Last Saturday, October 13, in the basement of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, the board of Hull House Association finally sat down to talk with some concerned citizens of Lakeview. Three months ago Hull House CEO Clarence Wood announced the board's intention to sell the Jane Addams Center at 3212 N. Broadway, and since then the center's distressed patrons have been trying to find out what will happen to its programs.
Most of Jane Addams's original settlement house complex was demolished in 1963 to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Lakeview center became the organization's flagship. It's now home to almost a dozen community programs, including after-school day care, ceramics classes, swimming lessons, and an acclaimed photography program. One source inside Hull House said that last year the Jane Addams Center accounted for 27 percent of the total service hours provided by the association while claiming only 6 percent of the $39 million annual budget.
Soon after the meeting began, it became clear there was little hope of saving the 87-year-old former American Legion hall, as Wood reaffirmed the board's decision to sell the building. Louise Smith, chair of the Hull House Association board of trustees, went on to announce that Hull House did not intend to find a new, central location for its programs. She said the board was still debating how to scatter the center's services to various locations throughout the city. Wood added, "We have not yet finalized the timeline for relocation of the programs."
The objections came flying. "It seems like this was a backward decision," said Megan Floyd, from the Hull House photography program. "Shouldn't these new locations have been determined before the decision was made to sell the building? This was like putting the cart before the horse."
"The benefits of investing in the building were simply not justified in the final outcome," replied Smith. "We're in the business of delivering programs to underserved communities. But we're a social service agency first and foremost, and we're more than open to suggestions from the community on how to best do that."
Many in attendance wondered if she meant Lakeview was no longer in need of a settlement house. They figured relocating the programs within the neighborhood would be difficult given sky-high property values and the center's extensive space requirements. "This area's becoming so overbuilt and overdeveloped Jane Addams Center could never be replaced," said John Robb, president of the Belmont Harbor Neighbors Association and a 28-year Lakeview resident. "The easy way out is to sell it first, get your $3 million, say you'll look for replacements and partners later, then say you can't find any, and take off."
A few months ago, in an effort to halt the sale, Robb's group asked 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen to down-zone the center's property to conform with the surrounding stretch of North Broadway. Earlier this month Hansen introduced a down-zoning ordinance to the City Council, and if it passes--as is expected--it would effectively minimize the resale value of the property by restricting the floor area of anything built on the lot to approximately one-third of what's currently allowed. Hansen defended his proposed ordinance before the meeting: "If there are all these services already being provided here, including photography classes, ceramics, swimming, why should they move to another neighborhood if they can be kept right here?"
Wood was surprised to hear of the proposed zoning changes, though he'd met with Hansen several weeks ago to discuss possible relocation sites for the various programs. Despite the drastic effect the down-zoning may have on the future value of the property, Wood stressed that the ordinance wouldn't prevent the sale. He added that relocation of the programs "is not in the budget right now. We don't know what it's going to cost. But we understand the value of these programs, and we're willing to do everything in our power to keep them."
Wood promised an ad hoc committee would be formed to examine the possibility of moving programs to other facilities. Smith said she'd already contacted nearby Nettelhorst elementary school to discuss relocating the after-school day care program, which many had mentioned was needed in the neighborhood. A few minutes later, Nettelhorst principal Susan Kurland arrived and said she was unaware of any discussions between Hull House and the school. Smith then claimed she'd contacted the Chicago Public Schools, though she did not specify whom she had spoken with or when.
"I can say that we fully plan to relocate 100 percent of the programs prior to the closing of the building," Smith said. "What we're hoping to do is continue to provide these services and expand those services in a way that we haven't been able to thus far."
"We just want to keep the quality of life here the way it is," said Robb.
For better or worse, the Hull House Association may be moving away from the settlement house model in favor of a more flexible, lower maintenance system. At one point during the meeting Smith said, "Hull House's mission is to spend money on people, not bricks and mortar."
The group assembled that morning proposed the creation of a watchdog committee made up of community members. The committee would monitor the relocation of programs and explore possible alternative buyers who could maintain the programs in the present building.
"You might want to be careful on who is assigned to the committee," warned Smith. "You want to make sure you have good people who have their priorities in the right places."