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Theaster Gates, U. of C. Plan New Theater and Park for Washington Park

By Sam Cholke | April 20, 2017 6:02am | Updated on April 21, 2017 11:33am
 The University of Chicago and Theaster Gates want to buy five city-owned vacant lots on Garfield Boulevard to build a park.
The University of Chicago and Theaster Gates want to buy five city-owned vacant lots on Garfield Boulevard to build a park.
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Courtesy of the University of Chicago

WASHINGTON PARK — Artist Theaster Gates on Wednesday night revealed plans to add a park and theater building to the University of Chicago’s arts block in Washington Park.

At the 3rd Ward meeting, Gates presented plans to buy five vacant lots from the city for a park that would be next to a new theater center in a vacant university-owned building and potentially a third project in the city’s oldest surviving CTA station.

The proposed $1.5 million park would be the largest new purchase of land by the university in the Washington Park neighborhood in at least five years. The university has already acquired many of the other parcels along Garfield Boulevard at the entrance to neighborhood’s namesake park.

“Right now it’s a place people walk through to get from 51st Place to the bus,” Gates said of the vacant land.

Gates wants to pave those improvised footpaths through the lots as part of the landscaping that would also include areas for outdoor performances and possibly movie screenings, as well as new fences, gates and lights to improve the safety of the property.

He said it would make the lots a safe and secure place instead of a “potential space for trauma” as it is now.

Dowell said she was initially supportive of the idea, but wanted to hear from the community and would wait to make a decision until after the CTA decides on whether the university or another bidder will win the lease for the city’s oldest CTA station, the former Garfield Boulevard station under the Green Line tracks.

The university is planning an art center for the building immediately west of the old station and Gates said the station could act as the entryway or a ticket booth for the arts center. He said it could also be a place to showcase local artisans, display the neighborhood’s history or help people navigate to the museums and historical places around the South Side.

Dowell said it was likely the university would win the long-term lease on the station, but wanted to make sure Gates’ proposals for places for artisans was included in the lease before she considered any possible sale of the city lots or a discount on the sale price.

The remaining component would be a theater in a university-owned building at 323 E. Garfield Blvd.

Gates’ plan calls for renovating the building to include a 70-seat theater and rehearsal space, dressing room and green room that could be used by South Side theater companies that can’t afford their own venues.

It’s unclear how much the project would cost.

A timeline was not presented for any of the projects and university representatives were not immediately able to say after the meeting how much the various projects would cost, how long they would take to complete or how they would be funded.

The art center announced a year ago would appear to be the project furthest along in the development. Gates’ presentation included a slide showing an estimated completion by 2020 and updated renderings showed the project has possibly been scaled back as it seeks funders, losing the third floor originally envisioned by architects Johnston Marklee.

The building would still require programming and Gates said he believes the partners are out there already in the neighborhood, but are waiting for a place to become available.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said she expects the U. of C. to win a long-term lease on the city's oldest CTA station, but wants to see the lease before considering selling nearby city land to the university. [DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]

The proposed art center would appear to be the furthest along in development, expected to open in 2020. But recent renderings show it without the third story originally proposed. [Courtesy of the University of Chicago]