Congress Theater is Improving, Alderman Says

By Victoria Johnson on March 6, 2013 9:11am 

 The Congress Theater is at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The Congress Theater is at 2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.
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DNAinfo/Victoria Johnson

LOGAN SQUARE — The beleagured Congress Theater is improving —  but still has a ways to go, says Ald. Joe Moreno (1st).

"I have always said I want the Congress to be the most successful, historic, entertainment theater that it can be," the alderman said in an interview Tuesday. "I think they're making steps in the right direction but they have a lot more to do."

Congress owner Eddie Carranza and staff members were scheduled to appear Tuesday at a city liquor commission disciplinary hearing to face charges from several incidents in April and May, including an alleged assault on a concertgoer by a security guard and drug dealing by a theater employee, according to charging documents.

Tuesday's hearing was postponed, though, to March 26 to allow a new lawyer for the Congress Theater to get acquainted with the case.

Meanwhile, the music venue is still going through the public nuisance proceedings initiated by Moreno over concerns about fights, noise and underage drinking outside the theater after events.

Both proceedings could result in the Congress losing its liquor license.

Moreno said when he initiated the public nuisance proceedings last year, he consulted with aldermen and police commanders and found a "stark difference" between the issues the Congress was having and those at other venues. But, he said, the Congress has closed that gap.

"We don't have as many issues in the neighborhood as we did in the past," he said, adding that the theater's new security firm has helped tamp down some of the trouble.

Carranza said he, too, thinks there's still room to improve, but emphasized he has done everything the city has told him to do.

"We've satisfied everything," Carranza said. "We are making great progress with the city."

Still, Carranza said he feels he's been unfairly targeted for problems that other venues also face, including a slew of building violations.

"Look at [the other venues]," he said. "They're all falling apart."

The Congress has been cited for problems such as cracked walls, leaky ceilings and a range of electrical issues, but a search of they city's Department of Buildings website notes that hardly any building of any kind in the city is free of violations, let alone an 87-year-old theater.

Venues of similar ages such as the Riviera Theatre, the Aragon Ballroom and the Chicago Theatre — all built between 1917 and 1926 — have violations ranging from general maintenance issues to more serious safety concerns.

According to city records, management for the Riviera Theatre is currently battling the city in court for violations including crumbling exterior walls and failing to allow inspectors in for the theater's scheduled annual inspection on Aug. 21.

The Aragon Ballroom recently found itself in the news again when it was reported that a chunk of ceiling reportedly fell on a woman's head in 2011, resulting in serious injuries, though the city says the venue is safe for concert-goers.

Even restoration doesn't guarantee freedom from problems. The Chicago Theatre was restored to its 1930s appearance in the 1980s, but just last year it failed its annual inspection because of problems with fire-prevention pumps in the sprinkler system, records show.

No one from those theaters responded to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday.

Buildings Department Spokeswoman Susan Massel said it is standard procedure to cite building owners for "maintenance-related" problems and to escalate proceedings into the circuit courts for more imminent, safety-related issues.

Such was the case for the Congress Theater's panic-release bars, an important safety feature that allows people to quickly open doors and escape from a fire.

But Carranza denied a report that the problems with his doors were so critical as to warrant a forced closure. He insists he and his attorneys worked with the city to schedule the repairs for a gap in the Congress Theater's event schedule.

"The city didn't shut us down," he said. "There's a big, big difference."

Massel could not say whether Carranza was forced by the city to close or the exact number of violations that remain unresolved. Online records sometimes are not updated to reflect compliance until the next inspection, she said.

Meanwhile, Logan Square Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paul Levin said he believes Carranza is making improvements on a building that had long been in disrepair.

"He bought a building [in 2004] that is very, very old and was very decrepit," he said. "As far as it's general condition, it's very clear that he's putting money into it, and he's making progress."

Records show the theater passed its annual inspection last year, a new construction inspection on Jan. 25 of this year, and in recent months has been granted building permits for various construction projects, including some related to the citations.

The theater has also been approved for a review of its electrical system, something Carranza has said would cost $300,000 to bring up to code.

"I saved it for last because it's the most expensive," he said.

Carranza said knows how serious the problems he's facing with the city are, adding that he thinks they may have scared off a potential buyer for the theater.

"I had a deal, but now I gotta to do all this [city-mandated] stuff first," Carranza said. "I've got to clean everything up."

Carranza has not confirmed that the potential buyer was Live Nation but Moreno confirmed meeting with representitives from the company in recent months to discuss the deal.

A Live Nation spokeswoman declined comment on the matter Tuesday night.

In the meantime, Carranza said he will continue to invest in the Congress Theater and hopes to eventually return to talks with the potential buyer.

"But if I have to stay independent, I will," he added.

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