For all the worry, negotiating and posturing over the Obama Presidential Don’t-Call-It-a-Library and its hypothetical effects, there’s something else going on in Woodlawn that’s liable to have a quicker and better impact, especially on residents’ perception of their own neighborhood.
It’s the corner of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, an important commercial hub whose fortunes have traced Woodlawn’s ups and downs. Neglected for decades, it got a mixed-income housing development in 2018. There’s a health clinic due to move in. And the CTA has started work on a $60 million renovation of the Green Line stop, courtesy of money in the state’s capital improvements plan. In 2016, the Strand Hotel at 6321 S. Cottage Grove got a handsome conversion into apartments and ground-floor retail space.
What’s left is the crumbling shell of the former Washington Park National Bank. It’s the five-story building on the southwest corner, and it has stood vacant and deteriorating for years. Once owned by a church connected to the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., the site got caught up in his escalating financial trouble.
With its decorated limestone façade, it’s one of those substantial old bank buildings that used to anchor the neighborhoods and were designed to convey stability. The Cook County Land Bank Authority, an agency that acquires property to clean up the titles and back taxes and make them available for sale, got hold of it in 2018. After taking part in robust planning sessions with neighborhood groups and the Metropolitan Planning Council, the land bank took bids on the building and last year agreed to sell it for $250,000. The buyers are a partnership of DL3 Realty, headed by Leon Walker, and Greenlining Realty USA, headed by Lamell McMorris. Both have roots in the community.
Walker said he expects the sale to close any day and he voices eagerness to get started. Rob Rose, executive director of the Land Bank Authority, said the closing is more likely to come within 60 days. “I’m the prudent one,” he said. Rose said issues with federal Opportunity Zone financing and its recently revised rules have to be clarified.
The buyers want to tear down the building. On this, there are two schools of thought in Woodlawn, and both are encapsulated by its alderman, Jeanette Taylor (20th). This isn’t a criticism about flip-flopping. It’s a hat tip to her for seeing both sides.
“Whatever the developers do, they’re going to have to come back to the community. That’s my major hangup,” she said. “Folks want to see their proposal, and how they justify it.”
Taylor toured the place with Rose. She saw its skylit atrium that has partially collapsed. There’s mold and mud everywhere, she said, and mushrooms growing in staircases. “I was in there for maybe 15 minutes and I was sick for three days,” Taylor said. Mature trees poke out of the roof. Rose said the setting would work for an apocalyptic movie.
And yet, Taylor knows restoring community history gets more respect on the North Side. “When it comes to black communities, there suddenly isn’t enough money to preserve things,” she said.
Walker said he’s open to incorporating the decorative façade in his building, but it might not be feasible. Because of the atrium design, the upper floors have a U shape that’s probably not suitable for today’s tenants, he said. His plans call for a five-story, 72,000-square-foot building for offices and retail, with the YWCA as an anchor tenant and underground parking that makes use of the old bank basement.
Rose said the land bank got four proposals for the property. He said one was incomplete and two called for at least partial preservation but contained financial projections that advisers felt were unrealistic. So it went with the offer from Walker and McMorris.
While many in Woodlawn would like to see the building preserved, Walker noted older African Americans remember the bank it housed used to take part in the old racist covenants in property sales that enforced segregation. For the project that he calls Revive 6300, Walker is working with the architectural firm FitzGerald Associates, which has done well-received work here in adaptive reuse and high-rise design. A spokesman for the firm declined to comment on prospects for using the façade.
Walker said Woodlawn residents are excited about the project and its effect on the vital corner. “They tell me it would be like the old days again, like getting the community back,” he said. That sentiment is worth more than anything else.