Preservationists and residents must strike a compromise to save Pilsen — or nobody wins

If Chicago wants to preserve places like Pilsen without running out working class people, it must increase the financial incentives associated with owning a landmark building.

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1332 W. 18th St. in Pilsen, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020.

This four-story building at 1332 W. 18th St., is one of 900 structures in the proposed Pilsen Landmark District.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It’s hard to tell what was gained — if anything at all — from a City Council committee’s decision Tuesday to reject both a planned Pilsen landmark district and an alderman’s proposal for a demolition moratorium in the rapidly gentrifying community.

For residents who opposed the designation, the vote ends a measure they feared would further hasten Pilsen’s gentrification by driving out working class Latino homeowners who couldn't afford to maintain their buildings to landmark status.

But the veto also means Pilsen’s distinctive late-19th century architecture remains vulnerable to being demolished and replaced by larger buildings with higher rents or single family homes — the very thing we see driving gentrification efforts in Pilsen and on the Near North and Near West sides among other areas.

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The proposed ordinance from Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) would have created a six-month demolition moratorium for buildings within the boundaries of the would-be district. It was an attempt to stop the teardowns without saddling owners with the expense of maintaining a landmark building. But the Zoning Committee voted against the measure, saying the moratorium might not hold up to legal challenges and could be hard to enforce.

So as of now, Pilsen’s buildings and residents are still unprotected from the forces of change that both efforts — landmarking and the moratorium — were designed to curb.

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What to do?

With 900 structures near and along 18th Street between Damen and Racine Avenues, the Pilsen Landmark District would've been the city’s largest. The designation also would have included protections for the collection of outdoor murals dating back to 1978 created by the neighborhood’s predominantly Mexican American community.

Most of the buildings were constructed by the Czech and Bohemian immigrants who settled in Pilsen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The predominantly brick-and-limestone structures bear the classical styles of their builders’ homelands.

The buildings and murals together form an architectural and artistic ensemble that is worthy of preservation.

But Adriana Diaz, who has roots in Pilsen, was absolutely correct when she testified at Tuesday’s Zoning Committee hearing that the cost of preserving the community's architecture could unduly fall on those least able to afford it.

“A reasonable person would argue that if you designate Pilsen a historic district, a second wave of displacement would occur because people like my mother would not be able to keep up with the exacting standard of the historic district,” she said.

“Therefore, a seemingly innocuous policy such as this one is at its core insidious in nature, because it only exacerbates the gentrification process,” Diaz added. “Why are we valuing Bohemian entire buildings over people’s lives?”

So if the city wants to preserve places and spaces in Pilsen and across Chicago — without running working class people from their neighborhoods — it must also find a way to increase the financial incentives that are associated with owning landmark buildings.

This means increasing funding to the city’s weatherization, roof and porch repair program and making them part of a landmark district proposal that includes residential buildings.

Currently, when a homeowner who lives in a landmark spends 25% of the property’s assessed market value on a rehab or restoration, the building’s real estate taxes are frozen for 12 years. The city could propose new legislation to either lengthen the time of the freeze or lower the rehab spending threshold.

Time for creative thinking

The city can also be more creative in how it draws up proposed landmark districts. At almost 1,000 buildings, did the proposed Pilsen district need to be that large? Even the city officials who proposed the district had their doubts in October when city Coordinating Planner Gerardo Garcia suggested the designation include just 465 buildings clustered around 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue.

Garcia’s proposal would have excluded the overwhelming majority of Pilsen homeowners from the designation. This strikes us as a fair-minded proposal that should remain under consideration.

We hope the failure of the two ordinances in the Zoning Committee pushes city officials, landmarks experts and community members back to the drawing board to come up with a fair and equitable designation — one that’s right for Pilsen and can serve as model for other neighborhoods.

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