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Pilsen alderman, residents unsure about turning the neighborhood into a historic district

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez will host a public meeting about the proposal at the 25th Ward office on Thursday.

Buildings at the corner of West 18th and South Laflin streets in Pilsen.
Three buildings at 18th and Laflin streets are all considered architecturally significant to the Pilsen neighborhood’s aesthetic and cultural history.
Carlos Ballesteros/Sun-Times

Many Pilsen residents as well as the alderman are on the fence over whether to let nearly 700 neighborhood buildings become part of a historic district.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommended in May that the city create a historic district in Pilsen to protect many of the neighborhood’s century-old Bohemian buildings and dozens of Mexican murals painted during the past four decades.

Proponents say creating a historic district will protect Pilsen’s cultural identity and stymie the displacement of longtime residents. Others fear the district will pigeonhole property owners into fixing dilapidated buildings without helping them stay in the neighborhood.

“It’s become abundantly clear that there is an urgency of having a more comprehensive and sustainable preservation plan for Pilsen, one that serves the needs of the community and is grounded in conscious development,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez said in a statement.

Sigcho-Lopez will host a public meeting about the proposal from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the 25th Ward office, 1645 S. Blue Island Ave.

“We want residents to be informed about what the proposal is and what it is not,” he said.

A map of the proposed Pilsen Historic District.
A map of the proposed Pilsen Historic District.
Department of Planning and Development

The Pilsen Historic District would cover 18th Street between Leavitt and Sangamon streets and 13 blocks bounded by 18th Street on the north, Ashland Avenue on the west, 21st Street on the south and Racine Avenue on the east.

In a report published in February, the landmarks commission identified 680 buildings in the proposed district that hold architectural or artistic significance to Pilsen’s history.

Those buildings would be protected from demolition, said Matt Crawford, an architect with the Department of Planning and Development and one of the authors of the report. “That prevents developers from replacing buildings with new, high-end developments,” he said.

Crawford said the historic district won’t result in a direct rise in Pilsen homeowner’s property taxes. Some residents aren’t buying it.

“People are coming to our office with property tax assessments that have doubled and tripled over the last few years worried about being able to stay in this community,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We won’t move forward unless the people want us to.”

The public meeting will feature a panel of experts to answer questions about historic districts, including Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, and Dijana Cuvalo of the Department of Planning and Development.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.