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Rehabilitation Without Gentrification?

Teens from Back of the Yards try their hand at urban planning.

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For the last few years I've been chronicling the clumsy efforts of city officials to spark development in low-income communities without igniting the kind of wholesale gentrification that forces everybody out. Some local teenagers recently provided a refreshing perspective on the problem. The kids, 15 students from Big Picture, a public high school at 4946 S. Paulina, hooked up for a week in June with academics from DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, a think tank on urban land use. The purpose was to offer the students a primer on planning in Chicago as they looked for ways to stimulate development in their own neighborhood.

Admission at Big Picture is capped at 120 and determined by a lottery, and most of the students are Hispanic south-siders. The curriculum is heavy on hands-on activities, and during the year students get internships with businesses or not-for-profits.

Last spring the Chaddick Institute decided to use Big Picture to try out a program called One Week, One Neighborhood. "It's just like the name says--we spend one week studying one neighborhood," says Joe Kearney, Chaddick's program manager. "We look at demographics, zoning, land use, crime." The group focused on Back of the Yards, the racially mixed working-class community that runs from 39th to 59th between Halsted and Western.

During the week of June 25 the students took classes at DePaul taught by urban planning professor Joseph Schwieterman, attended a lecture by zoning lawyer Jay Cherwin, and sat with city planners, who gave them a tutorial on existing programs--including tax increment financing. I got a kick out of hearing the kids discuss the nuances of that sticky wicket; their explanations were accurate if a little sanitized. Then again, their instructors were from the planning department.

For much of the week they walked the neighborhood with Kearney, principal Alfredo Nambo, and Mayra Almaraz, an English teacher, concentrating on the business district at 47th and Ashland, around the corner from their school.

The district once formed the economic backbone of the community, populated by workers from the stockyards, about a mile to the east. It was anchored by a Goldblatt's store, an impressive five-story terra-cotta beaux arts structure on the southwest corner.

The area's been taking a beating for the last few decades. The industrial jobs left when the stockyards closed in 1971, and local businesses suffered as residents started driving to outlying malls (one of which, Ford City, was ironically developed by Harry Chaddick, for whom the DePaul institute is named).

The most prosperous businesses on the strip now are the Walgreens on the northwest corner and the Rainbow clothing store across the street. There's a string of locally owned storefronts, selling everything from cell phones to furniture (and advertising "E-Z Credit"). The second floor above the Rainbow, once occupied by a martial arts studio, is now vacant. The Goldblatt's closed four years ago.

The community's population is growing. Latinos from the north are coming in, driven out of Pilsen and Little Village by gentrification, and according to Nambo it's a port-of-entry community for Latino immigrants as well.

The students' task was to figure out how to rehabilitate the neighborhood without gentrifying it. "You want balanced development," says Zulema Ortiz, a senior. "You don't want to displace everybody."

The group's toughest challenge was the Goldblatt's. "It's the biggest building around," says Miguel Flores, who graduated this year but returned to take the course. "As long as it's empty it's a problem."

They considered the options. Tear it down and replace it with a strip mall? The students rejected that idea. "It's a great building," says Ortiz. "You don't want to lose it."

Rezone it for mixed-use development, retail on the ground floor, condos upstairs? They nixed that idea too: it would probably cause rents to rise and set off the displacement they wanted to avoid.

How about rehabbing it for another department store? Sounds good, but it would be hard to find a taker for a building that doesn't fit the favored big-box model.

They ultimately concluded that the best bet would be to have the city buy it, fix it up, and convert it into a community center, whose offerings would include programs for teens. It's not a bad idea. Not too long ago the city saved a vacant Goldblatt's in West Town, near the intersection of Chicago and Ashland, by converting it for municipal use with space for public art.

The only problem is how to pay for it. Flores suggested they tap the city's TIF programs. Again, not a bad idea. It wouldn't necessarily even require the establishment of a new TIF district, as funding could be siphoned from one of the well-stocked downtown TIFs. That's probably how Mayor Daley intends to pay for the Olympics, should we be awarded the bid. Evidently, the kids learned something about Chicago planning.

Olympic Secrecy

I got a call from Bonnie Thomson Carter, president of the Lake County Forest Preserve. Apparently she was out of town when I called about last week's column on plans to build an equestrian center for the Olympics, including a 15,000-seat stadium, in the Lakewood Forest Preserve up in Lake County.

On the phone Carter echoed what she'd been saying publicly about the proposal: opponents are exaggerating the environmental destruction it would cause, and it will provide a boon for the county when the Olympics are over.

Then she offered some insights into how Chicago's Olympics bid is being planned. According to Carter, Olympics 2016, the committee organized and led by Mayor Daley, came to her about the equestrian facility around November. "We were like, 'Holy cow--a chance to represent our country,'" Carter says.

She and Olympics 2016 officials met several times to iron out the details weeks before they went public with the plan on January 9. Why the secrecy? The bid committee insisted on it. "They wanted to announce the plans first, but I insisted we put it on the agenda [for our board meeting]," says Carter. "They agreed--they weren't too happy. They had to move up their announcement."

The bid committee is still concealing information--it won't even reveal exactly how much the center will cost. "They don't want to give away any details to competing cities," says Carter. "They don't want to divulge those numbers because other competing cities can outdo them when they make their submissions." (Tokyo, Madrid, and Rio de Janeiro--which Mayor Daley was set to visit this week--are among the sites competing with Chicago.)

So the strategy is to conceal the truth about the cost of the Olympics from Chicago taxpayers--who will almost certainly get stuck with most of the tab. It's horrible planning, a recipe for financial disaster. Maybe the kids from Big Picture could do a better job.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 47th and Ashland photo by A. Jackson.

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