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Lathrop plans: little preservation, big TIF

Three new plans for redeveloping Lathrop Homes fall far short of the project’s stated goal of historic preservation – to the point that developers will pass up tens of millions of dollars in federal historic preservation tax credits.

Instead, they plan to ask for $30 million or more from a new TIF district.

The plans have garnered widespread local opposition due to heavy increases in density and congestion.

CHA and Lathrop Community Partners will present three scenarios at open houses (Thursday, November 15, 3 to 8 p.m., and Saturday, November 17, 12 to 4 p.m.) at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen.

At 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, Lathrop residents and neighbors will hold a press conference to denounce all the scenarios and the lack of any meaningful community engagement.

Already thirteen neighborhood associations have signed onto a letter to CHA from Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) calling for rejection of all three plans due to excessive density and lack of public participation.

And Tuesday, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) sent an e-mail blast announcing the open houses and saying, “I do not believe that any of the individual scenarios on the table are an acceptable plan to move Lathrop Homes forward.”

Total demolition

In fact, one of the scenarios would almost certainly fail to win regulatory approval.

Dubbed the “Delta Greenscapes” scenario, it calls for demolition of all of Lathrop’s low-rise, historic buildings.

But since Lathrop was named to the National Register of Historic Places in April, any demolition involving federal funds must be approved by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.  And CHA will use federal funds to cover the costs of rehabbing and operating public housing at Lathrop.

“Clearly, demolishing everything would not meet preservation guidelines and would rarely be an  approveable action under the federal program,” said Michael Jackson, chief architect for preservation services at IHPA, who notes that nothing has been submitted to his agency.

Approval might be forthcoming in cases involving extreme deterioration and functional obsolescence, but “I can’t see that logic applying here,” he said. “The essence of the Lathrop project is historic preservation.  It’s been identified as a historic property, and the development team has been given that direction.”

Indeed, the RFQ under which LCP was selected states that the developer “shall consider preservation one of the priorities of the revitalization.”

“What they’re pulling is a typical developer’s trick,” said Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago.  “We’re going to show you something so god-awful that when we walk it back to something slightly less god-awful, the community will think it’s won something.”

Developers prefer TIF

Despite the RFQ’s request for developers with experience using historic tax credits, none of the plans are likely to qualify for the credits, which cover 20 percent of a project’s costs – in this case, tens of millions of dollars.  That’s what developers told aldermen in August, said Paul Sajovek, Waguespack’s chief of staff.

Instead, they’ll be asking for a $30 million TIF subsidy.

“One of the scenarios could be eligible for [historic] tax credits,” said Kerry Dickson, senior vice president of Related Midwest, lead developer of LCP, on Tuesday.

Fine and Sajovek dispute that.  One scenario retains 480 historic units north of Diversy, but each building is marred by additions.  “To take a historic building and glom something onto it so you can generate more revenue for your project – it’s not going to pass muster,” said Fine.

In any case, “taking a historic site and demolishing half of it, that’s not our definition of historic preservation,” he added.

He points out that the historic tax credit is “a better option from a policy standpoint” than a TIF subsidy.  “It has the advantage that it’s not money that’s being diverted from our police and our schools,” he said.

There’s another factor at play, Fine says – maximizing preservation is the easiest way to maximize affordability.  One scenario that’s noticeably missing from this week’s presentations is the preservation plan developed five years ago by Landmarks Illinois working with Lathrop residents (more on that here).

Instead, LCP’s plan disregards the RFQ’s requirement that “approximately one third of [units] must be public housing.”  LCP bumps the proportion down to 25 percent – by bumping the proportion of high-end market housing to 50 percent.

recent Crain’s report — on how the housing crash has “decimated” CHA’s mixed-income goals — reveals that Roosevelt Square on the near west side, another CHA redevelopment being done by Related Midwest, is years behind schedule, with less than 18 percent of for-sale units complete.

Density

Waguespack points out that neighborhood groups are split on the issues of preservation and affordable housing.  But they are unanimous that the density being proposed is wildly inappropriate.

The RFQ specifies a range of 800 to 1200 units.  When LCP presented its plans in closed sessions with the aldermen and the the working group that’s supposed to oversee redevelopment, unit counts began at 1350.  Since then they’ve said that all three scenarios will have 1600 units, Sajovek said.

That includes high-rises as tall as 28 stories, he said – far higher than anything north of North Street or west of the immediate lakefront.

“We just can’t understand how, in a neighborhood with the level of congestion we have, which isn’t served by mass transit, there’s any sort of justificiation for a massive increase in density, far above anything around it,” he said.

On top of the huge unit count, the developers are proposing 70,000 square feet of automobile-oriented, big box retail, including a 25,000 square-foot grocery store, with extensive surface parking and, in one scenario, several new curb cuts for drive-through retail at Diversy and Clybourn.

“Diversy is backed up all the time,” said Fine.  “That’s with Lathrop 80 percent vacant.”

More gridlock

“Look at what you’ve got in the area – Costco, Dominic’s and Aldi all within close walking distance, and Target and other big stores not much farther,” Sajovek said.  “This is not a retail desert or a food desert by any stretch of the imagination.”

The amount of retail with surface parking north on Clybourn “has turned all the streets in the area into gridlock,” with Whole Foods and other stories actually leaving the area because of it, he said.

“We don’t see any justification from a planning standpoint for anything near 70,000 square feet of retail,” he said.

The density and congestion – and the increase in surface parking – are also major reasons why none of the scenarios are likely to qualify for LEED certification, though the RFQ describes the redevelopment’s primary goal – in bold print at the very top of the first page – as creating “CHA’s first community to attain LEED-ND Gold or Platinum certification.”

Sajovek thinks that in the absence of any restraint from CHA, all the redevelopment goals at Lathrop have been thrown over for “a single consideration: what’s going to generate the highest profit from this site.”  Developer profit is a legitimate consideration, he said, “but it has to balanced against other factors” including “what’s best for the surrounding neighborhood.”

“The bottom line is, they want to maximize their profit and the way to do that is density,” said Fine.  “It’s density, density, density.  It’s all about taking profit from this publicly-owned historic site, even if it erases the site” – and drowns the neighborhood in congestion.

“It’s a land grab, that’s all it’s ever been or ever will be, until they start listening to what residents and neighbors want,” he said.

‘Fraudulent’

“We’re committed to a very engaged community planning process,” said Dickson.

That’s not how others see it.

“I told them straight to their face, they’re liars,” said long-time resident Mary Thomas, a leader of the Lathrop Leadership Team.

“They talk about community input,” she says.  “What it would be is, they would bring 20 or 30 pizzas and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen, this is what’s going to happen, this is what’s going to happen.’

“We were never involved,” she said.  “It’s fraudulent.”

According to Sajovek and John McDermott of Logan Square Neighborhood Association, LCP held three workshops late last year that were described as preparing members of the public to participate in a series of design charrettes.  But the charrettes were repeatedly postponed, and ultimately never happened.

Again, when LCP shared the three scenarios with the aldermen in August, they said an open house would be held “in a couple of weeks,” Sajovek said.  That too was repeatedly postponed.  Now it’s being touted as “the first of a series of community meetings.”

Dickson said the Lathrop Working Group – with representatives of CHA, residents, elected officials, and neighborhood groups – “has been involved in all phases of the planning.”

Sajovek, who represented Waguespack on the LWG, says LCP came to meetings to refute rumors residents were reporting or complain about LWG members’ public actions.  “There was never any discussion about preservation or about specific unit counts or anything substantive,” he said.

“Over the past ten months, there have been no opportunities for public input as LCP developed the three scenarios,” according to Waguespack’s letter to CHA, signed by the neighborhood groups.  “It follows that the scenarios are devoid of any evidence that key concerns of the surrounding residents were incorporated into the plan.”

“We had a collection of meetings and gathered information from the community, then we took that and spent time developing those ideas,” said Dickson.

“To understand the plans we’re proposing, and the reason and logic behind them – and the good planning behind them – people should come to the open house, where there will be continuous presentations about all three of the scenarios,” he said.

Keywords: CHA, Chicago Housing Authority, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Landmarks Illinois, Lathrop Community Partners, Lathrop Homes, Lathrop Leadership Team, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Preservation Chicago, Proco Joe Moreno, Related Midwest, Scott Waguespack

Posted in LSNA in the Media