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Lathrop plans: little preservation, big TIF

Three new plans for redeveloping Lathrop Homes fall far short of the project’s stated goal of historic preservation – to the point that developers will pass up tens of millions of dollars in federal historic preservation tax credits.

Instead, they plan to ask for $30 million or more from a new TIF district.

The plans have garnered widespread local opposition due to heavy increases in density and congestion.

CHA and Lathrop Community Partners will present three scenarios at open houses (Thursday, November 15, 3 to 8 p.m., and Saturday, November 17, 12 to 4 p.m.) at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen.

At 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, Lathrop residents and neighbors will hold a press conference to denounce all the scenarios and the lack of any meaningful community engagement.

Already thirteen neighborhood associations have signed onto a letter to CHA from Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) calling for rejection of all three plans due to excessive density and lack of public participation.

And Tuesday, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) sent an e-mail blast announcing the open houses and saying, “I do not believe that any of the individual scenarios on the table are an acceptable plan to move Lathrop Homes forward.”

Total demolition

In fact, one of the scenarios would almost certainly fail to win regulatory approval.

Dubbed the “Delta Greenscapes” scenario, it calls for demolition of all of Lathrop’s low-rise, historic buildings.

But since Lathrop was named to the National Register of Historic Places in April, any demolition involving federal funds must be approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.  And CHA will use federal funds to cover the costs of rehabbing and operating public housing at Lathrop.

“Clearly, demolishing everything would not meet preservation guidelines and would rarely be an  approveable action under the federal program,” said Michael Jackson, chief architect for preservation services at IHPA, who notes that nothing has been submitted to his agency.

Approval might be forthcoming in cases involving extreme deterioration and functional obsolescence, but “I can’t see that logic applying here,” he said. “The essence of the Lathrop project is historic preservation.  It’s been identified as a historic property, and the development team has been given that direction.”

Indeed, the RFQ under which LCP was selected states that the developer “shall consider preservation one of the priorities of the revitalization.”

“What they’re pulling is a typical developer’s trick,” said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago.  “We’re going to show you something so god-awful that when we walk it back to something slightly less god-awful, the community will think it’s won something.”

Developers prefer TIF

Despite the RFQ’s request for developers with experience using historic tax credits, none of the plans are likely to qualify for the credits, which cover 20 percent of a project’s costs – in this case, tens of millions of dollars.  That’s what developers told aldermen in August, said Paul Sajovek, Waguespack’s chief of staff.

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Reunion at Lathrop Homes

What started last fall as a few old friends talking about getting together has snowballed (with the help of a Facebook page) into a reunion of hundreds of former residents of Lathrop Homes this weekend – and connections with current residents who are working to preserve the historic CHA development as affordable housing.

Six hundred former residents are expected for a dinner dance tomorrow night at the White Eagle Banquet Hall in Niles (October 17, 6 to 11 p.m.). The event will raise funds for the Daniel Cotter Boys and Girls Club, where many participants belonged while growing up in the low-rise development along the Chicago River. During the day they’ll gather for tours of Lathrop Homes and nearby Schneider School and an open house at the Cotter Club, starting at noon.

“It was very positive growing up there,” said Jose Zayas, whose family lived at Lathrop from the 1950s to the ’70s, and who still lives nearby. “It still is for the families that are still there.”

“It was a neighborhood; everyone knew each other,” he recalled. “There was all the green space. And there were these anchor institutions, the boys’ club, the Crane Childcare Center, the churches….Looking back, it was the families and it was the institutions that are still there.”

The high rate of vacancies, as CHA has refused to rent out vacated units, “impacts the residents in not really having a neighborhood,” he said. Currently only about 200 units out of a total of 925 are occupied.

“It’s really sad,” said Scott Shaffer, a Humboldt Park resident who cochairs Lathrop Homes Alumini Chicago, of the vacancies. When he visits now, he says, “it really hits you…It’s something so great that they want to take away.”

While CHA’s final plans for Lathrop are still under discussion — it’s the only remaining development listed as “to be determined” in the tenth year of the agency’s ten-year plan for transformation — the current parameters would require replacing existing buildings with new construction at much greater density.

As they’ve learned of the threat to Lathrop Homes — listed as endanged by Preservation Chicago (pdf) and Landmarks Illinois – Shaffer and several other alumni have joined Zayas, who was working with residents and community groups on the Lathrop Leadership Team to preserve the buildings.

They say the current scale and setting is ideal — low-rise brick buildings in a “garden city” design, with landscaping (designed by the lengendary Jens Jensen) now mature and lush — and top-notch supportive nonprofits are on-site. (The Crane Center, which moved to Lathrop Homes in 1963, was founded in 1907 by Jane Addams, who was a colleague of Julia Lathrop at Hull House; among other distinctions, Lathrop was appointed as the first director of the federal children’s bureau when it was founded in 1912.) Preservation would allow developers to make use of generous historical rehab tax credits.

And they say that focusing on public and affordable housing is appropriate in a neighborhood where a wave of high-end condo development has cost residents thousands of units of affordable rentals. CHA’s insistence on including market-rate housing in the redevelopment makes the plan dependent on volatile market conditions, and new construction would expose residents to even longer delays.

CHA’s request for qualifications should be recast so that it is open to nonprofit developers of affordable housing, they say.

“These buildings are good, solid, beautiful, historic buildings,” said reunion organizer Betty Howard. “There’s a dire need for low-income housing, and this area has been set aside for that purpose since the 1930s.”

(It was following protests organized by Howard and some friends in the mid-60s that the Lathrop Homes Boys Club began admitting girls. “We wanted access and we got it,” she said.)

Zayas says he agrees with residents’ demands (see Newstips 10-22-08) that vacant units be occupied. “It’s a moral issue, having 700 units shut when you have people who desperately need that housing right now,” he said.

Current residents will be among those speaking at tomorrow night’s event; the hope is to encourage more alumni to get involved in preservation efforts, organizers say.

Architectural Legacy Threatened

(Continued from Part 1: Parks)

There are parks, schools, and community institutions that could be impacted if the Olympic Village is built on the site of Michael Reese Hospital.

At 3113 S. Rhodes, Pershing East Elementary, a small Bauhaus-style gem, sits exactly where the Chicago 2016 bid book shows a “transport mall” the Village. Though the school does not appear in the bid book’s renderings, Chicago 2016 has reportedly said it will not be torn down. But questions from Newstips about whether it would be closed to accommodate construction were not answered.

On the same block, Lake Meadows Park will be paved for a parking lot, with subsequent restoration reportedly promised. A large wooded section of Burnham Park east of the village will be leveled to provide facilities for athletes, and the bid book shows a “security command and fire brigade” in the historic Olivet Baptist Church. A city spokesperson referred questions to Chicago 2016, which did not respond.

But the urgent concern of local preservationists is the imminent demolition of the hospital campus, much of it designed after World War II under the guidance of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, a seminal modernist architect. The campus includes the only buildings in Chicago designed by Gropius and is one of a small number of extensive Gropius projects in the world.

IIT architecture student Grahm Balkany was researching Gropius’s role when the city began moving to purchase the campus for an Olympic Village. So far he’s documented Gropius’s direct involvement in eight Reese buildings; he believes there are probably more. As the “guiding hand” to the hospital’s campus master plan, Gropius had a wide influence on its post-war expansion.

At the time Balkany went public with his preliminary findings, Chicago 2016 said no decisions had been made about what buildings to demolish. Since then, however, they’ve taken a hard line, citing an earlier agreement to preserve the original 1907 hospital building as if that precludes further consideration.

“We’re trying to show the world that we’re a world-class city, and the first thing we’re going to do is tear down a huge collection of buildings by arguably the greatest architect of the 20th century,” said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago. “It’s kind of insane.”

Many of the most significant buildings are “perfectly adaptable,” he argues. Balkany points out that the Olympic Village will require a laundry, a clinic, and a main dining hall, all of which exist or could be served by Gropius buildings, which include large and small structures.

Instead, Chicago 2016 is planning 21 identical 12-story buildings — reminiscent to some of Robert Taylor Homes, except they’re placed on huge parking pedestals, like the new developments plaguing the Near North Side.

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Preemptive strike

Over the years Newstips has covered story after story about local groups seeking input into development plans and being completely shut out.  Now there’s a group that’s found serious leverage.

Hyde Parkers who are opposed to the University of Chicago’s efforts to bring in a hotel developer to demolish the shuttered Doctors Hospital and build on the site are poised to block the project by voting the precinct dry.

In the print version of its story, the Tribune quotes Ald. Leslie Hairston calling the referendum “an abuse of the process” and suggesting neighbors should see “what the company came up with in response to community suggestions.”

In fact they’re resorting to this “nuclear option” — voting the precinct dry would effectively block any hotel options at the site — because all community attempts at influencing development plans have been rebuffed.

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