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Evanston aldermen change course on Piven Theatre

A change course city lease with Piven could turn out be ''win-win'' for everybody said Maggie Weiss head tenants Noyes

A change in course on a city lease with Piven could turn out to be a ''win-win'' for everybody, said Maggie Weiss, head of tenants at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. | Bob Seidenberg~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 11, 2013 2:52PM

Evanston is changing course on a lease agreement that would have given Piven Theatre Workshop a lead role on renovating the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Instead, acting on an alderman’s suggestion, officials showed interest in a plan that would house Piven and other arts groups at a central downtown site.

Acting on Alderman Mark Tendam’s suggestion, council members put a lease with Piven on hold to renovate the Noyes Cultural Center, at 927 Noyes St.

Tendam said, in his opinion, trying to have both a performing arts center and a visual arts center in a space that is struggling to accommodate both at this point “is really a mistake.”

“I think we really need to be forward thinking and that a theater or performing arts building should be established downtown,” he said.

A downtown performing arts center was a key proposal of several studies released by the city earlier this year.

“I think the proposal creates the most impact for the community,” said Tendam, adding that he plans to bring more details about the plan in two weeks.

Arts groups, including those tenants at Noyes, criticized the proposed lease between Piven and the city, saying it overly favored Piven. They also questioned the financial viability of the proposal, in which Piven would undertake some $3.55 million in renovations to the Noyes building, a nearly century-old former school.

It also called for the city to loan Piven, a force in actors training for nearly 40 years, an amount not to exceed $2.2 million to be paid over the initial 30 years of the 50-year lease.

Artist Maggie Weiss, head of the tenants group housed at Noyes, said the Piven plan would result in 40 percent of the space devoted to one tenant (Piven) and would generate lower revenue than if all tenants were contributing on equal footing.

Weiss expressed surprise in the change of direction. Especially in light of the Evanston Arts group study and one by the National Endowment for the Arts, Tendam’s plan makes sense, she said.

“It seems like it’s happy ending for everybody,” she said. “Maybe we can still keep Piven in the building as a workshop, and they can have a theater at a better location.

Tendam said a facility in the downtown area holds the chance of serving the community best.

“Also, I had some concerns about the economic impact that expanding a theater on Noyes could actually have,” he said, following the vote. “There’s a limited amount of business space there and parking too.”

He said a site downtown could only further economic growth there. “Maybe it’s a part of downtown like west Davis Street before Ridge that we talked about as a venue for other things that hasn’t quite come around like Church Street.”

Leslie Brown, executive director of Piven, indicated the group would be open to the proposal. Noting the group had been in talks with the city for two years, she said her concern was that the latest proposal was just another way “to kick [the issue] down the road.”

Alderman Don Wilson reminded aldermen that the city approached Piven officials about the plan.

“We put them and other groups in this position,” he said. “We came to them on this.”

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