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Brown: New plan for Atrium Village is an unsettling development

Residents of Atrium Village say they were promised they wouldn't be displaced by redevelopment plans, but the property was sold to another company after those promises were made. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Tatiana Taylor says she and other residents of Atrium Village, a Near North housing development in the midst of being demolished and remade, were promised years ago they wouldn’t be displaced by the project.

The 90-day notice to vacate the property that many of them received on Nov. 30 says otherwise.

Instead of being relocated within the Atrium Village development while work is completed in stages, as was the original expectation, dozens of residents were told they must plan to move out by the first week of March.

It wasn’t the first time Atrium Village residents were made aware of this change of plans. That came over the summer.

But the approaching deadline has injected a new level of anxiety into a process that some believe is unfair as developers hurry to transform the low-profile 300-unit apartment complex into what is expected to be four high-rise towers containing 1,500 units.

OPINION

Residents have been told they will eventually be allowed to move back when the work is completed, a promise that carries echoes of past housing battles in this very neighborhood.

Even that doesn’t solve the problem of where they go in the meantime, or whether all of them will be able to afford to return.

Long before mixed-income developments were embraced as the favored alternative to traditional public housing, Atrium Village was filling that role on the North Side.

The development at Division and Wells, built with federal and state assistance through a partnership of four neighborhood churches, served as both bridge and buffer between Cabrini-Green and the Gold Coast when it was built in the 1970s.

A diverse community of whites and blacks, many of whom had moved out of Cabrini, Atrium Village was regarded as a model of subsidized housing, although its racial balance was enforced for a decade through a quota system intended to keep the development from becoming an extension of the infamous housing project that was later razed.

Among Atrium Village’s longtime residents is Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, whose tumbling team’s vans are parked conspicuously in and around the well-maintained building where he has lived for 33 years.

Atrium Village consisted of two clusters of low-rise buildings, along with a mid-rise building of approximately 200 apartments.

One set of low rises has already been torn down, with many of those residents moving into the mid-rise building. On that site, construction is already underway on the first of the new towers.

But now the developer wants to demolish the second cluster of low-rises, and there is nowhere left to put those residents. Nor will the new building be completed before they must move, as residents say they were promised when plans for the development were originally approved.

“That is what they told us. We would be given the option,” Taylor said.

But there’s nothing in writing, and the property was sold to another developer after those promises were made.

White lives in the mid-rise building that is not yet slated for demolition, although an announcement about its future could come as early as Monday evening. That’s when tenants organized by the Chicago Housing Initiative are expecting to meet with representatives of Onni Group, the Canadian firm developing the property, and Ald. Walter Burnett (27th).

Burnett said he held up the project for more than six months after the new developers tried to back out of the original commitment to offer 20 percent of the new units as affordable housing. They wanted to only do 10 percent, but backed down after he threatened to restore the original zoning, Burnett said.

But the alderman said Onni has acted responsibly since then by offering to pay moving expenses, returning tenants’ security deposits and helping them look for a new place to live.

Some might think that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to develop an increasingly valuable piece of property.