Fate of Roosevelt Square development remains uncertain as CHA, Related Midwest drag their heels
June 7, 2019

Workers have rehabilitated some older Brooks ABLA homes to create a more pleasant and modern environment for residents.

By Igor Studenkov

Nearly 17 years after the Chicago Housing Authority through Related Midwest began to redevelop the Near West Side’s ABLA Homes public housing developments into the Roosevelt Square mixed-income development, workers have either demolished or renovated most of the old public housing. Getting replacement housing, however, has been mired in delays, to the surrounding community’s frustration.

In mid-1990s, the CHA embarked on the ambitious Plan for Transformation to replace highrise and older low-rise developments with new low-rise, mixed-income developments slated to include a mix of market-rate housing, public housing, and housing affordable to tenants earning up 50% of Cook County’s Area Median Income. Housing experts believe mixed-income communities encourage upward mobility.

As Gazette Chicago has reported extensively over several years, however, construction progress has gone slowly over the past decade. Joe Esposito, president of the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA), argued this snail’s pace has hurt the community, preventing it from reaching full potential. On its part, CHA has acknowledged the delays, attributing them to struggles with obtaining finances. Although the plan’s most recent iteration called for more market-rate housing than originally expected, the housing authority indicated that this, too, might change but did not elaborate.

ABLA Homes took its name from four public housing developments located in the area bound roughly by Cabrini Street on the north, Ashland Avenue on the west, 15th Street on the south, and Blue Island Avenue on the southeast: Jane Addams Homes, Robert Brooks Homes, Loomis Courts, and Grace Abbot Homes. Together, they contained 3,596 units.

Abbot Homes was the only development that workers demolished. In Jane Addams Homes, the oldest development of the four, CHA has preserved one building as the future home of the National Public Housing Museum. Workers rehabilitated Loomis Courts’ two mid-rise buildings, which remained affordable under the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Choice Voucher “Section 8” program. With Brooks Homes, workers tore down the highrise Brooks Extension portion while rehabilitating the low-rise portion.

Plans changed

Plans for what would replace the demolished buildings changed several times, even as Related Midwest built some new buildings. As with other CHA developments, the original plan called for Roosevelt Square to hold roughly one-third market rate, one-third affordable, and one-third public housing, with rehabilitated Brooks Homes and Loomis Courts counting toward the totals. Under the most recent site master plan from 2015, officials increased the number of market rate units from 966 to 1,466 and upped the maximum height to ten stories. The number of new public housing and affordable units remained 755 and 720, respectively.

This alteration pushed the overall unit mix in favor of market rate housing, which would now make up 43% of all units, while public housing units would account for 32%, and the affordable housing units would account for 25%. As with other public housing sites, CHA is working with a developer—in this case, Related Midwest—on the market-rate component.

But even as the plan bumped up the number of marking rate units, the one new building erected since then favored affordable and public housing units. As part of a broader collaboration between CHA and Chicago Public Library (CPL) system, Related Midwest built a new mixed-use structure at 1340 W. Taylor St, with the Little Italy branch library on the first floor and 73 apartments on the floors above. It holds 37 public housing units, 29 affordable units, and seven market rate units.

While the master plan did not call for that building specifically, it does mention that, should the CPL wish to build a larger facility to replace the Roosevelt branch library, Roosevelt Square “would provide a great opportunity” for one.

According to CHA’s draft fiscal year 2019 “Moving to Work” annual report to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, CHA and Related Midwest “plan to create 50 new for-sale units.” The report did not elaborate on where officials would locate those units, nor did it give any timetable, although the list of projects slated for 2019 does not mention them.

CHA spokesperson Mathew Aguilar told Gazette Chicago that, as of May 2019, “282 units have been built, leaving a balance of 473 public housing units to construct.”

‘Beyond upset’

When asked how he and his organization felt about the current state of Roosevelt Square redevelopment, Esposito did not mince words, saying the community was “beyond upset. It’s causing a pocket of—I don’t know how you’d put it—but it’s causing that pocket in the middle” of the Taylor Street community, he said. “It slows down the progression connecting the east side and the west side. That ugly space should be filled with as much housing as possible, and businesses and maybe some more park space.”

Esposito said that, ideally, LICNA members want buildings to be around two to four stories tall, five at maximum, so they fit in the surrounding neighborhood. He said members were not happy that the library mixed-use building ended up taller, but the final design was a compromise they could live with. He added they definitely do not want to see anything higher.

“We agreed to go with its height because of the way they designed it architecturally, and it kind of pushed it off the street, the upper floors.” Esposito said. “But, having said that, we would have liked to see more three to five story buildings up and down Taylor Street.”

He also argued the current lack of progress hurts business development in the Taylor Street/ Little Italy area.

“Caputo’s Fresh Market is literally begging to come here,” Esposito said, noting Caputo’s wants to open at the southwest corner of Taylor Street and Racine Avenue. “And our neighborhood has longed for a grocery store like that, for seniors to be able to walk to, and for our residents, and our community to be able to walk to.”

He said LICNA had discussions with the CHA, Related Midwest, and Caputo’s around six months ago. While everything seemed “fantastic,” he said, so far nothing has gotten done.

Foot dragging

“CHA is dragging their feet,” Esposito said “I talked to Related Midwest, and they have dragged their feet.”

Aguilar acknowledged forward movement has been slow but argued that progress is not simple.

“Often, these large mixed-income projects are complex deals to both develop and finance and often require multiple partners and funding sources,” he said. “And CHA is always working to identify the right combination of public and private funding to support them.”

The problem is not unique to Roosevelt Square. At the former Cabrini-Green public housing development, vacant lots remain at the Cabrini Extension and William Green Extension portions of the project. In Bronzeville, project leaders have redeveloped only about half of the former Stateway Gardens public housing development, while further north, the site of the former Harold Ickes Homes, located east of Chinatown between the Dan Ryan Expressway, Cermak Road, State Street, and 25th Street, has not seen any development at all.

Aguilar said that, given the aforementioned constraints, collaborative projects such as the Little Italy branch library constituted the “kind of innovative development strategy that CHA hopes to implement to complete remaining units at Roosevelt Square in the future. Taylor Street Library and Apartments was the right development at the right time at the right site. It created a perfect opportunity for CHA to redevelop at that location and provide affordable, rental, and market-rate units while also providing an important community asset that was much needed for the community.”

Aguilar said CHA was “reassessing the best unit mix for the whole of Roosevelt Square” but did not elaborate.

Affordable housing lack

That reassessment comes amid growing concern about affordable housing availability, especially in growing neighborhoods around the Loop. The entire West Loop and portions of the Near West Side west of Racine, including most of the Roosevelt Square site, form part of the city’s Near North/Near West Affordable Requirements Ordinance pilot. That effort creates more stringent requirements for building affordable housing than in most of the city, removing the option to pay an in-lieu fee, and requiring that, if the development contains at least ten units, requires a zoning change, is built on City-owned land and/or uses City funds, at least 20% of the units must be affordable and/or public housing units.

If the project received tax increment financing district funds, 20% of the units must be built on site. Otherwise, developers may build the units either two miles away from the site and/or elsewhere in the pilot area and/or in one of the more well off neighborhoods.

Esposito argued that, at this point, Little Italy would be better off with an entirely private development.

“What CHA needs to do is grow up, in my opinion,” he said. “They should have sold that land, and they should still sell that land to a proper developer, and this neighborhood will take off, just like the South Loop and West Loop.”

For more on the CHA, log on to www.thecha.org. For more on LICNA, log on to www.licna.org.