UPTOWN — The Preston Bradley Center is weighing changes that officials hope lead to a starring role in Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. James Cappleman's vision of an entertainment district in Uptown.
The six-story building at 941 W. Lawrence Ave. is occupied by a variety of nonprofit tenants. It houses two churches (including building owner the Peoples Church), a men’s shelter, a cafe, a symphonic band, an art center and a theater troupe.
Cappleman said last week the center is seeking a switch from residential to business zoning, as well as a Performance Arts Venue license that would increase the capacity of the building for performances to 1,000 people.
"The goal is that we become an additional anchor in the Uptown neighborhood's entertainment district," said Uptown resident and Preston Bradley Board President William Boulware.
Tressa Feher, Cappleman's chief of staff, said she spoke Tuesday with Dylan Rice, the director of Creative Industries-Music at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. They discussed bringing two multi-venue, citywide events — Jazz Fest and the Chicago World Music Festival — to Uptown in the future via the Preston Bradley Center, Feher said.
The zoning changes to the building would clear the way for that possibility. Feher said the zoning request would go to the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals soon, but that no date has been set yet for when that will happen.
The National Pastime Theater on the building’s fourth floor figures to be a big part of the effort to rebrand the center as a major entertainment venue.
Theater founder and Artistic Director Laurence Bryan said the troupe has a future as a major performance arts venue and live music destination, even though its current space seats only about 200. Bryan wants to produce more large-scale performances downstairs in the center’s auditorium, which can hold about 1,000 people.
He is also looking to work with other nonprofit and charity-based theater companies in Uptown, including the About Face Theatre company and Pegasus Players, which will likely be displaced from its current home at 4520 N. Beacon St.
"We have a lot of friends who are in need of space who are in very well established theatrical companies," Bryan said.
He said the zoning change would give the Preston Bradley Center more access to tax increment finance funds and business grants to renovate the venerable building, which he said is expensive to maintain.
Alyssa Berman-Cutler, president of Uptown United, an economic development organization, said the building is important to the entertainment district concept.
"We think that using historic spaces like that, especially to enhance the cultural offering from the district, is going to be a big part of enhancing the entertainment district," Berman-Cutler said.
Center board member Boulware acknowledged he is not sure how the zoning change would impact the Peoples Church, which would need a special-use permit if the building was zoned for business use instead of residential.
"The hesitation, if there is any, is making sure that the Peoples Church, which owns the land and owns the building, isn't adversely affected by any zoning change," Boulware said. "We can't lose sight that the entity that owns the building is a church."
The church, however, has a dwindling congregation. Aside from Sunday services and a few other outreach and social welfare programs, it does not offer much these days, he acknowledged.
But Boulware also noted that bringing in more revenue could bolster the church's programs.
The director of the building's Uptown Arts Center, Colette Adams, doesn't know "where we'll go in the future," but said the Preston Bradley Center "will always have our hands in two worlds."
"I have my vision of arts and social justice combined," Adams said.