Cascade Drive-In will make case to reopen before West Chicago panel
Reviving a drive-in movie theater with a long history in West Chicago isn't as simple as flipping on the projector.
The Cascade Drive-In publicly announced plans for a comeback last month, generating the kind of enthusiasm that transported audiences back to the theater's heyday when hundreds of cars pulled up for a double feature under the stars.
The original hope was to reopen the shuttered "ozoner" under the same operator this fall, but Russell Whitaker, an attorney for the land owner, said that timeline is no longer realistic.
"We started conversations with West Chicago in May or June, and this has been dragged out, and it's taken longer than we expected," Whitaker said.
The property currently is zoned for residential development. The Cascade's reopening hinges on a request to amend the city's zoning code to allow drive-in theaters as a special use in the corresponding residential district.
Plan commissioners will consider the proposed revision during a virtual meeting Tuesday night. But city staffers want to see the 28-acre property rezoned from "estate residential" to commercial.
"We don't have a redevelopment plan for the property right now," Whitaker said. "And so we don't think it makes sense to up-zone the property at this time. If we were proposing a redevelopment, then we would obviously talk to the city about rezoning. Until that happens, we think the rezoning conversation is not right."
The Cascade closed in 2019 after a nearly 60-year run, at that time leaving only one other drive-in theater in the region. Jeff Kohlberg operated it for 30 years, until the property's previous owner declined to renew the lease in late 2018.
In 2003, the drive-in site at North Avenue and Prince Crossing Road was part of 58 acres of land forcibly annexed into West Chicago by the city council. Properties brought into West Chicago by forced annexation are zoned by default under the city's most restrictive residential classification.
"West Chicago created this problem in 2003 when they forcibly annexed the property," Whitaker said. "That was 40 years after Cascade started operating, and Cascade operated in the city's (estate residential) district without issue for 15 years."
Tom Dabareiner, who became the city's community development director two years ago, said it's "not a very standard approach" to open up residential land for business use.
"We're supportive of the use as a drive-in," Dabareiner said.
"We just would like it to be in a commercial district, in a business district, because we could end up setting a precedent, and that would mean that we would have trouble saying no to anybody who's requesting a business use in a residential district."
Local drive-in fans now have to make the trek to the McHenry Outdoor Theater, the last suburban survivor in a dying breed. Less than a dozen drive-in screens were still operational in Illinois as of October 2019, according to the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. Many went dark to make way for redevelopment.
"It's an expensive location to develop," Dabareiner said of the Cascade site. "And housing is usually not dense enough to support what you would need to make to profit to help pay for the utilities to the site."
Outdoor showings, meanwhile, are enjoying a resurgence during the pandemic as movie lovers in search of a socially distant night out flock to pop-up drive-ins.
The West Chicago city council will get the final say on whether the Cascade will flicker back to life. The city has received more than 200 letters of support for the theater's reopening, Whitaker said.
"It's probably next year before we're able to open, but if the request that we have before the city is not approved there is no Cascade," he said. "The property will remain shuttered."