As city seeks to accommodate Strawdog Theatre, some aldermen hesitate


Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) attends a city meeting. Rainey’s ward hosts a former police outpost, which the council is considering leasing to Strawdog Theatre Co.

Nora Shelly, Assistant City Editor

City staff is recommending Strawdog Theatre Co. temporarily fill the former police outpost on Howard Street, but some aldermen are wary of moving forward amid discussion over the company’s occupation of the proposed Howard Street Theater.

According to documents provided to City Council on Monday night, staff suggested the council move forward with leasing the former outpost, 633 Howard St., to Strawdog for storage, office and rehearsal space. The company is looking to move into the proposed Howard Street Theater, which would be constructed in the 700 block of Howard Street.

Strawdog’s current theater in Chicago is set to be demolished later this year, and the company had found a temporary space at The Factory Theater, which is a few blocks east from the former outpost on the opposite side of Howard Street on Chicago’s land. However, Strawdog expressed a need for additional space close to their temporary space at The Factory, so the city is now considering providing the company with the former outpost.

However, because of the high $5.5 million estimated cost for Howard Street Theater, some aldermen are afraid of approving the former outpost because granting a temporary space for Strawdog might imply they are moving forward with the Howard Street Theater construction.

“I am hesitant to lease to somebody when we don’t know what the overall long-term plan is,” Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) told The Daily. “I kind of feel like we’re getting ahead. So I don’t want us to proceed on the assumption that we’re definitely doing it or to lead them to believe we’re definitely doing it.”

City Council has yet to approve the deal with Strawdog to lease the former outpost. At Monday’s meeting, Wilson moved to hold discussion until May 23 because of the absence of Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) and Ald. Brian Miller (9th). Concrete plans for the Howard Street Theater will likely be brought before the council before the summer is over, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz said.

Commercial development of Howard Street has been a focus in the 8th Ward in recent years, and the city has helped facilitate the openings of two restaurants — Peckish Pig and Ward Eight — and is currently in the process of trying to open a theater on the street. The Howard Street Theater will bring the business district to a “tipping point,” said Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) at April’s Economic Development Committee meeting.

“We are in the process of changing Howard Street,” Rainey said at last month’s committee meeting. “The theater was supposed to be the first jewel in the Howard Street crown. It ends up being the last unfortunately … and I’m just very concerned about stumbling blocks being put in the way of this theater actually happening.”

Strawdog’s potential leasing of the space has also raised concerns from another Howard Street business looking to occupy the former outpost. The owners of Good to Go Jamaican Cuisine and Catering, 1947 Howard St., were the sole respondents to a request for information sent out by the city regarding the former outpost space before staff was notified of Strawdog’s need.

Evanston resident Lenice Levy, who owns Good to Go with her husband, said she had worked with city staff on possibly relocating to the Evanston side of Howard Street, where the former outpost is located, and felt “slighted” by the city’s actions.

“We’re just looking for fair opportunity to advance,” Levy told The Daily. “It almost feels like we’re not good enough for us to elevate our own business.”

After paying rent at their current space for 14 years, Levy said they have been hoping to buy a building, and the former outpost would be a perfect fit, allowing them to stay close to their customer base while still relocating to Evanston, where she and her husband live. Levy said that they are “pioneers” of business on Howard Street and are heavily involved in the Evanston community.

Giving Strawdog extra space should not be at the “expense” of other established businesses, she said.

Although the Economic Development Committee meeting voted to move forward with discussions for Strawdog to lease the former outpost, they directed staff to work with Good to Go in finding a place for the business in Evanston, which could potentially be the former outpost after Strawdog vacates it, as its lease would be temporary.

Although Good to Go has been interested in the space for a while, it is not entitled to lease it, Rainey said. However, its presence on Howard Street is valuable to Evanston, she said.

“It’s a business decision,” Rainey told the Daily. “They complement the other side of the street. … This is all about improving Howard Street.”

Hank Boland, artistic director for Strawdog, said that although the space at 633 Howard St. would be a “great step forward for them,” they weren’t looking to make a “land grab” on the former outpost over any other business.

Economic development official Johanna Leonard said Strawdog’s need for the space was pressing.

“We have been working to bring a live theater to Howard Street for many years,” Leonard said at last month’s Economic Development Committee meeting. “We want to keep this open as an option to keep Strawdog in our grasp of opportunity for Howard Street.”

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Twitter: @noracshelly