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Can the Lawson Y be saved as an SRO hotel?

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In the old days, the Lawson YMCA reigned as king of the block--sort of a mini Empire State Building at the corner of Chicago and Dearborn--offering clean, cheap temporary lodging. Over time, however, the near north side gentrified; now town houses in the area that was once a seedy entertainment district sell for upwards of half a million dollars, condos for $300,000. Meanwhile, the Lawson has aged. It needs new pipes, plumbing, painting, and electricity. Of its 595 rooms to rent, 116 are out of service. The rents its residents can afford do not generate enough money to pay for basic maintenance.

So Y officials face a tough decision. They can sell the Lawson, as several developers have urged, for up to $13 million, plowing the money into other programs while forcing several hundred residents to relocate and exacerbating the city's shortage of low-income housing. Or they can attempt a complete overhaul of the Lawson, as well as several other YMCA-run hotels, a staggering challenge that would cost over $9 million, and an amount that no single city, state, federal, or private funding source can cover.

To outsiders, the decision to sell may seem obvious, if for no other reason than the overwhelming odds against raising renovation funds. And yet the board members of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, which owns the Lawson, are holding out. They refuse to sell.

Their stubbornness is born of pride, as well as mission. They don't want to be like the aristocrats of czarist Russia, who hawked their family jewels to pay the bills. On top of that, they know that the Lawson is one of the last great single room occupancy hotels left in the city. If the Lawson closes, the Y's leaders must ask themselves again and again, who then would care for the poor?

"There are about 11,000 SRO units left in the city," says Michael Marubio, an associate with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "Since 1973, the city has lost 18,000, and they are disappearing at a rate of 1,000 a year because of gentrification, increasing rents, increased taxation, and the hassles of running them. If the Lawson goes, it would be a tremendous loss."

"We either fix things up or get out of the business--any way we go it's a tough decision," adds John Casey, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. "The building's in tough shape. I don't sleep well at night knowing there are a couple of thousand people in a building that's not really as fit as it should be. If we can't fix it up, we should close it down.

"But then you realize that between Lawson and our other Ys here, we have about 16 percent of SROs left in the city. It would be difficult to relocate the people who live there. We recognize that it's a public policy problem. So we're going to give it all to try and work it out."

The YMCA was down this road once before in the early 1980s, when they were forced to sell their facility on South Wabash Avenue.

"What an enormous loss," Casey recalls. "That was 125,000 square feet of space. It was a whole block--from State to Wabash between Eighth and Ninth streets. They had 2,000 rooms, more rooms, I think, than the Hilton. But it just wore out. We couldn't keep up the maintenance. We sold it to developers for $5 million, and it's condos and a theater now."

Raising money from private sources to rehab the Lawson is all but out of the question, Casey explains. "We've been out looking for funds for our other programs," says Casey. "We're out raising $9.3 million to build a Y at 63rd and Stony Island. That's a lot of money, and we are hitting many of the same sources who might fund Lawson."

Traditional financing--a loan, for instance, from a bank or mortgage company--is not an option either. That would lead to rent hikes, and thus defeat the purpose.

"We immediately ruled debt service out of the question," Casey explains. "Our monthly rent is $170 . . . Any person can walk off the street and rent a room at the Lawson for that amount. They get good service for that, too. Linen is changed once a week; there's a maid in those rooms every day.

"But we figured it out. If we get a 20-year loan on $5 million at 7 percent interest, that's $660,000 a year for 20 years. That would require an increase in rent to $256. Our residents can't afford that. If we went that route, we'd have to get out of the business we're in, and switch to upscale real estate."

At the moment, the Y has received a sympathetic ear from the city's Department of Housing, which is examining several state and federal programs to see if Lawson qualifies for the funds.

"The beauty of Lawson is that it was there before the yuppification of the area, so no one can protest it," says Margaret Hoyt, director of special finance for the Department of Housing. "If you try to put up a new SRO, that's a different story. Then you hear a lot of complaints.

"Finding rehab money for the Lawson is the problem. It's sort of like playing with Rubik's Cube. There are many requirements and stipulations attached because it's SRO housing. If you use one program, you lose another. We have to line everything up right."

The Lawson got a break at the end of July, when the City Council approved $500,000 for the renovation of 144 rooms at the Y's Austin facility. The Y operates SROs at six facilities in Chicago. Of a total of 2,206 rooms, 333 are out of service. By renovating some of the smaller facilities, the Y can relocate Lawson residents either temporarily (when that building is under repair), or permanently if it has to be sold.

"We're hoping to get a no-interest 30-year loan from the Illinois Housing Development Authority," says Casey. "And there is a long-shot chance that a private developer would buy the Lawson, and operate it as an SRO. Let me add that that's a very long shot.

"A big problem, quite frankly, is that our clientele is not well received by the public. We're talking about people who are on general assistance or folks who are marginally employed. Many are men; the median age is 40. People are more interested in helping families and children than adults like this. It's not the kind of thing you can get excitement with."

When the Y was built in 1932, it was a different story. At 25 stories, it was the largest building in the area, complete with two gymnasiums, a swimming pool, cafeteria, shooting range, barbershop, dry cleaner, and rooftop sun deck. Construction costs and land acquisition were covered by a bequest of Victor Lawson, founder of the Chicago Daily News, who left the YMCA one million dollars for the project.

Marie Maiorca noted in a recent Sun-Times article, "Shortly before the Lawson YMCA opened in November 1931, the Daily News said the motto for the new YMCA residence was 'Where Men Live Royally.'"

"We had a different clientele, a different mission in the early days," says Casey. "In the 1920s, the city was growing; young people were coming here from small towns in the country. The Y felt a commitment to meet a new need. It wasn't just the Lawson. The Y had 60,000 rooms in cities all over the country. Our principal function was to provide a safe, Christian environment for young people who are leaving the country and might otherwise be exposed to the evil influences of the city."

During World War II the Lawson was filled with servicemen, and in the 1950s and 1960s it was not unusual for traveling businessmen to spend a night or two there.

"There was a whole different attitude about the Y," says Matthew Ottaviano, vice-president of real estate and properties for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. "Stanton Cook, chief executive officer for the Tribune, stayed here when he first came to town. A lot of executives did. We had lawyers and doctors who lived here."

Perhaps the most prominent--and eccentric--resident of recent years was Lester Green, an insurance executive who moved to the Lawson in the 1930s.

"Of course, I remember Mr. Green," says Clifford Benham, resident manager of the Lawson. "He was quite a gentleman. He lived in a double room and he raised canaries. There were so many cages, they covered one whole side of the walls. He used to color-breed them. He had every color of canary but black. He couldn't get a black canary. On the other side of the room, he grew African violets. He had a tremendous collection of African violets."

Benham, a stooped man with white hair and a deep voice, has worked at the Lawson for about 30 years. He wears a brown tie and gray slacks, and a thick batch of keys jangles from his belt as he takes a couple of visitors on a tour of the building.

"It's hard to keep up with all the repairs," Benham says. "You can see the place needs a lot of work."

Indeed, most of the carpet in the hallways is worn and shiny. The paint in many rooms is peeling, and in some rooms (closed for repairs) the furniture is dusty and cobwebbed.

"We have good facilities, if we could clean them up," says Benham. "It's as good as any college dormitory."

A standard room, about 11 by 10 feet, is carpeted and has two windows. It's furnished with a single bed, a mirror, a desk, a bureau, and an easy chair. Each floor has a bathroom with showers and toilets. Some rooms have private sinks and telephones.

"It is a community for the people who live here," says Kevin Limbeck, director of planning for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. "We offer amenities that other SROs lack. Our lobby is large and clean; people can sit there without being hassled."

As he talks, Limbeck looks out over the near north side from the 22nd-floor sun deck. The John Hancock looms to the east. Down below to the west, a lunchtime crowd gathers at the sidewalk cafe of the Santa Fe restaurant.

From time to time there are complaints of bottles thrown from windows of the Y. Over the past five years, five people have plunged to their death from the roof. By and large, however, nearby residents have few complaints, says Limbeck.

"We get along well with our neighbors," says Limbeck. "Many of the churches around here want us to continue. They understand the importance of our service."

"The elevators are slow," Benham interjects. He and his visitors wait five minutes for one to take them down from the 15th floor, and then they decide to take the stairs. And so they wind down 15 flights into the gymnasium, past the handball and squash courts, through the weight room outfitted with antiquated barbells, and into the lobby.

"Over 1,000 members used to belong to this gym," says Benham. "We charge $400 a year for [a businessman's] membership." A regular membership costs $200. "It was one of the only places in the area where a businessman could go for a swim, a workout, or a sauna. Now, there's all the competition. They've got the latest equipment, and we can't keep up. We lost about 200 members to the East Bank Club alone. It's a different time, all right, and a different day. We're just trying to take care of the people we have."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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