I witnessed a rare community meeting last evening, where residents overwhelmingly supported a development and rezoning. Which is not to say it was unanimous. But this is the West Loop, where any developer is viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism and suspicion.
You’d have to be REALLY skeptical to cast any doubt on this project, though. It wasn’t a developer with visions of a 30-story residential tower. It was the Chicago Children’s Theatre, a beloved institution and the city’s largest professional theatre company devoted to children and families. The C.C.T. also emphasizes working with low-income families and children with disabilities.
The C.C.T. is a success story, but it needs a larger, permanent home. It found the perfect spot in the abandoned 1948-era Chicago Police Station at 100 South Racine Avenue. During last night’s community meeting at the Civic Lab at 114 North Aberdeen Street, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. kicked off the proceedings by telling the audience what the old police station would not be suitable for.
“Some folks had ideas about making the building an extension to Skinner School, which is overloaded,” Burnett said. “I asked the Board of Education if we could make the building an addition to Skinner, but they said they could only get a few classrooms and it wouldn’t be worth it. Another option was a field house for Skinner Park. The Park District said, ‘No way, Jose,’ we don’t have enough money.
“Other people are interested in this property, too. Every high rise, market-rate condo in the city would love to go in the site. These folks [the C.C.T.] came to me and a lot of folks in the city and the state appreciate what they do for young people with disabilities. People are interested in you, and that’s good.”
Burnett was followed by Larry Kearns, principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects, who described the massive facelift the police station would require in order to convert it into a theater. The design vision is a bit offbeat, he admitted.
“One unusual thing, when you go to the theater as an adult, you don’t really want to know what happens behind the fourth wall. Here we’re trying to subvert that—the things you never see on display as an adult, you will here.”
Kearns explained that the art of storytelling itself will be part of the stagecraft. Children will learn exactly what it takes to make a prop and create a set.
“The other goal is to be hyper-accessible,” he said. “We’ll have tiered seating, but with three tiers that are completely handicap accessible. The mission is to serve children with disabilities, so there will be no barriers.”
The building design will incorporate a 299-seat mainstage theater, and in the old jail cell block, a 149-seat studio performance venue. There will also be classrooms and administrative space.
“The idea is to animate the space, and change it from authoritarian to open. And make it green.”
Kearns said they committed to achieve LEED Silver status, and perhaps stretch to LEED Gold. A green space over covered parking will help meet that objective. Although it’s still early in the process, Kearns said one material under consideration for the exterior is an insulated, ceramic panel.
The cost of renovation will likely exceed $10 million, Kearns said. There’s still the matter of acquiring the building from the City of Chicago, but Alderman Burnett suggested the city might give the C.C.T. a good deal, since the organization is a non-profit and does great things for children. It’s also a favorite of many public and private institutions.
Sounds like a slam-dunk, right? Well, there’s no significant new construction, just adaptive re-use. But there were still a half-dozen residents who hyperventilated during the Q&A session, and one hold-out who voted against the proposal. The issue: traffic. It seems the streets in and around neighboring Skinner School are gridlocked when school starts and ends each weekday. The concern was that a children’s theatre would just exacerbate the problem.
Officials from the C.C.T. assured the crowd that they’d worked out a fool-proof plan, where buses will be radioed ahead when there’s room to pull up on Monroe at Racine and drop off kids. As soon as one bus leaves, another will be given the OK to arrive. It’s basically a low-grade air traffic controller arrangement. Kearns promised that as soon as school begins in the fall, a traffic study would be commissioned to assure there would be no ill effects.
That seemed to quell the audience, and a vote in favor of supporting the rezoning passed easily. I counted about 40 for, one against (the latter a resident who lives near Skinner and clearly had her fill of traffic problems). If the C.C.T. is successful in acquiring the old police station building, final design will be completed later this year. Construction could commence by spring 2015 with completion about 12 months later.