Congress Theater plans clear legal hurdle | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Legal hurdles cleared for Congress Theater redevelopment

The Congress Theater (Lee Bey)

** UPDATED 10 a.m. TUESDAY

Nearly a year after this blog first reported that renowned developer Michael Moyer was poised to purchase the troubled Congress Theater—and after 12 months of legal wrangling bogging down the sale—Cook County Circuit Court has removed the final hurdles, and Moyer and Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) will hold a press conference on Jan. 24 to announce new plans for the 89-year-old, 3,500-seat Logan Square landmark.

Moyer is best known in Chicago for redeveloping the decrepit Bismarck Theater, transforming it into the Cadillac Palace. Just steps from City Hall, that theater has hosted prestigious Chicago productions including The Producers, Aida, MAMA MIA, The Lion King, and Kinky Boots. The theater is the centerpiece of a $120 million development that also includes the Bismarck Hotel. According to the bio online with PalMet Ventures, where he is a managing member, Moyer also has had a hand in development projects in Iraq.

Said a statement from Moreno’s office: “This long-overdue rehabilitation project [at the Congress] will not only renovate the theater’s historic lobby and auditorium, it will also include the improvement of the ground floor commercial spaces and the modernization of the above-grade residential units into a small inn and residences.”

Moyer will work with Woodhouse Tinucci Architects and W.E. O’Neil Construction, according to the statement.

Following a series of contentious city hearings about numerous public safety, building code, and liquor violations, which began to mount after a sexual assault outside the theater in January 2012, controversial venue owner Erineo “Eddie” Carranza finally gave up his fight to maintain ownership of the Congress in January 2014. At that time, he signed a contract for the sale to Moyer, and accepted a payment of $500,000 in earnest money.

Although Carranza talked often and at length about his ambitious plans for the Congress, no serious redevelopment at the crumbling theater had taken place, and the venue has been shuttered to major events since the spring of 2013.

Closing on the sale and moving ahead on the redevelopment were slowed by two competing claims from concert promoters contending that they had the right of first refusal to buy the venue should Carranza sell. Sources say the oldest claim, by Chicago-based Jam Productions, was resolved with relative ease. But React Presents, the local electronic dance music promoters who subsequently sold out to the giant national corporation SFX, pressed the fight in court.

“The litigation thing is arduous,” Moyer told this blog with a sigh of frustration last June.

** The ruling could not be obtained last night, but sources familiar with its contents say that Moyer’s settlements with both Jam and React/SFX have been approved by the court. Moyer now is the uncontested owner  is set to close on the property in the next 60 to 90 days, and to move ahead with a redevelopment plan supported by Moreno and other city officials.

The specifics of entertainment offerings at the Congress will likely remain a mystery until the press conference, and Moyer declined to comment Monday evening. But theater may be part of the mix, along with music. “Moyer will apply his expertise to the Congress to reestablish its reputation as one of the finest music venues in the nation,” according to the statement from Moreno’s office.

That may even include electronic dance music. As this blog observed, the much-publicized restrictions placed by the city upon the Congress prohibiting EDM were aimed not at that musical genre or even at that specific venue, but at Carranza as an irresponsible operator who racked up dozens of complaints.

Sources say it also was a tactic to prod React/SFX out of prolonging its legal fight. Rather than the city being anti-EDM, the move was pro-Congress, one source said. And React/SFX has been doing a thriving business at other venues with full city approval, ranging from the Concord Music Hall and the Mid to the city-owned Soldier Field, where it hosts the massive Spring Awakening Festival.

While some Logan Square residents initially rallied to Carranza’s side during the early days of his long fight with city agencies, that support eroded as the details of the complaints against him were aired at public hearings. These ranged from security guards accused of seizing drugs from concertgoers, then reselling them to other patrons, to “hazardous and dangerous” building code violations unremedied for months, including standing water near bare electrical wires and non-functioning fire exits.

At least one longtime resident is supporting Moyer’s plans. “I am excited that the new owners have the security of the neighborhood in mind first, and that we will have a true safe and secure music venue in our neighborhood,” Rick Sada is quoted as saying in the Moreno statement. “I am also excited that Eddie Carranza will no longer be part of the Congress. For too long he got away with numerous criminal and building violations and I am glad Ald. Moreno helped us rid him of our neighborhood and is working with a new, truly viable owner.”

The full text of the statement from Moreno’s office follows. Meanwhile, Carranza is not yet entirely out of the theater game. He still owns the smaller Portage Theater in Portage Park, which is being leased by Charlie Burns, the former venue manager under Carranza at the Congress.

While Carranza’s plans for another ambitious development surrounding the Portage on the Northwest Side have so far come to little, the theater has been presenting a mix of film and music for several months now, and the office of Ald. John Arena (45th) reports that there have been no complaints from residents.

 

January 12, 2015

New Congress LLC, Chicago and Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, 1st Ward

For Immediate Release

New Congress LLC and Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) are pleased to announce the upcoming revitalization of the Congress Theater, a City of Chicago Landmark located at 2135 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square.  This long-overdue rehabilitation project will not only renovate the theater’s historic lobby and auditorium, it will also include the improvement of the ground floor commercial spaces and the modernization of the above-grade residential units into a small inn and residences. The residences will be truly affordable residences under the City’s Affordable Housing Ordinance- a request made by Alderman Moreno of Congress LLC.

Michael Moyer, manager of New Congress, LLC, will lead the project.  Mr. Moyer, one of the early pioneers in the revitalization of Chicago’s Loop, renovated the block adjacent to City Hall, including the historic Cadillac Palace Theater, which received a Distinguished Building Award from the American Institute of Architects Chicago (AIA Chicago) with Special Recognition for Historic Preservation.  Mr. Moyer has brought together an experienced and award-winning team with deep roots in the City of Chicago, including Woodhouse Tinucci Architects as the project’s architect, W.E. O’Neil Construction as general contractor and MacRostie Historic Advisors.   

Mr. Moyer will apply his expertise to The Congress to reestablish its reputation as one of the finest music venues in the nation.  The renovation will draw on the diverse history and culture of the neighborhood and the innate character of the architecture.

The venue, which the City closed two years ago for dozens of unaddressed violations, originally opened in 1926 as a movie palace. Eventually it grew to host such diverse musical acts as Chuck Barry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lauryn Hill, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Billy Idol, Toots and the Maytals, ZZ Top, Zoe’, and Weezer.  Under New Congress LLC’s direction, the theater will once again host live music performances, managed by an experienced operator with local insight and national presence. Eddie Carranza, former owner of the Congress, will have no part, legally or otherwise, in the future of the Congress Theater.

Alderman Moreno worked closely with the City’s Departments of Buildings and Business Affairs to address the long-running problems of mismanagement and disrepair at the Congress Theater.

After scores of meetings and inquiries from parties interested in taking over the Congress Theater, Alderman Moreno is thrilled that New Congress LLC has been able to secure the property by contract and facilitate the resolution of litigation that has kept the theater dark.  

Rick Sada, lifelong community resident who lives near the Congress Theater and participated in the fight to close it down stated: “ I am excited that the new owners have the security of the neighborhood in mind first, and that we will have a true safe and secure music venue in our neighborhood. I am glad Alderman Moreno helped us rid the previous owner from our neighborhood and is working with a new, truly viable owner.”

Alderman Moreno is confident that New Congress, LLC will fully realize the potential of the Congress property and return it back to its full glory. He is equally confident that this renovation will also lead to a dynamic resurgence of this stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. Alderman Moreno stated, “I am very excited about the future of the new Congress Theater. When completed, the new Congress Theater will be a world-class entertainment and commercial venue that our community will be very proud of. Just as important, this new theater owner, Mr. Moyer, will be a responsive and responsible owner and a true community partner.”

Alderman Moreno and New Congress, LLC will host an Open House for the community to tour the Congress Theater on January 24, 2015 from 1-4 pm.  Refreshments and light snackswill be served.

 

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