Real estate wars

By Amanda Murphy

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood and the streets are quiet. But inside the area’s local cineplex, the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., children from North Park Elementary happily buzz around, spilling popcorn in their wake. The interior’s ornate decoration and vintage architecture call to mind the theater’s glory days in the 1920’s. But no matter the evident wear and tear, one thing is clear: This place is loved.

It’s the affection for the theater that brought controversy to its box office when the landlord of the building put up a “For Sale” sign. What scared community residents most is when Chicago Tabernacle church, 4201 W. Troy St., showed serious interest in the structure, pursuing it as a new location for their fast-growing congregation. Upheaval from the community happened almost immediately when the news broke, and the area’s political voice, Ald. John Arena (45th Ward), quickly spoke up against the end of the structure as a theater.

“The loss of this historic icon in the heart of the Six Corners Shopping District would reverse years of planning and development,” Arena said in a written statement. “The historic Portage Theater can serve as an economic engine for that area.”

Despite what people may assume, the sale of the building does not reflect the theater’s financial situation, but rather that of its owner, said Mark Goles, programming manager of the theater. With its busy schedule of concerts, plays and movies, the theater is successful at putting people in its seats. Goles, who has worked at the theater for three-and-a-half years, said its popularity has done nothing but grow since he got there. But like many others, the landlord fell victim to the country’s current real estate woes and put the building up for sale at a price of reportedly $2.75 million.

That’s when Chicago Tabernacle came into the picture.

The church, which is run by Chrissy Toledo and her husband Pastor Al Toledo, outgrew its current sanctuary after four years and has spent the last six searching for another to fit its growing congregation. After hitting multiple dead ends with warehouse spaces that lacked the proper zoning, Chrissy Toledo said they were happy to find the Portage Theater, which was exactly the size and type of space they needed.

“We don’t need another church building,” she said. “We need a space to accommodate over 1,000 people.”

The idea of using a theater as a religious space was sparked by Toledo’s parents, who own Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York and restored the Loew’s Metropolitan Theatre, a $30 million project.

She said if the church were to purchase the Portage Theater, whose lease is up in 2015, they would put in the necessary funds to restore and revitalize it to its original beauty as when it was a vaudeville theater.

While the theater isn’t in serious disrepair, its long life and extensive periods of closing are evident in its aesthetics.

When the Portage Theater’s current management gained the lease in 2005, they spent $500,000 renovating the space. Gole said the theater had been closed and unused for a number of years so there was a lot of mess to clean up. But that hasn’t deterred theater groups, dub step disk jockeys and the Northwest Chicago Film Society from embracing it as a multifaceted community center.

“The mission is to keep the Portage Theater, the entertainment and the community theatrical center that we’ve developed it into,” Goles said.

Becca Hall, co-founder of the NCFS, said one of the greatest charms of the theater is not only the adventurous programming it supports but its antique charms.

“It’s one of the few places you can go and appreciate the original setting of cinema in the first years of its existence,” Hall said. “They even still have a theater organ.”

In accordance with that, Toledo said the Chicago Tabernacle would also like the space to remain a performing arts center of sorts. The church strays to the unconventional side with its emphasis on theater. It is known for putting on elaborate performances, including plays reworked from popular movies such as “Alice in Wonderland.”

“We would like to see this theater saved and used for what it was originally used for,” Toledo said. “We believe people should be passionate about theater.”

As both sides continue to wait in limbo, the Portage Theater is holding a “Save the Portage” rally March 26 to raise awareness of the theater’s potential closing. Pastor Matthew Reneau, a Chicago Tabernacle church leader, said despite the resistance of Ald. Arena and many members of the Portage Park community, they don’t plan on removing their bid for the building.

“We want to save the theater,” Reneau said. “We would like to revitalize the area, and we don’t want to back down. But sometimes the way it is in Chicago, you just have to push through.”