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A high-rise at Lathrop Homes?

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The development team hired by CHA for Lathrop Homes issued a “final draft” of their plan [2] last week, but key details are missing and major questions remain in contention.

That includes the height of a high-rise building Lathrop Community Partners [3] wants to build at the southern end of Lathrop — a flashpoint for neighborhood opposition — as well as issues of preservation, replacement of lost public housing, and public financing for private developers.

Built in 1938 along the Chicago River north and south of Diversy, Lathrop features low-rise brick buildings and landscapes designed by leading architects of the day.  It was cited by Preservation Chicago [4] as “the best public housing Chicago has ever built” and named to the National Register of Historic Places last year.

Preservation plan from Landmarks Illinois [5]

Preservation plan from Landmarks Illinois

CHA stopped leasing to new residents in 2000, at first promising a full renovation as public housing, then meandering through a series of planning efforts. At one point plans to demolish and replace the entire development were announced.

LCP, a consortium of for-profit and nonprofit developers led by Related Midwest [6], a developer of luxury high-rises, was selected by CHA to handle Lathrop’s redevelopment in 2010.  LCP issued three possible scenarios [7] for community discussion last year.

At a community meeting on the “final draft” plan last week, lead designer Doug Farr said LCP had reduced overall unit count to less than 1,200 in response to concerns about excessive density. (One way they did this, it turns out, was removing the 92-unit Lathrop senior building from the count.)  Earlier plans projected 1,300 to 1,600 units.

That goes some of the way toward meeting objections of neighborhood groups and local aldermen — though they had argued that 1300 units on the 37-acre site meant a density level two-and-a-half times the surrounding area.  Lathrop currently has 925 units, with less than a fifth of them occupied.

LCP also reduced proposed retail development to 20,000 square feet, down from a high of 70,000 — with big box stores surrounded by surface parking — in earlier plans.

But although aldermen and neighborhood groups rejected the concept of a high-rise on the site, it’s still in the plan.  LCP is just not saying how high it will be.  They’re not even calling it a “high-rise.”

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“The tallest building in the plan we’re calling ‘the iconic building,'” Farr said at a community meeting last week.  “We don’t know the height, we don’t know the unit count.”

The building would “provide focus” to Lathrop’s southern riverfront, he said.

On a model of LCP’s plan available at the meeting, the “iconic building” appeared to be two or three times the height of Lathrop’s nine-story senior building.  In earlier plans, LCP proposed a 28-story building.

“We believe a high-rise development in this neighborhood makes absolutely no sense,” said Paul Savojec, chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward now includes a portion of Lathrop.  Neighborhood groups they’ve consulted “can’t support downtown-type density level at this site,” he said.

It’s not a new position.  Last year, in response to LCP’s initial plans, Waguespack was joined by 13 neighborhood associations in a letter to CHA [8] demanding “better planning than a revival of the Tower in the Park style,” and noting that while CHA was demolishing high-rise developments elsewhere, LCP proposed “replacing neighborhood-oriented two- and three-story walkups at Lathrop with high-rise and mid-rise towers.”

Two local groups, Hamlin Park Neighbors and Roscoe Village Neighbors, called the proposed high-rise “the very antithesis [9] of the pedestrian scale of the communities of which Lathrop is to be a part.”   They noted that it’s well over a mile from Lathrop to any CTA line, meaning increased auto traffic would be unavoidable in an already heavily congested area.

At one point Waguespack complained that LCP had “a pattern of providing limited opportunities for public input and then placing the feedback aside.”

Says Savojec: “If this were anywhere but a CHA site, what they’re proposing would be dead on arrival.”  He adds: “We don’t think there’s any reason CHA shouldn’t be held to the same planning standards as everyone else.”

While LCP talks about the importance of “integrating” Lathrop into the community — particularly by including retail development in the project — the lesson from CHA’s history is that “nothing is more isolating than going up vertically,” he said.

The only real rationale for increasing the project’s unit count is because “it’s better for the development team,” Sajovec said.  “Every additional unit means greater profit potential for them.”

Attempts to reach LCP for comment were unsuccessful.

“We’re not in a position to say whether the high-rise is appropriate without more details,” said Raymond Valadez, an aide to 1st Ward Ald. Proco Joe Moreno of the 1st Ward, where the building is proposed.

The building’s size is one of a number of issues on which LCP’s “final draft” is lacking in detail.   “It’s not the final final plan,” said Valadez.

Reflecting the concerns of neighborhood associations, Waguespack will push for “a hard and fast limit on how tall that building can be” in a planned development agreement laying out parameters for Lathrop’s redevelopment, Sajovec said.

They want the agreement to be as specific as possible, he said — in part because of Related Midwest’s record at Roosevelt Square [10], the company’s other CHA redevelopment project, located on the Near West Side.

Like other CHA mixed-income projects, Roosevelt Square has run into difficulties.  Work there stalled several years ago, and now Related is seeking adjustments [11] in the income mix and construction schedule — and an extension of the local TIF in order to provide continuing financing.

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Meanwhile, Lathrop residents and their supporters have been pushing for redevelopment as public and affordable housing that preserves the human scale of the development’s historic architecture and landscaping.  Working with Landmarks Illinois, residents proposed a preservation plan [12] in 2007.

They point out that the surrounding area is saturated with luxury condo developments, including many now in foreclosure — and that market-rate components have stalled redevelopment efforts at CHA mixed-income projects.

Despite this, LCP’s plan has substantially more market-rate housing than other CHA mixed-income projects, where demand for market-rate has not been strong.

With LCP’s “final draft,” residents and housing advocates are concerned that promised replacement housing for public housing to be demolished at Lathrop — 525 off-site units if LCP sticks to its current allotment of 400 on-site units — is not a specific part of the plan.

At the community meeting, CHA’s Michael Jasso said the agency is “working with the development team” to address the issue, and Heartland Housing [13] executive director Michael Goldberg expressed hope that replacement units could be located in “opportunity areas.” That’s the term for economically-thriving communities where CHA is supposed to put new units under a longstanding federal court order.

But asked whether plans for replacement units would be included in the Lathrop master plan, CHA spokesperson Matt Aguilar didn’t directly respond.  Instead, he referred in a written statement [14] to efforts under “Plan Forward,” the new version of the Plan For Transformation, to develop or acquire units “in opportunity and developing neighborhoods.”  And he cited a new RFP to find developers “to deliver units to CHA in a variety of ownership or subsidy structures.”   But nothing about the Lathrop plan itself.

“They’re saying they’ll get to that sometime down the line,” said John McDermott, housing organizer for Logan Square Neighborhood Association [15], who works with the residents’ Lathrop Leadership Team.  “There’s no real commitment and no accountability.” He cites high land acquisition costs on the North Side along with aldermanic and “not-in-my-backyard” opposition as reasons for skepticism.

Aguilar emphasizes that “although the Lathrop development originally had 925 units, there are less than 165 units occupied today,” and 400 redeveloped public housing units “will more than accommodate the families that have a right of return.”

McDermott points out that Lathrop’s occupancy rate is simply a result of CHA’s refusal to lease units there for the past 13 years.  Public housing advocates have long argued that CHA has emptied its buildings in order to reduce its responsibility for providing housing.

Meanwhile, 200,000 Chicagoans tried to sign up for CHA’s waiting list the last time it was open.

Failure to provide promised replacement units is a problem throughout CHA’s redevelopments.  On Friday, Mary Schmich noted [16] that “barely more than a third of the 1,200 units promised to displaced Cabrini residents have been built” — one reason many people don’t trust CHA, she writes.

***

One major change in the newest plan is the development team’s commitment to seek federal historic tax credits, available for preservation of sites listed on the National Register.  A project that preserved significant amounts of Lathrop would be eligible for the credits, which can cover 20 percent of development costs.

Earlier plans demolished or altered too much to qualify for the tax credits; developers instead were planning to seek $30 million in TIF funds [7].

Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago [17] doesn’t think the current plan preserves enough of Lathrop to qualify for the credit.

The “final draft” preserves most of the buildings north of Diversy and a strip of homes on the southern side of the street.  “You can’t tear down most of the structures south of Diversy and call it a ‘preservation plan,'” Miller said.

He’s concerned that a long line of rowhouses along Damen is slated for demolition in LCP’s plan.  “Lathrop is the best of the best, and the rowhouses are really the best of Lathrop,” he said.

Miller thinks LCP and CHA could save save those rowhouses and the block behind them — and still work their market-rate magic — if they looked into using a vacant lot along the riverfront just north of Lathrop, which is currently for sale, as well as the Vienna Beef site south of Lathrop, now being vacated in a TIF-backed move.

Saving the rowhouses would also require scaling back new streets opening onto Damen — which Waguespack’s office suggests would also reduce traffic congestion.  Developers talk about increasing connectivity, Sajovec said, but the streets they’re proposing only open onto big box parking lots on the other side of Damen.

Miller calls for granting Chicago landmark status to the historic buildings and landscapes as part of the memorandum of agreement that will result from a federally-sponsored public review now underway.  The review is required because federal funds are involved in a project impacting a National Register site; its goal is to minimize the negative impact of redevelopment.

***

But the historic tax credit is only part of the financing picture, and while LCP and CHA aren’t talking about TIF funding now, Savojec warns that “at any point they could come back for it….We don’t think TIF will ever be off the table.”

McDermott calls that an “overwhelming likelihood,” adding: “At that time, when they do come to the city and ask for a TIF, they want the process to be so far along that it’s virtually unstoppable.”

Are they going to come to the city for TIF or other financing — as other private developers have at other CHA redevelopments — because they have too much market-rate housing and can’t sell or rent it?

At bottom, the issue is how much public investment should benefit private interests. Most people probably believe private developers bring significant financial resources to CHA redevelopment projects, but “that’s not the case,” said McDermott.

An analysis CHA public-private deals over the past decade shows that public funds have accounted for well over 80 percent of financing, according to Leah Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative, a coalition of community organizations.  Developers themselves put up little and sometimes none of their own capital, she said.  Instead — along with 99-year leases for public land, with affordability requirements that last only 15 to 40 years — they receive huge developer fees from CHA.

And in the process, the supply of affordable housing is diminished, Levinger said.  Under the Plan For Transformation, over the last thirteen years, 18,650 low-rent apartments were demolished and 2,500 were built, she said.

It turns out that rather than private investment and public benefit, it’s the other way around, she said: “It’s like we’re paying to make people homeless.” There’s a double loss involved, she said — low-rent housing demolished while scarce housing resources are diverted to the private sector.

And with Chicago currently considering a new five-year affordable housing plan, she points out, half of the city’s affordable housing funding has been devoted to CHA’s redevelopment — resulting in the net loss of thousands of affordable units.

“Now is the time to think about this,” before the project is underway and more public subsidies are demanded, McDermott said.  “Is this the time to take another direction with Lathrop and adopt an alternate model of the kind that has worked for CHA?”

He points to the successful renovation of Trumbull Park Homes [18] in South Deering — like Lathrop, a low-rise, brick development built by the WPA — as 100-percent public housing; or of Hilliard Homes [19] at Cermak and State as a mix of public and affordable housing.  “Hilliard Homes hasn’t destabilized the South Loop or Chinatown,” he said.

Some opposition to Lathrop residents’ call “no market rate” reflects misperceptions about public and affordable housing.  Public residents at Lathrop now include a group of workers at nearby Costco, McDermott said.  And affordable housing aims at a range of middle-income renters.

At Roosevelt Square, affordable housing is aimed at up to 60 percent of area median income for the metropolitan region, which is about $45,000 for a family of four.  (That’s actually the median income in the city proper.)  CHA resident leaders’ Central Advisory Council has called for redeveloping Lathrop [20], along with other existing developments in areas with large inventories of market-rate housing, as public and affordable for families earning under 80 percent of AMI, which is $60,000 for a family of four.

The larger context includes a growing shortage of affordable rentals in Chicago — the shortfall was estimated at 130,000 in 2009 — and a glut of market-rate housing.  It also includes a number of CHA public-private mixed-income redevelopments that have stalled.

It includes the elimination of much of the North Side’s affordable housing in a new wave of SRO conversions — and the dramatic growth of low-wage jobs in Chicago.

If providing housing is the goal, rehab is far more cost-effective and much faster to accomplish, Levinger said.  At Trumbull Park, for example, 434 units were fully rehabbed in three years.

On the Near West Side, ABLA’s 3,600 units are supposed to be replaced by 1,467 on- and off-site public housing units — reflecting occupancy levels in the late 1990s — in part through Related’s Roosevelt Square development. In 2000, CHA completed renovation of 330 units of public housing in three years.  Then Related Midwest came in with the Roosevelt Square project; the first of six phases began 2004 and was completed in 2006, producing 414 units, including 127 of public housing.

The first phase got underway after “several false starts,” according to media accounts; the second phase was stalled by the housing crash and now, whenever it does start up, is not going to built all at once, a Related executive told Chicago Journal [21].

In July, Related won a 13-year extension of Roosevelt Square’s TIF.  According to the Near West Gazette [22], Midwest Related now projects completion of Roosevelt Square by 2035.  That’s well over 30 years from the start date.

With a timeline like that, Lathrop Homes could easily be finished by 2050.  By then, there could be far fewer families with a “right to return.”