Is the Congress Theater safe or not?
Exactly how “hazardous and dangerous” are the many code violations at the 87-year-old Congress Theater in Logan Square, and do shows there pose an immediate risk to concertgoers?
The city took one position in its lawsuit seeking immediate closure of the venue last month, and another at court hearings that are allowing the theater to remain open while repairs are made.
Judy Frydland, the deputy corporation counsel who is the city’s top building code enforcement official, shed more light on the prosecution of controversial Congress Theater owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza in an interview on Tuesday. (The code-violation lawsuit is one of three challenges facing Carranza, who also is battling Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance proceedings and violations before the Liquor Commission.)
On April 12, the city filed a lawsuit seeking the immediate closure of the Congress, citing a harrowing and literally A-to-Z list of “hazardous and dangerous” code violations compiled by inspectors from the Health, Building and Fire Departments. The biggest threats to concertgoers cited in the lawsuit include:
“a. The electrical system is in a dangerous condition.
“b. Bare electrical cable wires throughout the basement areas lack ground continuity and therefore pose a dangerous hazard to occupants and emergency responders.
“c. There are defective lights throughout the theater area, second floor bathroom, and second floor projector rooms, which are a dangerous hazard.
“e. The ventilation system above the stage block specifically designed to vent flames and smoke in case of a fire is totally disabled. This condition poses an extremely dangerous hazard…
“h. Inspectors observed that the fire curtain has not been tested in numerous years, despite the annual testing requirement…
“j. Fire resistive separation between auditorium and stage block is in dangerous condition…
“p. Breaches in the fire rated ceiling are used for rigging concert equipment creating a dangerous condition.
“r. The catwalk for access above the ceiling in the auditorium, to rig shows and change lighting, is old and dilapidated posing risk of collapse. This condition poses a hazard to any unexpecting employee.
“v. The sprinkler heads in the VIP room and within the stage block are in dangerous condition…
“w. There is no railing system to prevent falling in either the balcony or the VIP room.
“x. There is water in the basement near an open live front electrical panel… The conditions pose an electrical fire hazard and possible electrocution to occupants.
“z. Ventilation system is inoperable; vents have been blocked and sealed. There is no fresh air supply to patrons, nor is there any exhaust of polluted air from the theater.”
Despite these hair-raising charges, at the first court hearing on April 18, Cook County Judge James McGing allowed the Congress to remain open and host two shows that weekend. (A third show was cancelled by the venue because of flooding from heavy rains.)
Another city inspection took place on April 22.
The next day, at the second court hearing on April 23, McGing ruled that the main floor of the Congress could remain open—though the second and third floors, which have been closed since early in the new year, will continue to be barred to the public, considerably reducing the capacity of the venue.
The city did not push for the venue’s closure or protest the judge’s decision in court.
“The majority of the most serious violations are complied,” Frydland said.
In not-for-attribution interviews with this reporter, several Chicago concert-industry insiders and venue owners expressed disbelief at the city’s stance, given how by-the-book and thorough scrutiny of concert venues in the city has been since the E2 disaster in 2003.
Said one: “I can’t understand how [Carranza] has stayed open as long as he has, or why the city lets him continue.”
Another asked why the city was “raising a red flag so late in the game. We all know Eddie is negligent, but what about the city?”
Even bigger questions:
- How did the Congress repair the most dangerous violations on that lengthy list in a mere 10 days, between the time the city filed its lawsuit on April 12, and the next inspection on April 22?
- Could a venue really improve that quickly after being so hazardous that the city wanted it closed immediately?
- And, most importantly, is the Congress a safe place for thousands of music lovers, or is it another E2 waiting to happen?
I posed these questions to Frydland, starting with her comments in court about the quick compliance for the most dangerous conditions cited in the lawsuit.
Frydland: They’ve had architects and electricians working at the building for quite a few months now. Once we give them a list of “these are things we’re concerned about,” they’re already at the building, they’re already there, they already know. So it’s not like they have to go out and find people; they’ve been working on this place for a while. We wanted to put pressure on them to work more quickly.
The other thing you have to realize is that the building has an occupancy—I’m trying to remember now, but it’s over 5,000—and now it’s been reduced to 3,000. So they are working under a smaller number and fixing these violations. We’re on them about it.
You also have to remember the fire curtain and the ventilation had passed all of those inspections for those issues [before]. They would have had to have passed in 2010, and probably 2012 as well. But because of the issues there, the Fire Department wanted those issues tested again, and we were present for both of those tests. Usually those tests are done by independent contractors, and reports are sent in. But we wanted to be present. I was there for both tests, the Building Department was there for both tests, and so was the Fire Department.
J.D.: But one big question here is timing, Judy. Carranza has owned the venue for seven years, and concertgoers have complained about conditions there for even longer. The city began its Deleterious Impact/Public Nuisance Proceedings in March 2012. But the city only filed this lawsuit in mid-April this year.
[At this point, the city press spokesman who sat in on the interview interjected that Frydland has only been involved in the case since early in the new year, when the second and third floors of the theater were closed for the lack of a back-up lighting system.]
Frydland: After that, I got more and more involved in the case, because it is a theater. And since we had a giant-profile case, I wanted to personally go out there and see what’s going on.
J.D.: In more than 20 years on this beat, I’ve never seen a major Chicago concert venue where two floors are closed yet the venue remains open.
Frydland: They have to have a back-up system for lighting and they didn’t have it. My understanding is they’re getting it, but it’s a lot of work to get that done with back-up generators. It’s not a structural issue at all; the issue is they don’t have that back-up lighting if the power goes out, and they have to have that back-up lighting. It’s not like there’s a structural issue there. With E2, they had stuff hanging off the roof—there’s none of that here. Here, they’ve made the repairs that we asked them to make.
J.D. Your comments at the court hearings seemed to indicate that you’re happy the Congress is complying.
Frydland: [Laughs] Well, I don’t have emotions. They’re making efforts to comply. But sure, we wanted to apply pressure; we apply pressure to everybody who’s got code violations. It’s very difficult to make people spend money on things that you don’t see.
J.D. Getting back to the timing: This venue has been in the news since March 2012. Why was it more than a year before city inspectors found all of those “dangerous and hazardous” conditions listed A-to-Z in the lawsuit?
Frydland: But with that Deleterious Impact case, that doesn’t give them a hand-out of building code violations. That has to do with the impact of the music and the people in the neighborhood.
J.D.: I understand. But Carranza has owned this venue for seven years, and there has been intense scrutiny for the last year. After 13 months of Carranza’s operation being questioned and criticized, the city files a lawsuit to close the place immediately because of “dangerous and hazardous conditions.” Then, 10 days later, the judge rules it’s safe and you agree that it can remain open. Other venue owners who have to comply with the many city safety codes are mystified by all of this.
Frydland: If they came into court, these smaller venues, and they had issues that weren’t anything dangerous or hazardous, we would work with them, too.
Theaters are like churches. We get lots of churches in court, and we work with them. If they fail inspections, sometimes they have to reduce their occupancy the same way; sometimes they have to have partial closures, and sometimes they have to be closed completely. But they’re also older buildings with large assemblies.
J.D.: But people aren’t dancing in the dark in church at midnight while high on Ecstasy.
Frydland: Maybe some churches… [Laughs]
J.D.: I want to go to that church!
Frydland: For us to close a place or to vacate any type of building, there has to be dangerous and hazardous violations. We can’t just close you if you have violations. It has to be dangerous and hazardous. If you have a lot of violations that don’t impact the public safety—maybe you need to paint, maybe your floors are ugly, maybe you need to update your bathrooms—you can have a lot of those and be a grungy place. But if there’s not a health violation or a structural problem or your fire system’s not working, I can’t just close you because you’re slow [to make repairs].
J.D.: What about the inspectors’ findings of water by the electrical system?
Frydland: Well, that got cleaned up. They have a whole crew there. They have so many people working there, I don’t even know who all these people are. They have a lot of people on staff; they have an architect there; an electrical contractor; a very reputable fire company came out. This owner is this owner. If I was owning something, just like the other people that you talked to, I certainly would think differently. I can’t explain him.
J.D. I have a 16-year-old daughter. I wouldn’t want her to go to the Congress because I don’t think it’s safe. I don’t like to go the Congress myself because I don’t think it’s safe. But you are saying it is?
Frydland: We believe so. I hate to say that a place is safe or not safe because anything can happen anytime anywhere. You can be at a venue that’s brand new and well-done and something can go wrong. I don’t mean to say that it’s safe or not safe. What I mean to say is there are no building code violations that are dangerous at this time that would warrant the closure. The occupancy has been really reduced from over 5,000 to 3,000, so there are a lot less people there. The Fire Department will tell you that less people is less risk, and that’s why they’re OK to function at this level of 3,000. Would we at this time allow them to function at their full level? The answer is no, absolutely not. They have a laundry list of things that they need to do in order to open up fully, and unless they can prove that to us and the court, I’m not inclined to let that occupancy go over 3,000 any time soon.
J.D. Let’s put this in perspective: There are not many live music venues in Chicago with a capacity of 3,000 or more. The Congress is in a singular position in being that big and having a list of violations that long.
[Comparable music venues would include the Riviera Theatre (built in 1917 and with capacity of 2,500); the Aragon Ballroom (1926 and 4,500); the Chicago Theatre (1921 and 3,600), and the Auditorium Theater (1889 and 3,929).
Owners of the Riviera and the Aragon will appear in court on May 22 to face building code violations in those venues, but they are far fewer in number and of much less pressing consequence than the violations at the Congress. Clarified: The Aragon Ballroom is in court on May 22 for ongoing oversight of repairs to its ceiling, a chunk of which collapsed in February. The Riv has several minor and routine code violations and is not in court proceedings.]
Frydland: Right now, it’s my understanding—and I have to double-check this—[the Congress] is not having anything that’s catering to teenagers.
J.D.: Actually, they just announced and put on sale a Marilyn Manson concert, though I suppose his audience is getting older… [See note below]
Frydland: Maybe for that concert we’ll have to do something. I’ve talked to them about that, about young people there. I’ve talked to them about all that they have to do to get fully reopened, and I don’t know if they’ll be able to do that any time soon. Maybe they can; maybe they’re working really hard.
I may have to go to a concert there myself. My daughter was there last year. I’m not into [music]. I think it was that—what’s it called?—dubstep. She’s into all that.
The case is up again May 9. There will be an inspection the week before and then we’ll be back in court to see how they are progressing.
J.D.: In case people forget the stakes here, this is the city where 21 people died in February 2003 at the E2 nightclub, in part because of hazardous conditions that went ignored and unrepaired. I know I never want to have to report another story like that.
Frydland: I was very involved with all that, and believe me, I get just as nervous as everybody else. But I have to have a reason to close a place down.
I’ve closed many places down. If it’s dangerous and hazardous, I’ve done it, and I’ve done it many times. We do it because, as hard as it is to close it down, it’s a lot worse if somebody gets hurt. And I have gone there myself [to the Congress], with the Fire Department and the Building Department there, and with the reduced occupancy, and no dangerous or hazardous violations, I don’t have a reason to reduce the occupancy further at this time. If this changes or it comes to my attention that there’s another reason to look at it...
Of course, we’re very concerned about public safety. That’s why this case has been in court almost every other week. That’s why we’ve been out there; that’s why we’ve been on it. We’re there. We certainly care. We’re certainly concerned. But I have to function within the law, and that’s what we’re doing. But we are watching it very carefully, we’re very concerned, and our inspectors are very concerned and watching the situation very closely.
* * *
Note: While the Congress Theater is not completely avoiding bookings likely to draw a predominantly teenage audience, per Frydland’s comment, it has curtailed the number of shows at the venue, judging by the current on-sales listed on its website, and it is hosting more sedate fare—including a lot more country—than the dubstep and hip-hop bookings that have predominated in recent years.
A show on Friday co-presented by punk-rock promoters Riot Fest and dance-music promoters React Presents featuring All Time Low and Pierce the Veil recently was moved to the Sears Center in Hoffman Estates, which has a larger capacity of 11,218.
Shows still on sale and scheduled for the Congress include country acts Steve Holy and Jason Michael Carroll on Saturday; Electric Circus on May 10 (per the website: "The night of music and mayhem will include featured DJ's, 3D visuals, go-go dancers, magicians, laser show, [and] circus acts"); Montgomery Gentry on May 31; the Evolution Music Tour on June 8 ("showcasing hundreds of bands and artists spanning a wide variety of genres, ages, and experience levels across the nation"); Mexican alternative-rockers PXNDX on June 15; Marilyn Manson on July 5; Adam Ant on Aug. 1, and Big & Rich Party Like Cowboyz on Sept. 27.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page started in May 2011 urging people to “Boycott the Congress” because of its security guards ("Don’t patronize those whose business model involves assaulting their customers") has been garnering more media attention and more support, with a total of 1,584 "likes" for the page.
Finally, Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist should be recognized for the most colorful and possibly truest sentences yet written about the Congress and its owner:
Congress Theater owner Eddie Carranza has nine lives, a genie who granted him three wishes, a lucky rabbit’s foot, a backyard full of four-leaf clovers and a horseshoe planted firmly up his ass. That's what we're led to believe after a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled the beleaguered Logan Square venue will remain open, but at a reduced capacity, while Carranza works to address a list of building code violations that threatened to shut down the theater last week.
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)