Park Works site, gentrification worry community
October 6, 2017

Courtesy Property Markets Group
Longtime Pilsen activists and residents wonder if the Park Works development by Property Markets Group will bring too much gentrification to the community.

By Patrick Butler

The Pilsen Alliance had been trying for weeks to get a face-to-face meeting with Property Markets Group CEO Noah Gottlieb concerning a 7.86-acre site bounded by 16th and 18th Streets, Newberry Avenue, and Peoria Street, previously owned by the Midwest Jesuit Order, which PMG plans to develop as Park Works.

The community group finally got that opportunity three times in one week back in June when Gottlieb and his Park Works team held informational sessions in a storefront at 1907 S. Halsted St., another at Dvorak Park Gym, 1119 W. Cullerton St., and again on June 14 at Open Books, 905 W. 19th St.

Each time, protestors organized by Pilsen Alliance stood outside carrying signs with warnings such as, “Move over Pancho, Whitey’s coming,” and “Gentrification is ethnic cleansing.”

“We were able to make a statement, but nothing’s happened since then,” said Pilsen Alliance director Byron Sigcho. Sigcho especially wants to talk with Gottlieb about community demands backed up by Ald. Danny Solis (25th Ward) who has said he won’t change the zoning without at least 21% affordable housing on the site.

Inside the open houses, several dozen concerned neighbors voiced opposition to what they consider wholesale displacement leading to the “inevitable” gentrification of the Pilsen neighborhood, which some described as their historically Hispanic working class enclave.

But it’s not just Hispanics in peril of “wholesale eviction,” but anyone who can’t afford “market rate” rents in their changing neighborhood will soon be forced to move, Sigcho warned.

During the open houses, a visibly beleaguered Gottlieb said the 500-apartment Park Works development he plans to build would include 100 affordable housing units for residents who would be displaced by his project.

Affordable apartments elsewhere

Not all that housing will be on the proposed Park Works site, however, Gottlieb told the anxious neighbors. Some of those units will be on other properties Gottlieb said he is buying, but he declined to say just where those “affordable” apartments would be located.

Regardless of their location, “We’ll target families – working families,” Gottlieb said, noting he plans to build studio apartments up through four-bedroom apartments and expects to rent “affordable” apartments for $1,000 a month and $3,000 for the larger “family-sized” units.

The project would occur in three phases over five years, Gottlieb said, noting his plans include 10,000 square feet of retail space. He envisions two-thirds of the development’s employees would come from the neighborhood. A third of the anticipated 100 or so retail workers also would come from the Pilsen area, he promised.

Construction would create additional jobs over the next few years, Gottlieb added.

Not good enough, said Sigcho, who wants 100% of the affordable housing on the site itself.

“We have thousands of families that have been displaced,” Sigcho said. “It’s not outrageous for us want the affordable housing on site. Luxury housing isn’t something we’re going to compromise on.”

Gottlieb said Pilsen Alliance’s “stringent” affordable housing requirement has prevented privately funded affordable housing from being developed.

Paul Raymundo, head of the Resurrection Project, an organization working to create community ownership, also is chair of the Pilsen Land Use Committee, which examines local development proposals. So far, Raymundo said, Gottlieb has not brought his project—which needs a zoning change—to the PLUC for review.

When Gottlieb bought the site from the Midwest Jesuit Order, Solis said he would not change the zoning without at least 21% affordable housing on the site. 

Many left the meetings unsatisfied with what they heard from Gottlieb.

Residents unsatisfied

“He wants us to be happy with bread crumbs,” said community resident Javier Ruiz. “I feel that’s not enough. He’s trying to sugar coat everything.”

“The alderman could do more,” Ruiz said. “He’s the chairman of the Zoning Committee. When we make a request, [Solis] drags his feet. When it comes to affordable housing, it never gets out of committee. When the developers want something, or if it’s a campaign donor, he gets right on it.”

Moses Moreno was a little more optimistic even though he said he had been priced out of the neighborhood and now lives in Hyde Park.

The math and calculus teacher at Malcolm X College still volunteers with the Pilsen Alliance and hopes to return to his old neighborhood someday.

“And I’m not the only one,” he said. “This has always been a changing neighborhood, but I think there’s room for everyone.”

Moreno said part of the problem is that “affordable” does not mean the same thing to everyone. “Developers like to use the term for the entire area while we think it should refer to particular neighborhoods.”

Because “we have everyone from recent immigrants to young professionals, maybe the right level for affordable should be [people making salaries] somewhere between the high $20,000s to the low $30,000s,” Moreno said. “But this is still a working class community.”

Hilario Dominguez, however, does not see much room for flexibility on the 21% mandate he said is needed to “protect us from the gentrification that has happened in other neighborhoods like Logan Square and Humboldt Park,’’ which Dominguez said are well on the way to losing their “ethnic identity.”

Dominguez added that “If you walk down 18th Street, these are Latino-owned businesses, people who built their lives here.  We have to do what we can to protect what we built.”

Not everyone at the meetings agreed.

Some want development soon

Some residents from just north of the proposed Park Works project are pressing for the long vacant site to be developed soon.

Delilah Martinez grew up in Pilsen, as did her parents, and said, “I think change is inevitable and it is important to be involved in understanding how that change will improve the community.”

Besides, the Park Works project would be built on vacant space so no residents would have to be relocated, said Martinez.  “What I learned is that this project will include low-income housing, jobs for local residents, beautiful landscapes, trails, art, and community events like movie nights. There is also a plan to keep rental rates affordable.”

Another supporter, University Village resident Janet Dietz, called the site as it is now “a dead zone” and an “eyesore” that would be “enlivened” by new residents moving into the area.

“Empty lots provide no benefit to our neighborhood,” a petition signed by around 150 residents warned.

Sigcho wants to base his next move on what the neighborhood wants. Pilsen Alliance volunteers plan to canvas every resident within 250 feet of Gottlieb’s planned development. Then they will fan out even further because “at the end of the day, it’s really the whole community that should have a say,” Sigcho said.

He estimates the canvass could amass as many as 500 responses.

So far as the veteran neighborhood organizer is concerned, one of the most important things to come out of PMG’s informational sessions is that “people are becoming more aware that new developments aren’t always in a community’s best interest. People have to understand that there’s a difference between Pilsen and Lincoln Park.”

Sigcho’s group eventually will pass canvassing results on to Alderman Solis, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

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