarded to the previous Congress developer Michael Moyer, whose redevelopment project fizzled in 2020 — would allow Baum Revision to bring the famed music venue back to life after nearly a decade of sitting empty, city planners said.
“Without the TIF funds, this project could not be financed and would not generate an acceptable level of return on investment,” city planners wrote in the report.
Baum Revision’s plans call for a full restoration of the 2,900-seat music venue, 20 apartments — 14 of them affordable for people earning between 40-80 percent of the area median income — roughly 5,400 square feet of retail and restaurant space along Milwaukee Avenue and Rockwell Street, and affordable offices and work space on the second and third floors for community organizations and artists “at risk of displacement,” according to the report and Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st).
It’s an updated version of the project. Baum Revision planned to follow the blueprint approved by the city in 2018 which included the construction of a 30-room hotel, but revised its plans amid the ongoing pandemic, La Spata said.
“Based on the market right now, and what the last two years have been like for the hotel industry, folks who would’ve been interested in that are very reticent to put new money into new hotels right now,” the alderman said.
David Baum, one of Baum’s managing principals, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday afternoon.
The revamped proposal has the full support of La Spata, who said the affordable apartments and commercial space will bring much-needed relief to neighbors and creatives experiencing displacement in the face of rampant gentrification.
“It feels beneficial in a broad sense. It really reflects a lot of the needs we’re experiencing in Logan Square,” he said.
The Congress Theater was built in 1926 by Fridstein & Co. as an ornate movie palace.
The Milwaukee Avenue venue screened films and hosted vaudeville acts before becoming a vibrant music venue, hosting famous musical acts like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was designated a city landmark in 2002.
Community leaders and neighbors were hopeful the venue would be reopen when Moyer, the developer who revived the Cadillac Palace Theatre and Hotel Allegro in the late 1990s, took over the property in 2015. But despite securing multi-layered city approval and $9.8 million in TIF funding, Moyer’s project never got off the ground.
After years of inactivity at the site, Los Angeles-based lender and promoter AEG sued Moyer in 2020, alleging the developer defaulted on $14 million in loans. The legal trouble left the theater in the control of a court-appointed receiver.
Baum Revision took the reins of the project last year, with AEG on board as the operator.
Other developers vied for the property, but Baum won out, partly because of its commitment to renovate the entire building and not just the theater, La Spata said. Baum has experience renovating historic buildings including the Margies Candies and Green Exchange buildings.
“We were approached with different proposals that would’ve been slightly less money, but would’ve left large parts of the building still vacant and undeveloped,” La Spata said.
Neighbors will get a chance to weigh in on Baum’s proposal at a community meeting April 4, which is being held in advance of the City Council vote so neighbors can provide feedback, La Spata said. La Spata’s office will release a specific time and a registration link soon.
In pitching a previous iteration of the project to neighbors last year, Baum said they hoped to reopen the Congress by 2023 should everything fall into place. But La Spata said that timeline could be pushed back because of the ongoing supply chain issues and the real estate market during the pandemic.
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