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Old Posted Jul 18, 2006, 11:11 AM
Chi_Coruscant Chi_Coruscant is offline
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Location: Chicago
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Once-lavish Esquire theater may be nearing end of run

July 18, 2006

BY DAVID ROEDER Business Reporter

Chicago's Esquire theater, 58 E. Oak, a once lavish movie house that dates from the 1930s, could be near the end of its run.

The Esquire's owner wants to tear it down and replace it with small buildings for retail tenants.

Ald. Burton Natarus, whose 42nd Ward includes the Esquire, said he's been shown plans that call for buildings no taller than four stories. He said he supports the project because the new construction would attract quality stores into buildings similar to those that exist on Oak Street.

"Certainly, we have to look at our options for the property,'' said the owner, Mark Hunt of M Development LLC. "But nothing is definitive and there are no timetables for starting construction.''

Can't compete with megaplex

Hunt declined further comment. A source familiar with the project said that under one scenario, the theater would be closed in about 18 months.

The source said the new construction would total more than 100,000 square feet and that Hunt is aggressively marketing the space to stores that want an Oak Street address. The street has carved an identity near Michigan Avenue as a locale for luxury and specialty retailers who can pay top-dollar rents, sometimes hitting $300 a square foot for street frontage.

Rents decline above the first floor, and it's possible Hunt's project could include a restaurant, medical offices or other uses on the upper levels.

Showing movies, in the meantime, has been a tough business for the Esquire. The property has deteriorated under a succession of management firms. The current one is the AMC chain, which has a financial incentive to direct the most popular films to bigger and newer theaters downtown that it also controls.

"Movies are just a killer at the Esquire," the source said. "It's impossible to compete with the River East,'' a 21-screen AMC megaplex at Illinois and Columbus.

The Esquire began as a single, 1,400-seat auditorium and was converted to a six-screen theater in 1988. The City Council in 1994 rejected landmark status for the theater, saying that the earlier renovation destroyed much of its architectural heritage.

Natarus said Hunt would not need a zoning change for his project, but would need to bring it before the Chicago Plan Commission under terms of the city's Lakefront Protection Ordinance.
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