Though the Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance hearings can be credited—or blamed, depending on your perspective—with increased scrutiny of the Congress Theater over the last 15 months, signs that the Department of Building Affairs would let embattled owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza continue operating as he has for the last seven years already were there at the last hearing on Oct. 31.
While some damning testimony once again was heard from police and some neighbors of the Logan Square theater at the latest hearing on Tuesday, mediator and assistant DBA commissioner Barbara Gressel seemed pleased with the owner’s progress—“Your reports show that you have spent lots of time and effort resolving these issues… I’d like to see these positive changes continue”—she scheduled one more hearing to update the situation on Nov. 12.
The nuisance hearings, however, have taken a back seat to two more pressing threats to Carranza’s future at the Congress: a lawsuit for an A-to-Z list of building, health, and fire code violations (the next court date for that is Thursday) and proceedings before the Liquor Commission (with a decision forthcoming). The first could close the building for “dangerous and hazardous conditions,” though there, too, the city seems to be pleased with progress. The second could cost the venue its liquor license, which effectively would stop it from doing business.
Testimony on Tuesday included the fact that the Congress has generated 38 police calls since Jan. 1, according to Sgt. Joe Giambrone, including six for battery (with one fight coming a day after the last hearing) and one for possession of PCP. Giambrone added that theater security continues to fail to cooperate with police by not calling 911 to report incidents, instead “waving down gang enforcement officers on the street.”
Another problem: The lack of licensing for $20 self-park lots owned by the Congress. When police asked lot operators for their license, they ran into the Congress. The same happened with security as police investigated a battery charge by a concertgoer who said he’d been involved in an altercation with venue staff (they also ran into the theater). “This seems to be a common theme,” Giambrone said.
Ald. Proco Joe Moreno did not attend the hearing—he is on his honeymoon—but Jerry Gabrielatos from the 1st Ward office said, “There has been mediocre improvement, but we’d like to see more.”
The handful of residents in attendance seemed to agree. One woman complained about drinking by patrons in the residential neighborhoods surrounding the theater, while another resident said, “Some things are better, but we’re a year into this, and we’re still having these issues.”
Turning to Carranza, the young neighbor added, “I want you to succeed, but it’s about respect and responsibility for the neighborhood. Sometimes I feel like I’m monitoring a fifth-grader running the venue!”
Carranza’s attorney Harlan C. Powell said the licensing issues for the parking lots could be resolved today; that Carranza’s architect and construction firm continue to make improvements on the 87-year-old venue, investing $2 million in construction and renovation to date, and, turning to police, that Eddie will have better representatives of the Congress to interact with police.
However, “The building renovation is not really part of these hearings,” Gressel said. “What’s more important to me is the plan of operating this business.” She added that many of the problems would go away if Carranza made the Congress Theater a 21-and-over venue. “There need to be tweaks to this business model in order to make the Congress safe and secure for employees, residents and concertgoers.”
The most lucrative part of Carranza’s business to date has been electronic dance music and hip-hop shows, which tend to draw a younger crowd. Changing the venue to 21-and-over admission would mean a radical change in its bookings, but the idea also has been mentioned by Judy Frydland, the deputy corporation counsel prosecuting the code violations lawsuit.
Harlan named other venues that are 18-and-over, including the House of Blues. “But we don’t have this many calls to police coming from those venues,” Gressel said.
“I don’t think that 38 calls for service—14 directly related to Congress—is a whole lot,” Harlan replied, causing some attendees to groan.
Circling back to the incident that prompted the hearings in 2012, Gressel said, “One of the things that disturbed me most was when a young person was turned away from the Congress and then sexually assaulted. I wonder if there can be an ongoing discussion about what you should do with 17-year-olds that you turn away?” she asked.
Harlan said that the ongoing plan is to put underage drinkers in a lounge-type area and call their parents to come pick them up.
Earlier reports about Carranza, the Congress and the Portage theaters:
April 30: Congress Theater defends itself before the Liquor Commission (By Leah Pickett and Jim DeRogatis)
April 23: Congress Theater allowed to remain open, next inspection scheduled (Alison Cuddy reporting)
March 27: Chicago police official: Congress Theater ‘untruthful’ on night of underage drinking (Leah Pickett reporting)
March 6: Congress Theater hearing rescheduled (Robin Amer reporting)