When the City purchased two buildings on Howard Street at the end of 2010, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said she had live theater in mind for one of the buildings. Now, about six months later, a deal to bring Wicker Park's Polarity Theater to 727-729 Howard St. appears close to completion. The City and a cast of volunteers have been working to make the move possible and now await a final piece – a decision by the theater itself.
Ald. Rainey and Johanna Nyden of the City's economic development department have been spearheading the effort as part of an overall program to revitalize the Howard Street corridor between Chicago and Ridge avenues. They have not been alone. A meeting held at the Police Outpost at 633 Howard brought together an impressive cast of volunteers, City officials and theater-lovers all willing to do their part to facilitate Polarity's move.
At the meeting, a number of obstacles presented themselves only to be answered by the experts gathered around the table. For example, the building, a one-story commercial structure bought by the City for $325,000 in Howard Street TIF funds, has a ceiling height of just over 9 feet in some places – far too low for theater use. Mike Vasilko, a licensed architect who volunteered his services for this project, produced plans that would raise the roof to allow for 16-foot ceilings. He said such a renovation would not be as expensive "as you might think."
City zoning code requires 26 off-street parking spaces, including two handicapped-accessible spaces, for a theater the size of the one proposed. The site has no off-street parking.
Marcel Eberle, a volunteer who compiled zoning code and building code requirements for the space, indicated that several solutions could be found. Carl Bova, a civil engineer, offered additional advice. Issues regarding the possible need for a sprinkler system were also discussed and a probable solution found. Instead, the plans call for a flexible "black box" theater space with a moveable performance area that could change with each production.
Jim Corirossi, a member of the Saints Volunteers for Performing Arts said that a possibility of grant money existed.
City Manager Wally Bobkewicz said that the City "is four-square behind this effort. ... This represents a sea change for Howard Street." He said the Mayor and the entire City Council were in support and viewed the theater as part of a redevelopment effort for the entire community and not just the Howard Street corridor.
Todd Hensley, a professional theater planner with Shuler Shook, theatre consulting firm who has planned everything from a "50-seat theater to Millennium Park" added his expertise, as did Stanley Von Medvey, an architect and builder.
Despite all the talent and volunteer effort put forth to date, the theater group itself has not yet reached a final decision to make the move. Polarity's artistic director Richard Engling, who said he lived "about three and a half blocks" from the Howard Street outpost, seemed impressed by efforts of the volunteers and the City to make the project work. He indicated that the theater expects to make a final decision this month as to where, if anywhere, they would relocate.