Controversy on Clybourn: Attack of the Amazing Expanding Seven-Screen Theater | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Controversy on Clybourn: Attack of the Amazing Expanding Seven-Screen Theater

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By one o'clock on Saturday afternoon, traffic is backed up for blocks at several intersections in Lincoln Park.

The cars belong to shoppers, diners, and prospective home owners, mostly, driving round and round looking for someplace to park, so they can get out of their cars and peruse the boutiques, restaurants, and newly constructed homes for sale that glut this wealthy and thriving neighborhood on the city's north side.

"Schaumburg East," is what some outraged locals call it, a reference to the far western suburb that, with nothing but the promise of a bright future on its horizon, built and built and built, until it could almost build no more.

And now Lincoln Park's congestion may take a turn for the worse. Come next summer, if all goes according to plan, David "Buzz" Ruttenberg and William Smith, veteran north-side developers, will have built Butternut Square: a seven-screen, 1,890-seat movie theater and retail complex on a plot of land at the corner of Webster and Clybourn Avenue, where once was located the Butternut Bread factory.

The project promises to be the largest movie theater complex in Chicago. It will draw thousands of moviegoers from across the city, and maybe even the suburbs, threatening to jam traffic on Clybourn and send cars scurrying onto nearby side streets, in search of the ever-elusive Lincoln Park parking space.

Some outraged residents insist the plans are part of larger developmental schemes that will forever destroy the peaceful, residential tranquillity (little though it may be) that still exists in that community. Indeed, Lincoln Park is sprouting developments that have no visible relationship to the brick town houses and Victorian and Queen Anne homes for which the area is known. Drab and dreary, the new developments spring up like mass-produced mushrooms, to satisfy the increasing demand of young urban professionals for new digs close to the Loop.

Butternut Square, if built, will only add to the traffic, noise, dirt, and congestion, opponents argue. For this reason, they are mounting a last-minute campaign to have aldermen Terry Gabinski (32nd Ward) and Edwin Eisendrath (43rd) push forward legislation that would down zone the site and, in effect, kill the proposed project. (The site is in Gabinski's ward and a few blocks from Eisendrath's.)

The ensuing brawl has all the trappings of neighborhood land-use disputes, including allegations of hidden agendas, double crossing, and political deceit (not to mention a colorful cast of characters who, for all their shrewdness, chutzpah, and savvy, could give the crew on Dallas a run for its money).

On one side is Ruttenberg, a successful lawyer-developer who is also, by the by, president of the board of trustees of Francis Parker, one of the city's most expensive and exclusive private schools. He contends that opponents have distorted the drawbacks of his project.

"I love Lincoln Park; I have lived here for over 40 years," says Ruttenberg. "I wouldn't do anything that would hurt this neighborhood."

On the other side are Larry Edwards, owner of the Biograph movie theater, at Lincoln and Fullerton, and dozens of residents in the homes just east of the site. At the moment, it is doubtful whether they can stop the project. Ground had been broken and Ruttenberg has already secured city permits to lay the building's foundations. It seems unlikely that either Gabinski or Eisendrath will join the down-zoning effort. And, even if they do, Ruttenberg insists that it is illegal for the city to halt construction by down zoning a site--a point others dispute.

Regardless of the law, there is still the larger question of whether it is in the city's interest to cram its wealthiest neighborhoods with development. Movie theaters, like malls, built in Lincoln Park, are projects that might otherwise have gone to underdeveloped communities elsewhere in the city. As is usually the case, private investors, like city planners, plow their resources into communities that need them the least, while much of the rest of the city goes without.

"Chicago wasn't built with great planning, it was built with greed," says Phil Walters, a WMAQ TV reporter who lives in the area and is a vocal opponent of the movie plans. "The problem is you reach a point where a little planning wouldn't hurt. You know, Europeans can't believe the way we live. There are whole sections of this city that are devastated. You drive through them and you say, 'When was the war?' And then a neighborhood becomes hot, and it becomes all neon. Our priorities are wrong; it just doesn't make sense."

The Butternut project began about a year ago, when Ruttenberg bought the property and announced plans to convert the factory into a commercial complex consisting of a Great Ace hardware store and a new space for the Steppenwolf Theatre.

From the outset, his problem was zoning. The property was zoned manufacturing, and he needed a commercial zone to build his development. So Ruttenberg asked Gabinski to introduce an ordinance in the city council that would change the zoning.

This, however, was not a routine matter. At the time, Clybourn Avenue was the central prize up for grabs in an emotional tug-of-war between commercial developers and industrialists. A long northwest diagonal, Clybourn cut through a thriving, near-northwest-side industrial zone of factories and warehouses.

During the day, trucks rumbled up and down the otherwise uncongested route. At night, however, the traffic abated, and Clybourn became an ideal thoroughfare for Loop-bound motorists, not to mention midnight drag races.

Says Edwards of the road's easy access to the Loop, "Clybourn was created for that purpose; that's what the original planners had in mind."

What the original planners (or subsequent ones, for that matter) could not have imagined, of course, was the latter-day transformation of Lincoln Park. Over the past two decades, young urban professionals have steadily moved there, sending the price of real estate soaring. At first, they bought existing homes, easing out mostly working-class white ethnics and Hispanics. But gradually the demand was so great that new housing was built--most of it brick town houses on the east side of the neighborhood. On the west, meanwhile, the yuppie advance smacked against the industrial zone of Clybourn.

The impact was immediate. Soaring land value caused taxes to rise. Some manufacturers were forced out of business. And their abandoned buildings were transformed into condominiums or stores. Soon the new residents began squabbling with the manufacturers that remained, complaining that the industrial traffic was obnoxious.

Martin Oberman, former alderman of the 43rd Ward, attempted to settle the problem by proposing to "buffer" industries from residents with commercial development.

"That seemed like a reasonable idea," says Eisendrath, who succeeded Oberman as alderman last spring. "People want and need stores. If you design them properly, they don't have to be obnoxious."

And so it was that Ruttenberg's original proposal drew little objection or attention. In fact, it struck many residents as a splendid idea.

"It makes sense to put an abandoned building to use," says Mary Davis, who has lived in the area for over a decade. "And I don't think people would have been bothered by a 500-seat theater like the one he had in mind for Steppenwolf."

Certainly, the city's department of planning had no objections, nor did Gabinski. The zoning change, backed by both, swept through the City Council without a negative vote.

Then the bombshell burst. The factory, Ruttenberg says he soon discovered, was riddled with vermin and structural defects that would make rehabilitation an expensive, if not impossible, task.

To make matters worse, his negotiations with Steppenwolf and the Great Ace had failed. Neither wanted to move there. So, without informing local residents, Ruttenberg had the Butternut factory demolished. In its place, he would build Butternut Square, a two-story mall with the first floor set aside for retail, and the second floor leased to M&R Amusement Companies, the Skokie-based operators of several movie theater complexes.

When word leaked out about the changes, many residents were outraged. M&R eyed the site for the very reason residents wanted them out of the neighborhood. It's only a few minutes from the Fullerton exit ramp at the Kennedy Expressway. That means cars coming from all over the city and suburbs could zip right in. It was a great opportunity for the movie operators and a potential nightmare of congestion for the residents.

At a June meeting called to discuss the matter, angry residents charged that they had been duped. Indeed, Ruttenberg was in an advantageous position. He had the zoning needed for a multiscreen theater; he had a tenant ready to move in. He could proceed with his project regardless of what the neighbors felt.

"What should have been done was to link a zoning change to a specific development plan," says Eisendrath, who was not alderman at the time Gabinski pushed the zoning change through the city council. "That way, Ruttenberg would only have had his zoning if he rehabilitated the factory and installed the Great Ace and Steppenwolf. Once that deal fell through, he would have lost his zoning change."

"I'm not going to say the man intentionally hoodwinked the community," says Edwards, the Biograph proprietor. "I don't know what he has in his mind. All I know is that he got his zoning for a 2,000-seat theater by convincing everyone he wanted a smaller theater. The zoning law makes no distinction between a regional movie theater and a real stage. But I'll tell you, that's like saying there's no difference between a Mack truck and a Volkswagen. After all, they're both vehicles."

Such criticism, Ruttenberg counters, is unfair. From his point of view, he had taken a risk merely by purchasing the building. He had bought industrial land at higher commercial costs with, he says, every intention of rehabilitating the factory. Because the building was beyond repair does not mean he should be stuck with an enormous white elephant.

"If I made a mistake it was this: I broke my word without telling the residents up front," says Ruttenberg. "If I had to do it again, I would have told the residents what my plans were. For that, I am sorry."

"I tried very hard to get my original idea off the ground," Ruttenberg says. "I never said I had the leases for Steppenwolf or the Great Ace. I never made any promises. The fact is that my plans didn't work out."

Besides, Ruttenberg continues, the movie theaters would not swamp the area with traffic, according to a study he commissioned. In addition the project would transform vacant land into tax-producing property. In fact, Ruttenberg was so confident of public approval, this summer he asked the Zoning Board of Appeals for permission to provide fewer parking spaces on the site than city law requires. If approved, the request would save him a few hundred thousand dollars in construction costs, at the risk of exposing his project to intense public scrutiny. Ruttenberg moved forward nonetheless, and agreed to a series of meetings with representatives of the two major community groups in the area, the Concerned Allied Neighbors, and the Sheffield Neighborhood Association.

During these meetings, Ruttenberg agreed to cut back the number of seats in the theater from 2,400 to 1,890, to install a traffic light at the intersection of Webster and Clybourn, and to landscape surrounding parcels of land. In return, the negotiators agreed to back his zoning variance. It was a decision several would later regret.

"I must admit that we went into those negotiations a little naive," says James Bach, president of Concerned Neighbors. "This is not our profession; we don't pretend to know zoning law. We figured that we couldn't stop the theaters so we should try and at least cut it down some."

"We supported his zoning variance request because it appeared we had no other choice," says Larry Blankstein, who sat in on the negotiations as a member of Sheffield Neighbors Association. "He didn't need our approval. Once he had the zoning, he could build without us. So we were not negotiating from a position of great strength."

Other residents are not so charitable in their analysis.

"Let me tell you, those negotiations were a farce," says Walters. "Most people in the community didn't even get to participate. We were kept in the dark."

Walters contends that Ruttenberg's traffic survey was flawed because it did not give proper emphasis to the increases caused by movie attendance during peak hours.

"The study didn't mention that when movies turn over you have 400 cars coming in, and 400 cars leaving," says Walters. "It's madness. You have to have police out there to direct the traffic. They have a similar problem in Skokie at the Old Orchard theater. When the Hilton Hotel wanted to build a rival theater, M&R, which operates the Old Orchard, went to court and argued that the place was already such a traffic mess that the area could not afford any more theaters. Now M&R wants to bring that madness here."

At a community meeting called last October to discuss the proposed agreement, Walters expressed his feelings loud and clear.

"As a journalist, I don't usually get involved in these kinds of disputes," says Walters. "But this time I put down my notebook and turned concerned neighbor. I had to get involved. I saw it happen before in Georgetown [in Washington, D.C.]. The area gets hot, and the rents start to go up. Soon the ma and pop establishments get squeezed out, and are replaced by chic restaurants. Then the chic restaurants are squeezed out. The rents get so high you need high volume businesses. You get record stores, McDonald'ses, singles bars, and then you end up with suburbanites, teeny boppers, and the place becomes unlivable."

Other residents joined with Walters to denounce the plans. A cry was issued to down zone the property back to industrial. After the meeting, in the face of growing opposition, Eisendrath and Gabinski announced their opposition to Ruttenberg's zoning variance.

"We had an agreement with the community, but they backed off," says Ruttenberg. "And I don't know why. This is a good project. The parking will take care of the crowds; there won't be any need to park on side streets. We're using precast concrete in order to give it a texture, feel, and stability of an urban site. It won't look like a suburban shopping strip."

Seeing that the ZBA might deny his request for a variance, Ruttenberg withdrew the request and decided to build the theaters with 479 parking spaces, as required by law. Ground was broken on the project a few weeks ago. And it was then that Edwards charged into the fray, pronouncing that "I cannot sit back and let this outrage happen."

That may be so, but some people, Ruttenberg for one, suspect that Edwards may have ulterior motives. As owner of the Biograph, for instance, he may not want competition. And he was president of the board of trustees of the Steppenwolf at the time that Ruttenberg thwarted the theater's plans to develop a new space for the company.

Steppenwolf had opted against the Butternut site, says Edwards, mainly because of its location. Instead, they negotiated with another developer. Those plans were scuttled, however, when Ruttenberg, of all people, bought the parcel the other developer wanted to build on (at Halsted and Diversey), and pushed ahead with a project to construct some shops and housing there.

"I don't know Mr. Edwards's motives," says Ruttenberg. "I'm not going to get caught in a newspaper debate with Mr. Edwards. But I think it's late for someone to jump into the picture. He doesn't even live in the immediate area."

"I don't have any hidden agenda," counters Edwards. "I have a 20-year lease with Cineplex Odeon, who manage the Biograph. Do you think they care about a new movie theater on Clybourn? They're the largest movie company in America.

"Besides, this has nothing to do with Steppenwolf. We turned Buzzy down because we didn't want to move there. You know, I stayed out of this for a long time, precisely because I didn't want people to think that my involvement was for personal reasons. That was a mistake. I should have opposed this from the start because it is horrible for the community."

In hindsight, almost everybody involved is admitting some mistakes. Bach and Blankstein, seeing the passions Edwards has stirred, are admitting, somewhat sheepishly, that perhaps they should have given greater thought to down zoning.

For his part, Edwards has printed petitions calling on Eisendrath and Gabinski to down zone the property. The petitions--signed by about 400 residents--will be presented to the aldermen sometime this week. Gabinski could not be reached for comment; Gabinski and Eisendrath say they have not made up their minds as to whether they will support the initiative.

"I don't think this project is right for the community," says Eisendrath. "It's not the end of the world, but for two weeks during the year--during the Christmas movie rush in particular--it will be a mess. I don't know that I will support down zoning because I don't think the courts will allow us to down zone a project that has already started. And I don't want to give people in the ward false hope.

"I think the best we can get out of this is a lesson for the future. From now on, every development matter on Clybourn should be given careful scrutiny from the start."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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