Lake looks up for expansion

? Owners hope to present plans by summer, likely to ask for village subsidy.

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By DREW CARTER

The Lake Theatre's big summer blockbuster this year might not appear on the silver screen, but rather as a proposal to expand...vertically.

Owners of the theater, Downers Grove-based Classic Cinemas, hope to present drawings of an expansion that would add five to seven screens over 50,000 to 75,000 square feet in the form of two or three stories of auditoriums above its existing building. The Lake now has seven screens in its 30,000-square-foot building.

The theater's owners would seek village assistance for the project, citing the fact that the Lake draws many people to Downtown Oak Park.

Additional stories would be 30 to 35 feet tall, so the project would likely push the 125-foot ceiling imposed by zoning regulations in downtown.

The trick will be finding the right architect. Classic Cinemas President Willis Johnson wants to preserve all of the original theater building, and will insist on stadium seating and sound proofing in the new theaters, so noise from another movie doesn't spill over to nearby auditoriums.

Also important in a design will be crowd flow, Johnson said.

Johnson has tried for "a decade or more" to expand the Lake, looking to assemble the next three properties to the west of the theater-owned Panda Express building, which houses the western-most portion of the complex.

The buildings would have included what is known as the Bank One annex, the building that formerly housed Razzle Dazzle, and the one that is home to Maple Tree Restaurant and a nail salon.

Razzle Dazzle owners Joyce and Robert Proce might have considered selling their building after having retired from their business in April 2004.

And a developer who recently had planned to build a mixed-use building on the Bank One parking lot approached Johnson to see if he was interested in the bank annex building.

But the sticking point has been the restaurant and nail salon building's owner. "They won't even talk," Johnson said.

So, he looked to the village for help.

"Obviously a private citizen has no ability at all, short of ridiculous amounts of money, to induce someone to sell their property, whereas the village has some mechanisms," Johnson said. But "they had no interest.

"Condemnation is a not a nice word," Johnson said. "But the reality is, what do you want to have happen?"

The village should encourage expansion of the Lake, urban planners hired by the village to create a downtown master plan said last week.

"You have a wonderful theater," said George Crandall of Crandall Arambula, at a public forum about the downtown plan. "It's something that communities hunger for. You should do everything to accommodate expansion on the existing site."

Crandall called the theater a "gem."

Asked whether he could use the positive comments from Crandall Arambula to leverage expansion support from the village, Johnson said, "I would like to think that we could in one form or another. The Lake Theatre generates people."

He said there is "not even the slightest question" that the Lake, if expanded, would draw more people. He estimated it loses 40 percent of possible customers "because we don't get all of the pictures."

Expanding to 12 to 18 screens would allow the Lake to get more movies, play blockbusters on more than one screen, and play more art films. "That would give us a lot of flexibility," Johnson said.

Village Development Services Director Mike Chen suggested Johnson look upward to expand. The idea has been successful elsewhere, Johnson said. "It can be done."

Chen did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact: dcarter@wjinc.com

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