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Uptown Theatre restoration working toward summer start date

An ambitious $75 million plan to restore Chicago’s 93-year-old Uptown Theatre back to its original grandeur is expected to begin construction later this year. The project’s tentative timing was revealed Tuesday as the city’s Community Development Commission signed-off on $13 million in tax increment financing (TIF) assistance and the sale of a city-owned lot at 1130 W. Lawrence Avenue to “support theater operations.”

Partners Jam Productions and Farpoint Development will lead the effort to reopen the 1925 Spanish Baroque Revival-style movie palace at 4816 N. Broadway. Special care will be taken to repair and preserve the ornate Rapp and Rapp-designed structure, which has deteriorated considerably since closing in 1981.

“It’s been more than 35 years since the theater closed to the public, which makes this the most anticipated restoration project in the city’s history,” said Chicago Department of Planning and Development commissioner David Reifman in a statement. Farpoint boss Scott Goodman described the Uptown Theatre rehabilitation as “the most culturally important project” his company has ever undertaken.

Chicago design firm Lamar Johnson Collaborative will oversee the architectural restoration as well as the creation of new exterior marquee designed replicate the look of the venue’s long-vanished original signage. Interior improvements include new elevators, concessions, and an increased capacity from roughly 4,100 to 5,800 people.

While previous false starts and failed plans led to some pundits questioning the current effort and its comparatively low $75 million budget, the city remains bullish on the project’s chances of success. In addition to the TIF money and neighboring land sale, City Hall will also provide $14 million in property assessed clean energy financing and $3 million from Chicago’s Adopt-a-Landmark program.

The Uptown Theatre renovation is expected to create more than 200 construction jobs during its 18-month restoration plus 14 full-time and 181 part-time jobs once the historic North Side structure reopens. If all goes to plan, the Uptown could welcome eager concert-goers by early 2021.

City reveals shortlist of architects vying to design $8.5B O’Hare expansion

After receiving bids from twelve groups that included some of the planet’s top architectural talent, Chicago has narrowed its search down to five teams hoping to design a $8.5 billion terminal expansion of O’Hare International Airport.

The bid shortlist is headlined by local giant Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Chicago-based Studio Gang, Spanish-born starchitect Santiago Calatrava, London’s Foster + Partners, and Colorado-based Fentress Architects. The Foster bid is supplemented by additional Chicago talent from Epstein and JGMA while the Studio Gang-headed effort partners with designers at Corgan Associates, STL Architects, and Solomon Cordwell Buenz.

Perhaps equally impressive is the number of architectural heavyweights comprising the seven bids that did not make the cut. Notable names left off the shortlist include Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Perkins+Will, HOK, Gensler, Grimshaw Architects, Studio Fuksas, FGP Atelier, Goettsch Partners, and Rafael Viñoly.

Arguably most surprising is the exclusion of Chicago’s own Helmut Jahn, whose eponymous firm designed O’Hare’s iconic two-concourse Terminal 1. Passing over a local team with such close ties to the existing airport suggests officials have a desire to take O’Hare in a “new architectural direction,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Blair Kamin.

The mayor’s announcement came at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new multi-modal facility at O’Hare’s eastern edge. Designed by Ross Barney Architects, the 2.5-million-square-foot facility consolidates rental car operations and includes 2,600 additional parking spaces.

SOM restores iconic Chicago Skyway toll plaza to original midcentury glory

Described as “ultra-modern” in 1958 when it first opened, the Chicago Skyway toll plaza connecting the Indiana Toll Road to Illinois’s Dan Ryan Expressway had devolved into anything but in recent years. The iconic gateway to the city was in need of modernization, notably new solutions to help drivers and reduce the confusion that caused traffic congestion.

Under a $7 million plan to upgrade the tolling plaza, the Skyway’s private owners tapped local architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to remove decades worth of piecemeal modifications and bring the midcentury structure back to its original streamlined glory.

The most obvious element of the restoration project is a large highly-visible sign bar, color-coded for each lane. SOM decided to float the sign bar on metal brackets to create separation between the existing canopy.

“In the 90s, they installed all of the lane signs in the middle of the canopy fascia, which was a major defining element of the original structure,” explained SOM designer Michael Jividen. “By pulling that down and away, it allowed for a more faithful restoration.”

“The attitude with historic preservation is keep what’s historic and clearly identify or set aside what’s new,” added SOM’s Scott Duncan. “I think it’s quite clear in our arrangement that we tried to have the lightest touch possible on the existing historic elements.”

The signage is joined by new automated payment machines that accept credit cards as well as touchless pay from Apple, Android, and Google devices. The machines feature video instructions and upgraded intercoms to improve transaction speed and customer service.

The plaza’s instantly recognizable neon sign was swapped for an LED replacement—an element that was particularly difficult to match, its designers say. The canopy was decluttered of obsolete tolling equipment and its original linear lighting arrangement restored. In a move to be more sustainable, the top of the structure was configured to accept future solar installations.

The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill team also set about restoring the original paint scheme of the plaza’s vertical columns, which were last painted a bright shade of yellow. “There was no documentation of the original color,” Jividen explained. “But we found an old Skyway promotional video in the Richard J. Daley archive at UIC and were able to suss out the color as kingston aqua.”

By bringing the Skyway canopy back to its original glory, the historic design elements like its curving toll booths, graceful supports, and Art Deco-inspired typography shine once again. “The design reflects the streamlined aesthetic of the era,” added Duncan. “People were making everything rounded—even things that don’t move like toasters and drinking fountains. It embodies the positivism and the optimism of the machine age.”

Fannie and Freddie programs offer options to retirees seeking home loans

It’s a common problem for retirees seeking to refinance or get a new mortgage: After their regular employment earnings stop flowing, their monthly incomes drop. They might have hundreds of thousands of dollars stored away in IRAs or 401(k) plans and other investments, but for mortgage purposes, they don’t have enough monthly income to qualify for the loan they want. They look asset rich, income poor.

In some cases, that impression can create serious problems — even rejections of applications by loan officers who don’t know how to work with pre-retiree and retired applicants.

Take the case of Jim Planey. He’s a retired industrial real estate broker, lives in a home valued around $1 million in Glenview, Ill., and has accumulated substantial retirement funds after a 40-year career. He and his wife have stellar credit scores in the 800s and decided to refinance their existing mortgage, an adjustable-rate loan that was about to shift to a higher interest rate.

Planey assumed that his application would be a slam dunk. Not only did he have significant home equity as well as a flawless history of on-time payments to his bank, he even planned to reduce the principal balance on his mortgage from around $600,000 to $400,000.

Most importantly, they were in the dark about program options offered by investors Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and some private lenders for retirees and pre-retirees. The options essentially recharacterize retirement assets into qualified income for mortgage purposes, sometimes without requiring actual withdrawals of funds. Had the bank personnel been better trained and had more experience, Planey could have been approved in a matter of days rather than the eight weeks it ultimately took him to get a run-of-the-mill refi.

The programs generally take two forms: One treats ongoing distributions from IRAs, 401(k) accounts and similar funds as income that’s acceptable for home-mortgage applications, provided the withdrawals plus other income are adequate to amortize the loan and are likely to continue for at least the next three years. The second option is designed for people who have retirement funds that haven’t been tapped yet. Loan officers can use retirement-account balances as the basis for what functions essentially as imputed income — money that is or will be available to the borrower to supplement regular monthly income when needed to make repayments on the loan.

Steve Stamets, a senior loan officer at The Mortgage Link, LLC, in Rockville, M.d., has used these options periodically, and considers them “a great alternative” when clients have assets but don’t quite fit the traditional rules that define eligible income. He offered a simplified example of how it works: A client had $2 million in mutual funds but not enough regular income to qualify for the size mortgage he sought. The client didn’t want to withdraw money or be forced to liquidate securities. Using Fannie Mae’s program option, he was able to produce qualifying income for mortgage purposes of $3,889 per month using a formula that discounts the fund balances by 30 percent to protect against market fluctuations that might devalue them. This amount was then added to other income the client had to total the amount he needed to support the mortgage application.

John Meussner, a loan officer for Mason-McDuffie Mortgage Corp. in San Ramon, Calif., says that although Fannie’s and Freddie’s options can be helpful, they come with their own complications as well. One of the biggest: The assets in some seniors’ investment or retirement accounts may not qualify if they’re derived from ineligible non-employment-related earnings. Another issue: Loan terms for seniors may be just 10 or 15 years. Monthly payments on such mortgages are higher than those with standard 30-year terms. Not all clients can afford them.

Bottom line: If your assets are tied up in retirement and investment funds, and you’re seeking a mortgage based on your post-retirement income, ask loan officers about the Fannie and Freddie options as well as alternatives offered by some private lenders. If the loan officer pleads ignorance, you’ll know it’s amateur hour. Shop elsewhere.