Church’s plan preaches high hopes for Woodlawn’s improvement
The Apostolic Church of God is pursuing redevelopment for its eight acres near 63rd Street and Dorchester Avenue, where the goal is community improvement without displacement.
In Woodlawn, you can’t blame people for being alternately impatient for and distrustful of change. The South Side neighborhood next to Jackson Park has been a long time waiting for good things to happen.
In 1997, the CTA finished tearing down its unused Green Line tracks that ran above East 63rd Street, a remnant of a spur originally built to take riders to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration promised that getting rid of the rusted structure would end a blight and bring commercial development to the street.
But little happened for years. Today, you can still find an argument over whether it was wise to remove rather than renovate a piece of public transit infrastructure.
With construction of the Obama Presidential Center continuing in Jackson Park, residents worry that the attention it invites will have developers scouring Woodlawn for places to build upscale housing. Some fear a dominos game of gentrification that will force out longtime residents.
But there’s another issue at play — simply getting people back into a neighborhood many have abandoned. The predominately Black community has dwindled to fewer than 25,000 residents, compared with 80,000 in the 1960s.
Whatever impact the Obama Center will have, it’s noteworthy that the grandest development plan so far for Woodlawn has come from inside the neighborhood. The Apostolic Church of God at 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., with some 20,000 members, owns about eight acres surrounding its sanctuary. It uses the land for parking.
But the church is moving slowly forward on a massive plan whose estimated costs have risen with inflation. J. Byron Brazier, lead developer for what’s called Woodlawn Central, pegged the overall investment at $800 million, compared with $600 million when details were first laid out in early 2022.
Brazier said the higher costs haven’t deterred interested partners from inquiring about the project.
“We are looking at who we can have the best working relationship with,” Brazier said, emphasizing the church’s long-term interest in controlling the development. “We as developers are looking at how we can build people while building buildings.”
Brazier is the son of the pastor at the Apostolic Church, Rev. Byron Brazier, and has a background in real estate marketing. The son said he hopes to announce key partnerships in a few weeks, such as a project manager and an architectural firm for the overall design. His goal is to get a first zoning proposal to the city early in 2023 and to start construction a few months later. “We need to make progress in 2023,” he said.
Actual site work would show the neighborhood and potential co-investors that the plan is real. Details will probably change, but the vision for Woodlawn Central currently calls for 870 housing units, a hotel, theater, up to 215,000 square feet of commercial space and a parking garage for the church.
Brazier said the church is committed to housing for a range of incomes, believing that to be the most sustainable way to improve the community.
The proposal covers land on both sides of 63rd Street, alongside a Metra stop and a short walk from the University of Chicago and Jackson Park. Those locational details will be a big part of the project’s sales pitch. But another advantage compared with other urban projects is that there are no multiple landowners with back taxes to untangle.
With Woodlawn Central, Brazier said the church will retain land ownership while allowing structures to be built on ground leases.
“You don’t have lot of institutions in the city that own that much property without a lot of debt,” he said. “Site control is half the battle.”
Bill Eager, who works for a nonprofit housing developer that has invested heavily in Woodlawn, said the church’s proposal has merit and isn’t happening in a vacuum. Several projects have taken root there, including a University of Chicago charter school, a health clinic and mixed-income residences by Preservation of Affordable Housing, where Eager is senior vice president of development for the Midwest. At 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue, developer Leon Walker plans new offices behind a dignified old bank façade.
“Once the Obama Center gets visitors, you want to have things that draw people into Woodlawn, so a focus along 63rd Street is important,” Eager said.
Separately, the city’s planning department has invited developer proposals for two large vacant sites on the South Side of 63rd from Ingleside to Greenwood avenues. The parcels are city owned. Developer responses are due by Sept. 14.
As the owner of 27% of the vacant land in Woodlawn, the city has to be a partner in any improvement.
Maybe just a little more patience will finally pay dividends for Woodlawn.