What does the CHA board’s recent approval of a development team for Lathrop Homes – which includes nonprofit and for-profit developers – mean for Lathrop residents’ vision of historic preservation of the low-rise development as affordable and public housing?
“There has been no decision about what is going to be built,” said Joy Aruguete, executive director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp ., part of the selected development team.
“We’re going into an open planning process. All voices will be heard,” she said. “I think our development team will roll with where things go.”
The development team was selected under a request for qualifications (pdf ) produced by a working group of stakeholders convened by CHA – but issued over the objections of residents and community groups in the working group. They had called for a plan focused on public and affordable housing, citing the predominance of new luxury development in the area.
Lathrop Local Advisory Council President Robert Davidson, a working group member, wrote to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan calling on him “to ask the CHA not to issue an RFQ until the Working Group reaches consensus – the basis for decision-making that we agreed upon in our first meeting,” Residents Journal  reported.
The RFQ departs somewhat from the cookie-cutter formula of the CHA’s plan for transformation – one-third each public, affordable, and luxury housing – calling instead for a range of 800 to 1200 units to developed, with not more than a third as public housing.
It calls for developers with experience in historic preservation using federal preservation tax credits, and sets the goal of making Lathrop the first CHA development to gain LEED certification for green design and construction.
(A previous request for proposals, drafted by CHA staff and aimed at demolishing Lathrop and replacing it with new construction, was withdrawn following objections from residents and supporters — and also from HUD, which pointed out that since Lathrop has been deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it couldn’t be demolished using federal funds without thorough consideration of preservation alternatives.)
‘No predetermined plan’
In a statement to Preservation  in December, CHA said that “no predetermined plan exists regarding unit distribution, income mixes or total number of units. Such a determination can only occur when the working group completes its task and the planning process begins in earnest with the selection of a development partner and the engagement of the broader community.”
But noting CHA’s earlier commitment to keep 400 public housing units at Lathrop and the RFQ’s one-third limitation, John McDermott of Logan Square Neighborhood Association  fears that CHA’s expectations remain at 1200 units, which he says would make preservation practically impossible.
Aruguete talks about Bickerdike’s long experience in engaging residents in community planning and promoting “community development by and for the benefit of community residents.” She says the development team “hopes to be able to build some bridges” and “get to a win-win outcome.”
Bickerdike has long worked with LSNA on affordable housing issues. But Aruguete may be missing something when she says, “I think the community and residents are largely focused on the affordability issue as the only question.”
In fact, residents and community groups are backing a preservation plan out of a combination of quality-of-life issues, historical pride, and practical concerns.
Residents back preservation
Last December, the Lathrop LAC, LSNA, and residents and community supporters in the Lathrop Leadership Team endorsed a preservation plan (pdf ) drawn up by architects working for Landmarks Illinois in consultation with residents.
That plan would reconfigure existing buildings with larger units, producing about 800 apartments where 925 now exist. It meets accessibility requirements and could attain LEED certification, said Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois .
With a higher-density redevelopment, “it would be very difficult to preserve very many of the buildings,” said Peters, especially with requirements for parking and access roads.
“We would lose a lot of open space – they’d probably have to tear down the park,” said longtime resident Cynthia Scott, a member of the Lathrop Leadership Team. “If you’re talking about 1200 units, you have to go high up – six stories or even more – and it’s probably not going to be built as well” as what’s there now.
“The most environmentally sustainable way to revitalize Lathrop is to use historic preservation,” said Scott Shaffer of the Lathrop Homes Alumni Chicago.
“These buildings are so beautiful, and not just that – construction today is just not comparable,” said Shaffer, who is a bricklayer. “Today’s construction materials are just not as good.”
“It makes no sense to demolish and dispose of 30 structurally-sound brick buildings and truck them to a landfill, only to replace them with buildings constructed of all new materials, and all the energy that consumes,” said Peters.
And preservation would cost a lot less than demolition and high-density new construction – at least half as much, and quite possibly less than that.
Mixed-income plans stall
Including newly-built market-rate housing “makes it much more complicated,” McDermott said. “It would involve many levels of financing in the middle of a very difficult economy; it would involve multiple phases of construction.”
In contrast to an affordable preservation rehab, which could be accomplished in three to five years, it would mean “the process could easily stretch out ten, fifteen years or more” for a community that’s already been “in limbo for over a decade,” he said.
Shaffer points to mixed-income redevelopment projects that are part of the CHA’s plan for transformation and are years behind schedule. Several are also in financial trouble: last year the city was forced to bail out developers  at Cabrini-Green and Lakefront Crescent due to slow sales and elusive private financing.
Also stalled, as the Chicago Journal  reports, is the Roosevelt Square development intended to replace CHA’s ABLA Homes.
It’s particularly resonant for Lathrop supporters. ABLA included Jane Addams Homes, which along with Lathrop was one of the three original CHA developments built by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration in 1937-38. And Roosevelt Square  developers include two of Bickerdike’s partners at Lathrop, the nonprofit affordable developer Heartland Housing , and lead developer Related Midwest , a developer of luxury high-rises and adaptive reuse.
There wasn’t much adaptive reuse at Addams: of 32 existing buildings, only one remains; funds are now being raised to restore it as the National Public Housing Museum .
Six years after construction started on Roosevelt Square, less than one-third of its promised public housing units are completed, and even lower percentages of market rate and affordable housing are done, according to the Journal.
Related is getting a bailout too: in March, the CHA board approved a $3.4 million loan to help Related Midwest with pre-construction costs for Roosevelt Square’s second phase, which “was supposed to be completed by now,” the Journal  reported.
Related Midwest recently cancelled two high-rise condo developments in Chicago and defaulted on a $28 million loan to finance a huge condo development in Tucson, Crain’s  reports.
‘A beautiful job’
In sharp contrast, restoration of Trumbull Park Homes  on the far South Side – the third sister of Lathrop and Addams, built in 1938 – took just three years and was completed three years ago. It remains 100 percent public housing.
“CHA did a beautiful job at Trumbull,” Peters said. “And it’s hard to say it can’t work at Lathrop after you see Trumbull.” He points out that demand for land is substantially greater around Lathrop – but that’s one reason to preserve it. “It’s ironic that now that there are jobs around there and it’s a desirable area, they want to take it away.”
Preservation would bring a major financing advantage – the federal historic preservation tax credit, which would cover 20 percent of development costs. CHA’s RFQ mentions the tax credit as a potential source of financing. But of three schemes sketched out in a 2008 site analysis by CHA – new construction, mixed new and old, and full conservation – only the latter would qualify, Peters said.
“It wouldn’t be eligible if they only preserved a few buildings, or if they’re going to be plopping new buildings around the existing ones,” he said. “They’ll destroy the character – the way the buildings relate to each other and to the open space — and that’s what makes it historic.”
Lathrop was the crown jewel of its class – a national model for successful, human-scale public housing, Peters said. “The site plan was really a model because it did such a good job of creating interesting architecture and layout and public space,” he said. “It just worked well – and it’s always been a successful community — because it’s well-designed and well-built.
“Unfortunately its lessons were lost” in the high-rise projects built in the 1950s and ’60s – and the lessons are in danger of being lost again, if Lathrop is made a high-density development. “It works because it has open space,” Peters said.
Lathrop Homes was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1994; at a December 10 meeting in Springfield, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council will vote on Lathrop’s nomination to the Register. If approved as expected by the National Park Service, the redevelopment project would be eligible for the preservation tax credit.
Enough luxury housing
The bottom line for many Lathrop supporters is that, given all the costs, market-rate housing just doesn’t make sense for Lathrop Homes. It’s located in an area where affordable housing has been steadily disappearing; 34,000 rental apartments were lost in the area between 2000 and 2007, mainly to condo conversion — and today many thousands of high-end condos sit unsold around Lathrop.
“We’re completely surrounded by condos, everywhere you look,” said Scott.
“It’s not just poor people, it’s middle-income people who are losing jobs and being foreclosed on,” said Shaffer. “These are people who could use these apartments today.”
Even splitting the development, preserving a section and putting new construction on the rest of the site, would be “a tremendous waste of a resource” in an area where affordable housing is badly needed and land is extremely hard to come by, McDermott said.
After all these years, CHA’s push on Lathrop comes at a curious time, he points out. “In a few months we’ll have a new mayor and a new City Council, and we’re going to have to take a new look at the whole plan for transformation in light of the economy and the housing crisis,” he said.
Look at CHA’s past plans for Lathrop: in 2000, in the first version of the PFT, CHA said there would be 750 units of public housing there after revitalization; six years later, the agency announced plans to demolish the entire development and replace it with 1200 units of new construction.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is the determination of residents and their supporters to save Lathrop. And they intend to be fully involved in the planning process now commencing. Who knows what’s in store for the oldest – and arguably the most successful and significant — property in CHA’s portfolio?