Despite a deep divide in the surrounding neighborhood, the Chicago Plan Commission signed off Thursday on a massive project 15 yearsin the making with potential to reshape the North Side: redeveloping the historic but decaying Lathrop Homes public housing project.
Developers handpicked by the Chicago Housing Authority got the go-ahead to build 1,116 units of housing, 50,000 square feet of retail, nearly double earlier plans, and a riverwalk with 11 acres of restored green space that planners hope will serve as a “community mecca and a natural oasis” on the Lathrop site.
The Depression-era public-housing project is in the North Center neighborhood, on the north branch of the river, between the trendy areas of Roscoe Village and Bucktown.
The ambitious plan calls for a mix of new buildings, a gut rehab of 19 of the 31 historic Lathrop buildings, as well as parks, playgrounds and in-unit washers and dryers.
Testimony at Thursday’s meeting reflected the deep division among neighborhood residents.
Some Lathrop residents decried the project as a “land grab.” That’s because it will be a mixed-income development with fewer than half of the units earmarked for low-income residents displaced when the CHA slated Lathrop for redevelopment as part of its long-stalled “Plan for Transformation” 15 years ago.
“This city cries out for low-income housing. What I see here is a land grab. You want to gentrify my area. You want to make it like West Town and Bucktown. I don’t want that,” said J.L Gross, a disabled veteran who has lived in a Lathrop apartment for 26 years.
“I have no problem with progress in this city. I have no problem with people mixing with each other. But, to tell me that you’re going to bring a mixed income into my community, which you devastated and decimated really ticks me off,” he said. “Where were you 20 years ago when the gang-bangers had my community? Where were you when my community was crumbling and falling apart?”
Gross quoted from a letter he received from the CHA. It argued that, without “unrestricted housing,” Lathrop would continue to be an “isolated, low-income area surrounded by one of the more vibrant and diverse communities on the North Side” of Chicago.
“We at Lathrop don’t see ourselves as that. We are families and individuals. . . . Believe me, I’m an educated black man standing before you. I am not low-income. I’m a disabled veteran. And I pay almost $1,000 a month to live in Lathrop and I do it gladly,” he said.
Barbara Burns, who grew up at Lathrop, said she’s concerned about the promise of 525 replacement units for displaced CHA residents.
“CHA many times has said they were going to replace units. At Robert Taylor Homes, something like 4,400 units came down. Eight-hundred public housing units were promised. And to date, there’s maybe 300 units that were built,” she said.
At a community meeting earlier this month, local Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) hinted strongly that he would support City Council approval of the Lathrop plan only if the CHA puts in writing a commitment to bring 525 units of public housing to the North Side. That wouldroughly make up for the slots lost in the redeveloped Lathrop.
But on Thursday, Moreno denied ever making such a promise. And he made an impassioned plea for the project that appeared to go a long way toward sealing the deal with a Plan Commission that appeared to be genuinely confused by the divide between neighborhood residents.
“The easy thing to do is delay. And Lathrop Homes residents have been delayed for at least 15 years. `This is not perfect, alderman. Delay it. This is not right. Delay it.’ I’ll tell you this: The people who continually tell me to delay it mostly do not live in affordable housing or public housing,” Moreno said.
“The easy thing for me to do is . . . continue to kick the can so Goldilocks can come out somewhere,” he said. “That’s irresponsible. It’s irresponsible to the residents. And it’s irresponsible to the broader community.”
Moreno said there are “many, many interests” involved in the development and it was virtually impossible to please them all.
Some people wanted all of the old buildings preserved. Others wanted developers to “tear the whole thing down and start over.” Some wanted no public housing at all. Others wanted it all to be public housing.
Moreno also argued that the CHA had “come a long way” from where they were five years ago.
“We were going to build two 27-story towers. They had no intention of bringing 525 units to the North Side. We’ve come a long way. We’ve worked together and nobody got exactly what they wanted. But my mission from Day One was to provide public and affordable rental and purchase [housing] on site for the residents that are there,” Moreno said.
“Under the terrible reputation of the CHA, they let Lathrop Homes deteriorate,” he said. “We all know that. For 30 years. For 15 years, we’ve been talking about revitalizing it. Today is the day that we start to actually act on our promise.”