From Chicago Tribune, February 3, 2016. View full article here.
Lathrop Homes, a historic but decaying public housing project on Chicago’s North Side, would become a mixed-income riverfront community of more than 1,100 residences under a plan developers are expected to unveil Wednesday.
The complicated, controversial and long-awaited proposal combines environmental restoration, historic preservation and low-income housing on an isolated site amid gentrifying neighborhoods. And it’s been a lightning rod for critics.
Under the plan, developers would preserve 19 of 31 existing structures on the site, including a portion of the public housing units. It also would include new residential construction and retail development, and would open up access to the Chicago River with sloping banks, a kayak launch and a riverwalk surrounded by 11 acres of restored green space.
“People are going to be living here because they want to live here,” said Jacques Sandberg, vice president of Related Midwest, one of three development partners selected by the Chicago Housing Authority in 2010.
The redevelopment team also includes nonprofits Bickerdike Redevelopment and Heartland Housing.
Located at 2000 W. Diversey Parkway, Lathrop Homes is something of an island amid trendier neighborhoods such as Bucktown and Roscoe Village. The redevelopment plan envisions giving public housing residents amenities on par with their neighbors, while providing restored natural and recreational resources for the broader community.
The plan calls for 1,116 apartment units to be built over three phases, including 400 public housing units, 222 affordable units and 494 market-rate residences. Public housing residents would be scattered in every building throughout the development, and amenities — right down to dishwashers in every unit — would be in all apartments.
The exterior of the historic buildings would be restored to their Depression-era luster, while the buildings will be gutted and updated with modern amenities. New buildings would be designed to fit with the original architecture. The redevelopment is expected to cost several hundred million dollars, Sandberg said.
Completed in 1938, Lathrop Homes was one of the first public housing projects in Chicago, and among the last to be tackled as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s 2000 plan to transform the city’s entire public housing stock.
Unlike more infamous public housing projects such as Cabrini-Green, where the last high-rise was demolished in 2011, Lathrop Homes had a lower profile and a much richer history. The development consists of brick row houses and smaller apartment buildings that created 925 public housing units in a campus setting.
Lathrop Homes, whose grounds were designed by noted landscape architect Jens Jensen, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, making restoration a priority for preservationists, and a challenge for developers.
Adding in the need to satisfy environmental concerns and the tastes of market-rate renters made the project “infinitely more complicated,” Sandberg said.
“The fact that it’s a historic site — balancing our interest in preserving these buildings to the needs of delivering enough units, is a huge challenge,” Sandberg said. “Designing buildings that complement the existing architecture but that herald a new beginning, addressing concerns of the neighbors in terms of access to the river and then doing a thoughtful job of the riverfront — I’ve never worked on anything as complicated as this.”
Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, said her organization had significant input into the planned development, which she said would set a “new precedent for river edge development.”
The overgrown and virtually inaccessible riverbank would be sloped back, with native vegetation planted along an adjacent trail. A new kayak launch would also help “drive people to the river,” Frisbie said.
“Both the people that move into the community and the people that live nearby will be able to take advantage of the Chicago River in a whole new way,” Frisbie said.
Frisbie said areas of the Chicago River that have been neglected become a “haven for wildlife,” with everything from snapping turtles and herons inhabiting the banks along Lathrop. The redevelopment would preserve some of that habitat while opening up accessibility to people, she said, making the river a healthier ecosystem overall.
Public housing advocates may not be as easy to please, fearing gentrification will displace low-income residents.
John McDermott, an organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said the redevelopment of Lathrop Homes falls short in one crucial aspect — it would eliminate more than half of the original public housing units on the site.
“Our greatest concern is that this plan would eliminate 525 of the 925 public housing units currently at Lathrop Homes,” McDermott said. “Public housing units are especially precious and especially needed on the North and Northwest sides of Chicago.”
Charlie Beach, president of Hamlin Park Neighbors, called the proposed redevelopment a “project of compromise.” He said a mixed-income redevelopment would help connect Lathrop, its residents and its amenities to the larger community, bringing benefits to both.
“Our primary objective was to integrate it into the fabric of the neighborhood,” Beach said.
While only 140 low-income families remain at Lathrop, it had more than 700 families when the CHA announced its transformation plan. The attrition of residents over 15 years as the redevelopment plan slowly evolved left holdouts clustered in nearly vacant buildings south of Diversey Parkway, pending the CHA’s promise of new digs on their old stomping ground.
Joy Aruguete, chief executive officer at Bickerdike Redevelopment, a nonprofit community development corporation focused on low-income housing, said Lathrop residents have been cautious but receptive to the new plan.
“I think the residents are rightfully skeptical,” Aruguete said. “We’ve seen a shift from complete skepticism and fear, to thinking this could really happen and we are going to be able to move into a revitalized part of the site.”
The proposal will be introduced at a community meeting Wednesday night and is expected to go before the city’s Plan Commission Feb. 18. Ultimately it will need approval from the City Council, which the developers have targeted for March. If all goes as planned, the developers would finalize financing and break ground in the fall, with the first phase completed two years later.
The first phase of the project will be entirely rental apartments. Subsequent phases may include a mix of rental and condominiums, Sandberg said.