Can Pilsen’s historic buildings be saved without forcing residents out?

A bubbling distrust of the city’s previous administration and a lack of community engagement contributed to the failing of Pilsen’s historic designation.

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Thalia Hall, at South Allport and West 18th streets in Pilsen, is among hundreds of buildings that would have been included in a Pilsen Landmark District.

Thalia Hall, at South Allport and West 18th streets in Pilsen, is among hundreds of buildings that would have been included in a Pilsen Landmark District.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The proposed Pilsen Landmark District was branded as a way to keep the fabric of a historic neighborhood intact, but by the time it came up for a vote in the Chicago City Council, many believed it would only contribute to gentrification and push out longtime residents.

Weeks after the vote failed, opponents and proponents of the measure are now searching for solutions as the neighborhood’s historic buildings remain very much at risk to opportunistic developers and the wrecking ball.

How did a proposal seeking to protect the neighborhood’s residents and its architecture go wrong? How did historic preservation get so strongly linked to gentrification when the ordinance’s proponents said that wasn’t the goal?

900 buildings affected

The proposed Pilsen Landmark District would’ve given landmark status to more than 900 buildings primarily on 18th Street between Leavitt and Sangamon streets. It would’ve protected buildings constructed from 1875 to 1910 in a variety of architectural styles, including Queen Anne, Victorian, Second Empire, Italianate, Gothic Revival and Worker Cottages.

Those buildings were constructed as homes and businesses for the immigrants who have long made Pilsen home. The neighborhood was settled early by Irish and German families in the 1840s who were later replaced by Czech and Slovak immigrants by 1880. For the past half-century, the neighborhood has been Latino-majority.

Preservation Chicago, a group that has sought to save historic buildings in a city well-known for its architecture, argued that creating the city’s largest landmark district in Pilsen would’ve protected the neighborhood’s impressive buildings while slowing gentrification since old buildings couldn’t simply be torn down and replaced with high-priced, cookie-cutter condos.

“I don’t think we have any real data on the impact of landmark districts as far as gentrification goes, but we do know it stabilizes communities,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “I’m not sure you can stop gentrification. But you can slow it down, which landmarking can do.”

A landmark designation offers a range of incentives to help ease the burden on building owners. They include the city waiving building permit fees for landmark structures, a property tax freeze for those spending 25% of the property’s market value on restoration work and a federal tax credit.

But by the time the designation status came up for a vote, that message was lost.

Those opposed to the landmark designation viewed the proposal as putting bricks and mortar over the working-class people of Pilsen.

A common refrain among building owners who opposed the designation was that keeping up with the new standards would be too costly and the city regulations were too intrusive.

“We want the decision to be made by us,” said Mer Mansuria, owner of Casa Indigo, 1314 W. 18th St., and other properties in the area. “We want to be in charge of knowing that in our neighborhood, where our money and our investments are, that we’re the ones in charge of what goes on there, not a random Chicago city board that says, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a landmark now.’”

Mer Mansuria and wife, Carolina Landero, inside their restaurant Casa Índígō at 1314 W. 18th St. on May 2019.

Mer Mansuria and wife, Carolina Landero, inside their restaurant Casa Índígō at 1314 W. 18th St.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

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Casa Indigo, 1314 W. 18th St.

Sam Kelly/Sun-Times

Anita Ayala, who has operated Jazmin Flowers and Balloons for 28 years out of the building she owns at the corner of 18th and Loomis streets, echoed the sentiment.

“They wanted to be the owners of these properties. They wanted to make decisions on what you can and cannot do, how we work, and how we run our businesses and properties,” Ayala said in Spanish.

Ayala, however, was a supporter of Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez’s proposed demolition moratorium, which was also voted down 10-6 by the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards.

“They want to knock down everything to put up condominiums,” Ayala said, noting she has business cards from about 20 developers who have come by her shop asking if she wants to sell. “I tell them, ‘Give me $1 million, and I’ll leave.’”

“Those of us who are still here, we’re very united and we’re going to make sure that no one butts in.”

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Jazmin Flowers and Balloons, 1414 W. 18th St.

Sam Kelly/Sun-Times

Moises Moreno, who works for the Pilsen Alliance, said the social justice organization was blindsided by the proposal and didn’t learn about it until almost a year after it was introduced in November 2018. The proposal also had the backing of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who many in Pilsen believe accelerated gentrification, he said.

It was also supported by ex-Ald. Danny Solis and Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman, who was on his way out of office.

“This is something that had the blessing of Emanuel and Danny Solis, which should be a red light for anyone, and we shouldn’t associate ourselves with them in any way,” Moreno said. “They took a top-down approach instead of first simply asking the community what they would like to see. We did the legwork and asked — a large-scale landmark designation wasn’t the way for us.”

Moreno said building owners also feared additional costs to maintain a landmark designated building. The city regulates the exterior of buildings even down to the type of windows or roof shingles used. That could generate conflict if someone needs to make renovations to their home, he said.

‘Open season’ for demolitions

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said his organization got involved with the idea of a Pilsen landmark process in 2006 when the neighborhood was included on a warning list compiled by his group called “Chicago’s Most Endangered Areas.” He said the goal was encouraging a holistic approach toward preserving the spirit, look, feel and culture of the neighborhood.

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

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

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

That plan ended up on the back burner until 2018 when the city resurrected the idea and wanted to make 18th Street a landmark district.

While Preservation Chicago was an advocate for the plan, Ward admits a disconnect grew between some community members and the city. He wished there had been a “more robust conversation,” as business owners and residents became distrustful mostly after “the last administration” did little to engage the community.

He said that’s unfortunate because everyone agrees the buildings should be saved but not in a way that harms residents.

“Ironically, we are all on the same page, and we must bring people in to explain why landmarking is safe,” Ward said.

Ward said the city could have done more to reduce some of the cost burdens by giving property owners in the district a $1,500 tax rebate or by waiving certain fees, but that message was drowned out by mistrust of former leaders.

The buildings along 18th Street were protected from demolition while the proposal worked its way through City Hall. But now, the council’s failure to pass the designation or the six-month demolition moratorium means developers have no restrictions.

“It may very well be open season on demolitions, and there isn’t protection anymore,” Miller said. “We have to trust developers that come into Pilsen are respectful of the community, but I’m not sure we can.”

Searching for a quick fix

The city argued a six-month demolition moratorium would have its own costs and would require hiring staff to monitor the situation. That measure was also opposed by Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) because it covered part of his ward in East Pilsen.

“We could’ve made an amendment on the floor to make sure nothing in the 11th Ward would be included, but this administration wanted to rush to take a vote,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “I also want to make sure we don’t create any conflicts because I still really want to work with neighbors like Thompson.”

Sigcho-Lopez said he’s been working diligently at ways to protect his constituents. One way, he said, would be to raise the percentage of affordable housing units in Pilsen from 20% to 30% of new developments through the city’s Affordable Requirement Ordinance. He is also working on a “deconversion ordinance” that would force developers to get a zoning change before converting two- to six-flats into single-family homes, which has contributed to population loss in Pilsen.

“The idea was great,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “Who doesn’t want to protect historic architecture? But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the people.”

In December, Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed ordinances to discourage developers who replace small apartment buildings with single-family homesin parts of Pilsen and on some blocks along the 606 trail on the North Side. In Pilsen, the proposal would protect buildings along 18th Street generally from Peoria Street and Newberry Avenue to Western Avenue.

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