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What Now for Lathrop Homes?

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With the CHA's Plan For Transformation stalled indefinitely, what does the CHA board's recent approval of a development team for Lathrop Homes mean for residents' vision of historic preservation of the low-rise development as affordable and public housing?

The development team, which includes for-profit luxury and nonprofit affordable developers, promises an open planning process. And CHA has said "no predetermined plan exists" regarding how much and what kind of housing ends up at Lathrop. "Such a determination can only occur when... the planning process begins in earnest" with "the engagement of the broader community."

But residents and their supporters fear that guidelines under which the development team was selected could sacrifice many of Lathrop's historic strengths - and delay redevelopment indefinitely for residents who have already been in limbo for a decade.

The development team was selected under a request for qualifications (pdf) produced by a working group of stakeholders convened by CHA - but issued over the objections of residents and community groups in the working group. They had called for a plan focused on public and affordable housing, citing the predominance of new luxury development in the area.

No consensus

Lathrop Local Advisory Council President Robert Davidson, a working group member, wrote to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan calling on him "to ask the CHA not to issue an RFQ until the Working Group reaches consensus - the basis for decision-making that we agreed upon in our first meeting," Residents Journal reported.

Residents and their supporters are concerned that a high-density redevelopment including luxury condos - in an area where that market is currently glutted - would require extensive demolition of Lathrop's beautiful and historic low- and mid-rise brick structures, sacrifice Lathrop's open space and landscape, cost much more and take much longer. (More at Community Media Workshop's Newstips.)

Last December, the Lathrop LAC, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, and residents and community supporters in the Lathrop Leadership Team endorsed a preservation plan (pdf) drawn up by architects working for Landmarks Illinois in consultation with residents.

Preservation plan

That plan would reconfigure existing buildings with larger units, producing 800 apartments where 925 now exist. It meets accessibility requirements and provide one-for-one offstreet parking while preserving the vast majority of open space, said Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois.

With a higher-density redevelopment, "it would be very difficult to preserve very many of the buildings," said Peters, especially with requirements for parking and access roads.

And while CHA has announced it wants the new Lathrop to be the agency's first LEED-certified green development, historic preservation is "the most environmentally sustainable way to revitalize Lathrop," said Scott Shaffer of Lathrop Homes Alumni Chicago.

"It makes no sense to demolish and dispose of 30 structurally-sound brick buildings and truck them to a landfill, only to replace them with buildings constructed of all new materials, and all the energy that consumes," said Peters.

Including newly-built market-rate housing "makes it much more complicated," said John McDermott of LSNA. "It would involve many levels of financing in the middle of a very difficult economy; it would involve multiple phases of construction."

In contrast to an affordable preservation rehab, which could be accomplished in three to five years, it would mean "the process could easily stretch out ten, fifteen years or more" for a community that's already been "in limbo for over a decade," he said.

Bailouts for CHA developers

Shaffer points to mixed-income redevelopment projects that are part of the CHA's plan for transformation and are years behind schedule. Several are also in financial trouble: last year the city was forced to bail out developers at Cabrini-Green and Lakefront Crescent due to slow sales and elusive private financing.

Also stalled, as the Chicago Journal reports, is the Roosevelt Square development intended to replace CHA's ABLA Homes.

It's particularly resonant for Lathrop supporters. ABLA included Jane Addams Homes, which along with Lathrop was one of the three original CHA developments built by the New Deal's Public Works Administration in 1937-38. And Roosevelt Square developers include two members of the team selected for Lathrop, the nonprofit affordable developer Heartland Housing, and lead developer Related Midwest, a developer of luxury high-rises and adaptive reuse.

There wasn't much adaptive reuse at Addams: of 32 existing buildings, only one remains; funds are now being raised to restore it as the National Public Housing Museum.

Six years after construction started on Roosevelt Square, less than one-third of its promised public housing units are completed, and even lower percentages of market rate and affordable housing are done, according to the Journal.

Roosevelt Square is also being bailed out: in March, the CHA board approved a $3.4 million loan to help Related Midwest with pre-construction costs for Roosevelt Square's second phase, which "was supposed to be completed by now," the Journal reported.

According to the Journal, Related has also failed to come up with funds promised in 2007 to restore WPA sculptures from Jane Addams Homes' Animal Court.

Related Midwest recently canceled two high-rise condo developments in Chicago and defaulted on a $28 million loan to finance a huge condo development in Tucson, Crain's reports.

'A beautiful job'

In sharp contrast, restoration of Trumbull Park Homes on the far South Side - the third sister of Lathrop and Addams, built in 1938 - took just three years and was completed three years ago. It remains 100 percent public housing.

"CHA did a beautiful job at Trumbull," Peters said. "And it's hard to say it can't work at Lathrop after you see Trumbull." He points out that demand for land is substantially greater around Lathrop - but that's one reason to preserve it. "It's ironic that now that there are jobs around there and it's a desirable area, they want to take it away."

Preservation would bring a major financing advantage - the federal historic preservation tax credit, which would cover 20 percent of development costs. CHA's RFQ mentions the tax credit as a potential source of financing. But of three schemes sketched out in a 2008 site analysis by CHA - new construction, mixed new and old, and full conservation - only the latter would qualify, Peters said.

"It wouldn't be eligible if they only preserved a few buildings, or if they're going to be plopping new buildings around the existing ones," he said. "They'll destroy the character - the way the buildings relate to each other and to the open space -- and that's what makes it historic."

Lathrop was the crown jewel of its class - a national model for successful, human-scale public housing, Peters said. "The site plan was really a model because it did such a good job of creating interesting architecture and layout and public space," he said. "It just worked well - and it's always been a successful community -- because it's well-designed and well-built.

"Unfortunately its lessons were lost" in the high-rise projects built in the 1950s and '60s, Peters said - and the lessons are in danger of being lost again, if Lathrop is made a high-density development.

Lathrop Homes was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1994; at a December 10 meeting in Springfield, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council will vote on Lathrop's nomination to the Register.

Enough luxury housing

The bottom line for many Lathrop supporters is that, given all the costs, market-rate housing just doesn't make sense for Lathrop Homes. It's located in an area where affordable housing has been steadily disappearing; 34,000 rental apartments were lost in the area between 2000 and 2007, mainly to condo conversion -- and today many thousands of high-end condos sit unsold around Lathrop.

"It's not just poor people, it's middle-income people who are losing jobs and being foreclosed on," said Shaffer. "These are people who could use these apartments today."

Even splitting the development, preserving a section and putting new construction on the rest of the site, would be "a tremendous waste of a resource" in an area where affordable housing is badly needed, land for affordable development is extremely hard to come by, McDermott said.

After all these years, CHA's push on Lathrop comes at a curious time, he points out. "In a few months we'll have a new mayor and a new City Council, and we're going to have to take a new look at the whole Plan For Transformation in light of the economy and the housing crisis," he said.

Look at CHA's past plans for Lathrop: in 2000, in the first version of the PFT, CHA deemed Lathrop viable and said there would be 750 units of public housing there after revitalization; six years later, the agency announced plans to demolish the entire development and replace it with 1,200 units of new construction.

The only thing that hasn't changed is the determination of residents and their supporters to save Lathrop. And they intend to be fully involved in the planning process now commencing. Who knows what's in store for the oldest -- and arguably the most successful and significant -- property in CHA's portfolio?