“Between States” – The Chicago Architecture Foundation Project

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF)  invited West Ridge residents to be part of an exciting new experiment in urban design that will be showcased at CAF’s second Biennial Exhibit beginning in September and lasting through January 2018. The last such event, in 2015, drew 250,000 visitors to the Chicago Cultural Center, with another 250,000 attending CAF events in other venues throughout the City.

The theme of this year’s Biennial is “Between States,” that is, moving from one state of being to another. Every ward in the City of Chicago has ts own project, its own opportunity to shine. The project for the 50th Ward involved imagining new uses for a local strip mall.

Architect Jay Longo, a resident of our ward and a principal with the firm Solomon, Cordwell,  Buenz, selected the strip mall located on the northwest corner of Granville and Western for this project.  His vision was informed by two workshops with local residents and business owners, who imagined the mall transformed into housing, a commercial urban garden, and a plaza lush with green space and flowers, perhaps enriched by a mural and a neighborhood marker. The final rendering will reflect the shared dream resulting from this active, creative collaboration between a neighborhood architect and members of the West Ridge community.

POWR (People of West Ridge), was selected as the project’s community partner and, together with Jay’s research partner, Cheryl Dahle, CEO of FlipLabs, coordinated input from 50th Ward residents, input that we believe could be the start of a long-overdue conversation about economic development throughout the 50th Ward, currently home to too many vacant lots, vacant stores, and vacant buildings. While it’s important to begin the process of revitalizing all of our commercial districts, the project focused on a small part of Western Avenue, a street in search of an identity. Anchored at both its Granville and Howard ends by half-empty strip malls, a street littered with vacancies, empty buildings, and unused lots, Western presents an opportunity for the community to reflect on and discuss what kind of overall development best serves West Ridge now and into the future, and to plan ways to achieve its collective vision.

Note that no actual demolition or building will take place. This project is conceptual only. No businesses will be displaced, nor are there any plans for future displacement. The point of the project is not to solve urban problems, but to demonstrate how good design and good architecture contribute to community life. The project is designed to stir the imagination, to awaken an awareness of new possibilities, and to create new ways of observing the public and private spaces in which we live and work every day.

Jay will present renderings of his project at several community meetings to be scheduled in September.  Copies of his rendering will also be on display at several locations throughout the ward, and a copy will be presented to the alderman for her office. The meetings will be open to discussions about the project and the ongoing research into economic development opportunities in the 50th Ward. Resident participation in these discussions is a critical. Good planning starts with solid research, and that research includes open community conversations about the kinds of sustainable development residents want as well as a hard, realistic evaluation of existing possibilities and constraints.

The community meetings will be announced as soon as dates are finalized. In addition, there will be walking tours of the neighborhood and other activities to attract visitors. Who wouldn’t want to come to West Ridge for a tour of our lovely historic district, or  a stroll through one of our beautiful parks, and end the day with a meal at one of our many restaurants? It’s an opportunity for us to show off our architectural heritage as well, our beautiful churches and synagogues, and our beautifully landscaped residential areas. If you have a special place you’d like visitors to see, feel free to email us at HopeComm@gmx.com.

To ensure that the community outreach for the CAF project included a wide variety of people representing the diversity of our neighborhood, POWR enlisted the help of individuals and organizations who became the founding members of the HOPE Committee, a group committed to the long-term goal of working with the community to create sustainable economic development throughout the ward.  Please see the HOPE Committee page on POWR’s Web site for the names of the groups and individuals who together made this project possible. The Committee also has its own page on POWR’s Web site while HOPE’s own site is under construction.

West Ridge residents can look forward to an exciting opportunity to work together with neighbors, students, organizations, and business interests to help create the 50th Ward of the future. Our section of Western Avenue, the longest continuous street in Chicago, stretches more than 15 blocks. Similar opportunities exist on Touhy and on Devon, on Lincoln and on Howard. This project is just the starting point.

I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

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“Affordable Housing & Community Design”

I attended this lecture yesterday and it was well worth attending. Jeff Bone of Landon Bone Baker Architects presented a wonderfully informative slide show about his firm’s approaches to affordable housing. It got me to thinking about how West Ridge residents might approach repurposing our current library and developing affordable housing in our neighborhood.

His firm has repurposed existing buildings to house homeless youth, low-income families with at least one family member suffering from a physical disability, and rehabbed SROs. Working with Casa Norte, for example, Bone’s firm created housing for 16 homeless young men, including a communal kitchen where they prepared and shared their meals.

In Roseland, his firm built several kinds of senior housing, including apartments for independent living and a building for assisted living as well as grandfamily housing for grandparents raising children as well as townhouses for single mothers.  It has also built new 3-bedroom homes.

The firm is also building developments of tiny houses (325 sq. ft.), currently a 12-house development centered around individual gardens, perfect for single adults or empty-nesters. Bone explained that, while a standard new house runs about $350,000 to build, a tiny house costs in the neighborhood of $80,000.

The firm has developed commercial spaces as well, and has worked with private developers as well as CHA.

West Ridge residents should hear what he has to say about developing / repurposing existing building, affordable housing, and building community–all with a green thumbprint. Some developments also include training kitchens so residents can work in the food service industry, and other vocational training.

Many thanks to Derrick Everett of West Ridge for bringing this talk to my attention. Now it needs a wider audience.

 

Is This Community Input?

This morning the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) approved a $1.25M lease of public land to Target for a Target Express on Sheridan near Devon, contingent on “community input.” Baloney.

This is a done deal and the way it’s been handled is particularly instructive for West Ridge residents because of the proposed new library-senior housing complex to be built at Western & Pratt. Nobody–not the aldermen, the developers, the CHA, the hidden interests that stand to benefit–has been straight with the residents of either ward. Worse, the game of “community input” obscures the fact that powerful people are running roughshod over the powerless. There’s no real input, and the game is over for the community before it even begins.

The Target development is in the 49th Ward. Public land is being taken from a senior housing building, The Caroline Hedger Apartments, In order to build the Target; above it, the CHA will build 111 multigenerational apartments (60% of them subsidized or affordable, the others market rate; the developer suggesting $2,000 for a two-bedroom unit). The property, to be called “The Concord at Sheridan” [beware of buildings with pretentious names], will include underground parking and commercial space. The land to be taken from the Hedger seniors is used for their garden and community room; the garden will be replaced by a rooftop of potted plants to be shared with the new building’s tenants, and a new community room will be built for them in the new building; it will be accessible by elevator; the existing room is at ground level.

Ald. Joe Moore held a community meeting on January 30 at which all interests (CHA, Target,  and Three Corners Development) except those of the Hedger residents were presented to the public. Community opposition was strong. More than 150 Hedger residents have signed a petition opposing the loss of their garden and community room; Moore later claimed in a written statement to the community that  “only about 20 residents” oppose his plans. The lease is for 99 years.

Residents pointed to the numerous vacant storefronts throughout Rogers Park as evidence that additional commercial space is not needed, and many worried about the Target’s effect on the neighborhood’s small businesses.  Neighbors noted that the extremely high rents being charged in existing buildings have led to high vacancy rates in the area surrounding the proposed development. The statement that a two-bedroom unit in the new building would cost $2,000 per month was met with derision. A building less than a block away, The Morgan [what did I just say about pretentious names?}, is said to be one-third empty because of its cost.

The comments on commercial space were especially interesting because the 49th Ward is getting yet another new apartment building at Morse & Wayne. The developer for that building refused to add commercial space on the ground that the existing market did not support the idea, and Moore agreed. When he announced that he approved the developer’s decision, Moore cited all the vacant storefronts in the various commercial areas in Rogers Park, and said that no new storefronts were needed. Since that announcement, Three Corners has built a residential-commercial building a block from Hedger on Devon; its storefronts are vacant, as are most of the apartments.

[Last week it was announced that the two-story Woodruff Arcade Building on the southeast corner of Devon and Sheridan would be razed; it will be replaced by a six-story building which may be a mixed-use development with additional apartments.]

[Moore has been alderman of the 49th Ward for 24 years, and  is chairman of the City Council’s real estate committee. Three Corners Development has contributed to Moore’s political fund.]

CHA today required additional community input on the new building; decided it would not approve the project until it sees the building’s final design; and also insisted that the community have input into that design. But Moore was clear at the January 30 meeting that aldermen have the final say on development in their wards. In other words, when an alderman decides what the community wants, that’s what it gets. “Community” in Chicago sometimes means a community of one.

What does all this have to do with the 50th Ward library-senior housing building?

Well, for one thing, nobody pushing for a new library expected it to be coupled with senior housing. This was one of the Mayor’s bright ideas, and the alderman appeared to be as surprised as the community to learn about it. There’s almost no CHA or affordable housing in West Ridge, and very little support for getting any. There’s also the matter of which seniors would move into the building–seniors on the CHA waiting list or neighborhood residents? What are the politics involved in that decision?

[A proposed 100-unit building in Jefferson Park (45th Ward) recently met with fierce opposition by homeowners; the idea of CHA housing was so contentious before the meeting that it was restricted to people whose IDs proved they lived in the neighborhood. Even statements by Ald. Arena that the apartments would go to people already living in the neighborhood, primarily veterans, didn’t help. This building’s concept changed between its announcement and the community meeting, a worrisome sign.]

The LEARN Coalition, which created the petition for the new library and was solely responsible for obtaining more than 2,000 signatures from West Ridge residents in support of a new library, was left out of the process. Even though it has repeatedly told the alderman that it stands ready to work with her and the community on this library-senior housing project, she has not been forthcoming.  Indeed, the alderman has yet to publicly thank the group by name for its work on the issue.

Then there’s the “no information” community meeting held last November, at which we were repeatedly told that “everything’s on the table” and “nothing has been decided.” The drawings and pictures provided to the community at that meeting were only “renderings” of what the building, the apartments, and the library “might” look like. The design competition that was to end December 23 was extended, then three unnamed firms were selected to design the proposed building.  A community meeting in January was abruptly cancelled due to a “scheduling conflict” (Moore’s meeting was held the night before). It has not been rescheduled.

The alderman has consistently failed to update the community on the progress of the proposal via her weekly newsletter. In other words, the community will know nothing until presented with the final choices selected by the alderman and CHA. How can the community offer input if the design is already in place, the uses determined, and space for various activities already allocated?

Given the way the powers that be run things in the 50th Ward, the community had better start calling and writing Ald. Silverstein and telling her this way of doing the people’s business isn’t acceptable.  The building belongs to the community of West Ridge, and residents want to know what’s going on at every stage.

We have a right to be kept informed. She has a duty to see that we are.

 

What’s an Eyesore?

There’s a hearing tomorrow, July 8, at 2 p.m., in Courtroom 1107 at the Daley Center about the building at 2906-10 West Devon Avenue. The City filed suit on June 12 and a lis pendens notice on June 22, meaning the owner has been notified that there is now a legal claim against the property that could affect both the title and the property’s value. The building in question formerly housed Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, which closed in 2010 after 37 years at that location. DSC_05751083Alderman Silverstein informed the community  that the building has not been properly maintained by its owner and a City inspection revealed numerous code violations. She has therefore asked the City to force the owner of this “eyesore” to make the necessary repairs and rent the now-vacant storefronts.  The property is owned by Khalid J. Siddiqui. No problems are obvious in this recent photo.

She has taken no action against other, real eyesores, like the old Sheldon Cord Products building, that are clearly in far worse shape. The building has been vacant for years. One of the Ugliest Buildings on DevonIn April 2015, 2201 Devon LLC succeeded Schubert Development Partners LLC as owner. We’ll see whether this is merely an administrative change or will spell real improvement for the site. It’s hard to see how it could look any worse.

The board-up at the former dry cleaning shop just a short distance from the old Rosenblum’s is a horrible site. The wood is weather-beaten and warped, DSC_05771085and the addition of the American flag as a decoration on both the building and the oversize sign board hanging above the sidewalk make the building look even more decrepit as one moves closer. The wood is rotting at sidewalk level. It’s a dismal and depressing sight. The property is owned by Harrison-Ogden-Wolcott LLC according to CityData.com.

Then there’s this poorly maintained property across the street from the property the alderman is so concerned about. DSC_05761084It may be part of a medical office located next door. When the office is open it appears that both storefronts are connected. This property looks shabby and dirty and in need of immediate repair.

There are many more examples of buildings on Devon that are all but falling apart. The same can be said of commercial buildings throughout the ward. So why is the building at 2906-10 West Devon a problem, for whom, and why now?

It’s no secret that the Jewish Community Council has been working to restore the traditional Jewish shopping district that used to exist on the west end of Devon. But the alderman’s use of the term “eyesore” to describe the old Rosenblum’s site reminded me of the sudden push to sell the theater site at Devon & McCormick in March. Where that property was described as an eyesore and an attraction for criminals, this one is being described as an eyesore riddled with building code violations. In both cases urgent action was/is required and community participation invited.

We all know how that turned out.

The alderman’s actions also reminded me of the re-election stunt from last Fall when she gave the impression that she forced the sale of storefronts on Touhy Avenue that were also described as rundown. I learned from an informed reader that the property sale was already in process when the alderman decided to intervene. The sale was used in her advertising as evidence of her concern for economic development. The storefronts are still vacant.

I suspect that the Rosenblum’s site is nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be. I also suspect that there’s probably already an interested buyer for the property. The pending lawsuit means the value of the property will decrease, because any buyer would become responsible for repairing the alleged defects. Wanna bet those will turn out to be minor if the right buyer comes along?

I welcome new business. The ward needs it. Our business districts are shabby, dirty, and filled with vacancies. I’d even welcome the alderman’s participation in this little drama if I could just believe she’s acting in the community’s best interests and not in the interests of those who know how the game is played. The goal may be to force Mr. Siddiqui out by playing hardball over minor violations, jeopardizing his title to the property and thus lowering its price for a buyer already waiting in the shadows.

The case number is 2015-M1-401751. No appearance has yet been filed by the defendants’ attorney(s).

In the meantime, let’s help the alderman locate all the deteriorating storefronts in the ward that could use her influence with the City. Send your pictures to Ald. Silverstein at info@50thwardchicago.com.