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In Midst of Controversies, Congress Theater Tries to Survive

After battling the city for its unsafe conditions, the Congress Theater’s owner, Eddie Carranza, attempted to redevelop the aged theater but the process hit a snag in September when he broke with his development partner, the startup company Doejo.

The Congress Theater. (ChicagoTalks/Emily Ornberg)

The landmark theater has drawn increasing criticism from local neighbors who say noise, security problems and public intoxication around the building have gotten out of hand. Those issues came to a head after an 18-year-old woman was sexually assaulted near the theater on New Year’s Eve.

City hearings occurred in April and June, both requiring owner Eddie Carranza to bring evidence back to the courtroom that he had made progress in cleaning up the venue. But the future of the theater is now unclear including whether Carranza will proceed with this ground-floor redevelopment plan that had been cited by his lawyers at city hearings in as evidence of the theater’s progress  toward improvements.

A joint press release  from the Congress Theater and Doejo on July 23 heralded the theater’s “bold renovation and reconceptualization to mark a new era for the landmark space.”

According to the release, the redevelopment plan called for “10 to 18 rehabbed street level spaces within the entertainment complex, [including] a farmers market-inspired grocer, a cafe called Flat White and a forthcoming gastropub restaurant, all independently owned and operated.”

On Sept. 15, Doejo announced  the dissolution of  its business relationship with Caranzo  in a press release, citing breach of contract and nonpayment, noting “We were proud to provide a foundation of innovative work for this landmark space.”

Phil Tadros, owner and CEO of Doejo, said although there were a lot plans made in the short time, the partnership between Doejo and the Congress, specifically with owner Eddie Carranza, was difficult to continue.

“[The split was] a very complicated situation, but to try and simplify it for you it was just we [Doejo] agreed to do something, we were not allowed to do what we agreed to do, and things came to a halt pretty fast,” Tadros said. “Communication started to vanish. We had a payment schedule and we didn’t see eye to eye with what we contractually agreed with, and we found it easier to part ways.”

Thomas Raines, Carranza’s attorney, said the Congress had made an advance payment for renovation services, and Doejo had “failed to provide those services.” Raines also claimed that Doejo failed to provide an accounting of the money spent on materials.

“They haven’t been able to produce 90 percent of the products they say they’ve bought for the intended usage of the Congress, so we’re in negotiations to settle with them where they pay back the majority of the money,” Raines said. “We haven’t come to terms on an agreement yet. In fact if we don’t come to terms in the next three days, we’re going to file a lawsuit against them.”

As of now, there has been no lawsuit filed.

Tadros explained however that Carranza did not make his second payment for the project, and Tadros claims that he was planning to walk away when Carranza fired him first.

Severed partnerships are nothing new for the Congress, according to WBEZ reporter Jim DeRogatis,.

Partnerships with other companies, such as concert promoters C3 Productions, Live Nation, House of Blues, and Jam Productions, have all suspiciously fallen through, DeRogatis said.

“He portrays himself as the little businessman who is trying to do something exciting and independent, but he’s gotten in bed with the biggest corporate rivals any concert promoter in this town could have, and they’ve all walked away,” DeRogatis said. “So it was not a surprise to me that this digital entrepreneur/developer behind Doejo announced … within two months that partnership falls apart.”

However, Raines said the splits in the past aren’t as controversial as they are made out to be. According to Raines, Jam Productions and Live Nation continue to call the Congress asking to co-promote shows “almost daily.”

“I think those are exaggerated,” Raines said. “That’s a misconception that there’s all these negative bad blood between the two, so that’s all I can comment on that.”

The Congress has been increasingly in need of redevelopment, as Carranza and the venue are in the middle of a series of  “Deleterious Impact/ Public Nuisance” hearings with the city, which began in April 2012.

These hearings could result in the theater losing its liquor license—a seal of death for a venue according to DeRogatis— if concerns about security, the condition of the building and noise are not taken care of. The next hearing will take place on Oct. 31.

Raines said although it’s possible that the Congress could get  its liquor license taken away, he is confident in the improvements the Congress made to date since the beginning of the hearings.

He said the construction is complete on the grocery store at the corner unit, which is 37-39 N. Milwuakee, and the construction continues on the rest of the storefronts.

“Anyone who has been at these hearings and covered them will tell you that there’s been massive strides made by the Congress,” Raines said. “It’s certainly in the right direction. I would never tell you or anyone else that [the Congress losing their liquor license] is not possible, but at this point I don’t see that happening.”

Local Logan Square residents have said to have complained for years about drunk concertgoers urinating on their lawns, parking illegally and leaving beer bottles and other litter on the streets. Police said they have received more than 120 calls connected to the theater in the last 14 months.

“To have one venue that’s poorly run, it doesn’t just affect that venue, and the people who go there, it reflects on the entire Chicago music scene,” DeRogatis said. “And then, if something bad happens, the reaction by city government is ‘we have to crack down on these [Chicago] music venues,’ so the ones like Lincoln Hall who have never had a problem suffer as much as the Congress Theater, which has had in the month of August had more than two dozen police calls.”

The Congress was named a Chicago landmark in 2002, and at the hearings, its representatives said the theater gets blamed for every problem in the neighborhood even though there are several other bars and concert venues nearby.

In an email, Matthew Bailey from Ward 1 of Ald. Proco Joe Moreno’s office, said although there has been progress in the Congress, there are still concerns.

“Many community members are involved in this action and, like me, want Congress to thrive and improve,” Bailey said.

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