New Pilsen alderman faces housing preservation, affordability issues
August 2, 2019

Photo by Christopher Valentino
The Pilsen Historic District also would protect many murals that have been painted in the area since 1978 and are a major part of Pilsen’s character.

By Igor Studenkov

As new Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th Ward) settles in, he faces two issues that could affect the Pilsen community’s character and affordability.

First, a proposal aims to designate as a historic district primarily on West 18th Street between South Leavitt and South Sangamon Streets as well as 13 blocks bounded by West 18th Street to the north, South Ashland Avenue to the west, West 21st Street to the south, and South Racine Avenue to the east.

Second, a long-running, controversial proposal seeks to redevelop two vacant lots between Newberry Avenue, 18th Street, Sangamon Street, and the BNSF Railway tracks. Peoria Street divides the lots, and the proposal recommends converting the currently abandoned BNSF rail spur that starts at the west end of the site into Paseo Trail—a partially elevated bike and walking trail similar to the Northwest Side’s Bloomingdale Trail/the 606.

Sigcho-Lopez argued the City has been too quick to push for the historic district designation. He feels the proposal deserves more community input, so he hosted a community meeting at the end of May and said he would hold more. As for the housing development, Sigcho-Lopez said he supported making 30% of the units affordable—more than required under the current law.

In the wake of the recent election, however, he may not have as much leverage as aldermen had for much of Chicago’s history. They traditionally have benefited from the so-called “aldermanic prerogative,” an informal convention whereby City departments and the City Council as a whole defer to local aldermen on issues relevant to their wards. That custom, although not legally binding, typically includes zoning and permit decisions.

The practice has seen occasional cases where officials disregarded a local alderman’s wishes if more powerful aldermen backed a proposal. In recent years, some aldermen have formed advisory committees of residents and businesses to help them make decisions instead of exercising a prerogative to act as they see fit.

A few hours after she was sworn in, Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued an executive order requiring City departments to “identify where departments, not required by any law, defer to ‘aldermanic prerogative’ and to direct departments to cease each and every such practice.” That directive emphasizes that nothing about the executive order prohibits aldermen from offering input but states that City departments are not required to go along.

While this order does not explicitly address decisions made by committees and commissions, during a June 19 community meeting, Alderman Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward) indicated that he thought that Lightfoot was gearing up to curtail aldermanic prerogative in that area as well, but declined to elaborate any further.

Pilsen Historic District

The proposed Pilsen Historic District would encompass 850 “Bohemian baroque” buildings built between 1875 and 1910. In an unusual touch, the historic district also would protect around 20 murals painted throughout the corridor since 1978, becoming a major part of Pilsen’s character.

The City unveiled the proposal last fall as part of a larger, five-year strategy to preserve the Mexican-American communities in Pilsen and Little Village. According to the Chicago Commission on Landmarks report of Dec. 6, 2018, it granted preliminary approval for the application. Several demolition applications kicked the process into high gear.

On Feb. 20, 2019, the commission received three applications to demolish properties in the proposed district located at 1730, 1732, and 1734 W. 18th Street. At its regular meeting of March 7, 2019, the Commission voted preliminarily to disapprove these demolition permit applications. Per the Municipal Code, the Commission’s preliminary disapproval triggered expedited consideration of both the proposed Pilsen District landmark designation and the demolition permit applications.

As a result, the commission rushed out notices and a hearing. To expedite community response, the notices contained forms allowing property owners to indicate how they feel about the proposal. As of May 15, 14 property owners indicated support, while 88 expressed opposition.

On April 24, the committee held a public hearing on the proposal. Of the 20 people who spoke, three property owners from the proposed district spoke in favor and four spoke against. Eight members of the general public, including representatives of the Resurrection Project and Preservation Chicago, spoke in favor. Two said they have not formed an opinion.

Photo by Christopher Valentino
Whether concerned about preserving Pilsen’s architecture or murals like the one above, many are fear the Pilsen Historic District will cause new problems.

Community engagement

Then-Alderman elect Sigcho-Lopez argued the community needed a much more robust engagement process on the proposal.

Before he ran for alderman, Sigcho-Lopez served as executive director of Pilsen Alliance. Moises Moreno, the organization’s current co-director, emphasized to Gazette Chicago that Pilsen Alliance was not against creating a historic district for Pilsen, noting his concern over what would happen if nothing gets passed and the neighborhood sees historic homes torn down. He argued, however, that as it’s written the landmark designation has several flaws.

During conversations with property owners and residents in the proposed historic district, Moreno saw several concerns emerge. Some worried the designation would make it impossible for building owners to make Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades and certain repairs. Others voiced concerns that the Illinois Property Tax Freeze Program, which would be available to owners of landmarked buildings, requires property owners to invest at least 25% of the home’s market value, which many owners felt was too high. Also, residents and business owners shared concern about how officials drew the historic district borders.

These issues dovetailed into an overall concern over lack of public outreach to enable residents to give input, let alone point out the aforementioned issues. “We feel like there wasn’t enough community participation, and [residents] feel like they weren’t at the table,” Moreno said.

Moreno suggested ways to improve the project, with more community engagement topping the list.

“Especially for a project this big, you want to have as much participation as possible,” Moreno said. “More participation would be a good start.”

He also wanted the community to have a dialogue with the people who wrote the landmark district proposal.

“We’d like to see them explain why this plan was created the way it was,” Moreno said. “I would like to hear how this plan was created, who’s there, and how we can make this plan better.”

He added his group wants the property tax freeze to apply to everyone in the historic district.

The ordinance to establish the historic district was originally scheduled for introduction during the May 29 Chicago City Council meeting, the first meeting to involve aldermen elected this year. The ordinance listed Sigcho-Lopez as sponsor. Under the standard landmark designation procedure, lawmakers then would refer the proposal to the council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards. If it clears the committee, the landmark designation goes back to full council for final approval.

However, the ordinance was not actually introduced at the time – and its listing was removed from the Chicago City Clerk’s website. In a statement, Sigcho-Lopez said that he wanted to delay the vote until there was more public input.

“At the time of writing, we have only heard from less than 10% of affected residents, many of whom notably oppose the landmark designation,” Sigcho-Lopez wrote. “During the electoral campaign, I committed to a community-driven process, and expressed the need to open up the dialogue between decision-makers and the people who call the 25th Ward home. This is the first of my efforts to fulfill this commitment.”

To that end, Sigcho-Lopez is reaching out to Pilsen residents who would be interested in joining his Pilsen Historic Landmark Preservation Advisory Committee, which would tackle historic preservation issues throughout the entire neighborhood.

The property at the intersection of 18th and Peoria has caused controversy for the past few years. In 2013, Near North-based Property Markets Group proposed building a 465-unit development that would include commercial and residential buildings. Many residents objected that it would drive up already increasing property values, putting more pressure on Pilsen’s working-class population. While then-alderman Danny Solis (25th) traditionally was seen as developer-friendly, he and Property Markets Group could not agree on how many affordable housing units the site would hold. When the developer tried to proceed with the project anyway, Solis used aldermanic prerogative to “downzone” the site for industrial use, making PMG’s plans impossible. The developer bought the property anyway and, in February 2018, sued the City to overturn the zoning change.

Solis did not run for re-election and, on Feb. 29, more than 90% of voters in the ward’s 12th and 23rd precincts (as well as several precincts from the nearby 12th and 22nd Wards) approved an advisory referendum calling for the developer to sign an agreement that would create 30% affordable housing in new developments, freeze property taxes, and provide funding for local jobs and affordable housing.

Community backing

Following the election, Sigcho-Lopez indicated he would abide by residents’ wishes. He also said anything PMG proposes would require community vetting and that he would support only a proposal that has community backing.

Since PMG announced its plans, affordable housing requirements in the neighborhood have become more stringent.

The current version of the City’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) applies to any development with ten or more units that requests a zoning change, is built on City-owned land, or receives any City funding. The developer must make 10% of the units affordable to residents earning no more than 60% of Cook County’s area median income, build a similar number of units elsewhere, or pay an in-lieu fee.

Last December, the 18th/Peoria site became part of the newly approved Pilsen & Little Village ARO Pilot area. The number of required affordable units rose to 20%, and 10% of them must be built on site. It also raised in-lieu fees by $50,000.

When the pilot originally won approval late last year, the Resurrection Project expressed support, arguing the program would increase the number of affordable units and, thanks to in lieu fees, generate more funds for affordable housing. The Resurrection Project called it a much needed investment in longtime tenants and homeowners.

“The community has advocated for investment for years; this ordinance is one step closer to preserving their long term presence,” the project’s leaders said in a statement.

Moreno said Pilsen Alliance supports even more stringent requirements. Ideally, the group wants buildings to be 30% affordable. It also wants developers to include more affordable units with two or three bedrooms for families as well as more affordable units to accommodate people with disabilities. The organization also wants to end the option to build affordable units off site.

“How is that [building units off site] helping the community?” Moreno asked. That is why Pilsen Alliance supports Sigcho-Lopez’s position.

For Pilsen Alliance, log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org. For the Resurrection Project, log on to resurrectionproject.org. For Sigcho-Lopez, see www.25thward.org, or call (773) 523-4100.