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At long last, LeClaire Courts replacement looks real

In partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority, developers have submitted to the city a plan to build a $400 million residential and commercial center along Cicero Avenue on the Southwest Side.

A rendering of commercial buildings planned for the LeClaire Courts site, including a medical office building along Cicero Avenue and a grocery store set back from the street.
A rendering of commercial buildings planned for the LeClaire Courts site, including a medical office building along Cicero Avenue and a grocery store set back from the street.
Provided

The timeline of major events in the history of the LeClaire Courts public housing site on the Southwest Side doesn’t inspire confidence that good things can happen there. And yet, that appears to be the case after years of inattention and indecision by the site’s owner, the Chicago Housing Authority.

The CHA has teamed with savvy developers who have spent about three years crafting plans and getting political and community support for them.

Over Zoom, there was one final public meeting about the project last week conducted by Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd), and it was painless for the developers, Cabrera Capital and Habitat. Lo and behold, their plans for a mixed-income housing development with commercial space have been placed on the agenda for the Chicago Plan Commission meeting Thursday.

A favorable vote tees up the matter for City Council action, probably in November. Martin Cabrera Jr., CEO of Cabrera Capital, said he hopes to start phase one construction in the first half of 2022 and complete it in 12 to 18 months. Later phases could take years, but it’s a start.

Cabrera and Habitat had a delicate task because the site, along Cicero Avenue just south of the Stevenson Expressway, carries a lot of baggage. It’s about 32 vacant acres running south from the expressway to 45th Street, and it looks park-like now, but in 1950 it was the location of a noble experiment.

The CHA used it for townhomes to house poor African Americans in an outlying city neighborhood that then was all white. The hope was that everybody would get along, but there was little interaction with the neat, middle-class communities around LeClaire — named, according to a Chicago Park District history, for Antoine LeClaire, a fur trader who traveled here with John Kinzie in 1809.

LeClaire Courts worked for a while but fell apart over the years. Vacant units and police calls proliferated, and many neighbors just wished it would go away. The units were a prime example of blight along Cicero Avenue, a route that with the growth of Midway Airport saw an increase in traffic.

Bedford Park saw its chance and built a veritable mall of hotels just south of Midway. The city blew it. In 2005, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration produced a document discussing the corridor’s challenges and potential, but there was no follow-through.

Martin Cabrera Jr.
Sun-Times files

Finally, the CHA gave up — officially anyway — and tore down LeClaire Courts in 2011. Two years later, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning published a study for the CHA, concluding the site could best accommodate a mix of residential and commercial uses and that Bedford Park had cornered the hotel market.

Cabrera is following that guideline. He foresees a more than $400 million investment that would include 700 homes and is targeting about half of them as being affordable under the city’s rules, well above the demands of the Affordable Requirements Ordinance.

With the CHA retaining a stake in this venture, the plan allows for 186 housing units to replace units lost when LeClaire was torn down. But so much time has passed that most people who lived there won’t be coming back. A CHA spokesman said 28 families remain on the waiting list for this development.

The first phase calls for two mid-rise buildings along Cicero containing about 190 units, Cabrera said.

For the neighbors, the bigger news is they might no longer be living in a health care and food desert.

Alivio Medical Center plans a clinic on the site, and Cabrera said they have more than doubled their space request to 50,000 square feet because two hospital networks have asked about participating.

Cabrera also said he has a top-tier grocery store ready to commit to building 60,000 square feet. Both would be first-phase projects as well.

The hope is to build something that will complement a neighborhood that has grown more diverse. It also could spur investment elsewhere along Cicero.

“This is really exciting, the Cicero Avenue rebirth,” Rodriguez said on the Zoom session. He called the project “the most significant development on the Southwest Side in a generation.”

Cabrera said the jobs impact is about 1,400, half permanent and half in construction. “We know this will be a transformative development for the Southwest Side,” he said.

That’s big talk for any real estate deal, but the enthusiasm is understandable. In the city, it’s a rare vacant site under the control of a single owner. Progress there is decades overdue.

LeClaire Courts as it looked in 1963.
LeClaire Courts as it looked in 1963.
Sun-Times files