Two new development plans stir optimism, concern for residents of Near West Side
July 9, 2017

By Susan S. Stevens

Joe Esposito, a Campus Green townhome resident questioned the need for Focus Development to add 500 more apartments when Scio is not fully rented. Scio often has people with “now leasing” signs at the intersection of Taylor Street and Ashland Avenue in an effort to advertise the availability of rental units. (Photo by Mark J. Valentino)

Developers will begin two major projects in coming months on the Near West Side: a 50-unit expansion of the Roosevelt Square redevelopment project and a 254-unit building in the Medical District Apartments complex.

The Roosevelt Square developer, Related Midwest, announced at a community meeting on June 6 plans to start work on 50 upscale townhouses on vacant lots along Grenshaw Street in the fall. The brick units will have three to four bedrooms with garages, costing $650,000 to $850,000, said Jacques Sandberg, Related Midwest vice president.

“We are trying to fill out the entire stretch of Grenshaw from Throop [Street] to Lytle [Street],” Sandberg said. “We should be breaking ground sometime this fall.”

Aside from two buildings housing foster children, this is the first construction in Roosevelt Square since the real estate market faltered a decade ago.

Work is resuming because “the market is turning around,” said Robin Broman, development manager for the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which owned the land where the former ABLA housing project stood. She said 64 acres remained to be redeveloped.

A group of residents starting a new community group, Little Italy 2.0/Little Italy Redux, plans another community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 27, in the hall at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1220 W. Lexington St., to further discuss development and other issues.

“We look forward to having an open dialogue on things we need as a neighborhood and the ways we all can partner together toward a better future,” a spokesperson for the group said. It is conducting a survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2P3P25C or email chicagolittleitaly@gmail.com.

Dennis O’Neill, executive director of Connecting4Communities and host of the June community meeting at the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, anticipates 500 to 700 more housing units in the next five years—“if the economy stays strong, interest rates stay relatively low, and the trend observed internationally of people, commerce, and culture migrating to globally relevant central cities” such as Chicago continues. Related Midwest is not giving a projection beyond the 50 townhouses.

The Roosevelt Square development began in 2004, after workers demolished the former ABLA (Addams, Brooks, Loomis, Abbott) public housing project. A federal court order set a goal to provide replacement housing for displaced
CHA residents in a mixed-income community.

The original plan called for about 40% market-rate, 30% affordable (partly subsidized), and 30% CHA. In 2014, officials developed a new master plan that added 500 market-rate units, increasing that component to 50%.

Tricia Van Horn, Related Midwest’s vice president, said the current mix is about 27% market rate (157units), 30% affordable (180 units), and 43% CHA (252 units). These 589 units represent about one-fifth of the 2,441 units originally planned.

Rental building proposed

At the same meeting, Christine Kolb, associate vice president of Focus Development, recapped plans for a 19-story rental building south of the two current Scio at the Medical District apartment buildings. She said work on the new structure, at the corner of Ashland Avenue and Taylor Street, will begin after remodeling finishes at year’s end on the existing buildings, which have 410 apartments. A new amenities building with a fitness center is going up by the end of the year between the current buildings, she said.

Kolb explained the new units will ease a housing shortage that developed when Rush Medical Center demolished 400 student apartments on Harrison Street east of Ashland to clear space for a new outpatient services building.

Eventually, developers will construct a second rental building at the north end of the property, but the have not set a target date. Kolb added that the former Medical District Apartments have been renamed Scio at the Medical District.

Scio is Esperanto for “knowledge,” she said. Officials expect the full project, including both new buildings, to cost $111 million.

Community reaction

At the community meeting, several people said the townhouse prices are incredibly high for the area.

O’Neill, however, called the plans “an exceptional restart of Roosevelt Square in every way.” He said the addition will provide a much “healthier mix” of housing. Afterward, a Roosevelt Square neighbor, Michael Phillips, said the only reason for the community meeting “is because the City Zoning Board will ask ‘what was the community’s response’ where they’ll say, ‘we held a community meeting and didn’t get any push-back.’

Then it’ll all be approved without any of the residents’ issues, e.g., no schools, parking, trash, removal of greenery, child safety, etc., ever being heard or addressed.”

Jaime Alvarez and Olga Camargo, who live with their teenager in Roosevelt Square, are enthusiastic about the plans for new units, saying they will bring more “positive vibes to the community” as long as they are sprinkled with low-income housing “which is what this neighborhood needs.” They bought their house in 2006. “I am here for the long haul,” Alvarez said.

The highrise planned at Taylor and Ashland “is a monstrosity glass structure that does not fit into our neighborhood aesthetics,” said townhouse resident Joe Esposito. “Little Italy is losing its identity.”

Also, he said, he saw a man standing on the corner with a sign trying to rent the current units. “If they are having trouble renting these units now, how does 500 more help us out?”

Everything does not need to be brick and limestone to retain the flavor of Little Italy, Billy Venta argued. “My bigger concern is the scale of the tower and the identical second tower in future phase. Approaching 20 stories will dwarf the entire neighborhood.” Venta also described as “way too high” the rents for the apartments and prices for the townhouses. “We cannot sell out and do all market-rate.”

“We were kind of forced into the agreement” to allow the highrise, said Jim Green, in the area since 1976, first as an apartment resident and then a townhouse owner.

Under a 1966 Planned Urban Development agreement, townhouse owners have a say in what is done with the rentals east of them. They rejected previous proposals, but this time was different, he said, with a “no” not accepted. Developers will provide money to the townhouses “to replace roofs or something,” Green said.

“I just try to do the best for my property,” Percy Moss said. “Everybody here has to be neighborly.”