On Wednesday the Chicago Housing Authority kicked off its public involvement program for the Lathrop Homes public housing project at Diversey, Damen, and Clybourne. This is the latest installment in the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation” that’s best known for demolishing the high rise projects at places like Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes.
Lathrop is very different from your average public housing project, however. Firstly, Lathrop is very diverse, with a mix of white, black, and Latino residents. And the project has historically functioned fairly well, especially in contrast the more notorious projects around town.
Also, Lathrop’s built form is different. Rather than high rises, we have here a more low-rise development, with plenty of green space and access to the Chicago River. There’s nothing inherently dysfunctional about the type of building.
And Lathrop is a historically significant complex. It is one of only a few intact WPA housing projects in America. As pre-war structures, they also feature very high construction quality of a type not found in the post-war high rises. And the landscape plan is also historically significant.
All three of these make Lathrop unique. So in undertaking a redevelopment of the property, the CHA needs to take great care not to simply apply the same approach it used elsewhere. For example, previous CHA development featured one third public housing, one third affordable housing, and one third market rate. With the agency required to build 400 public housing units on the site, using this formula would translate into 1,200 units–a significant increase from the 900 there today–and put 400 new condos into an already over saturated market where, depending on the source, 25-46% of area mortgages are underwater.
That’s not to say change isn’t needed. We’ve learned from hard experience that putting 100% poor people into high density environments comes with problems. Lathrop’s buildings are old, feature very small units, have asbestos problems, accessibility issues, etc. The site is physically isolated from the community, area businesses are not neighborhood oriented, there’s a poor pedestrian and transit experience, etc.
If the CHA and the development team are willing to work creatively to address the legitimate issues of the site while doing right by the residents and neighbors and incorporating innovative features like LEED-ND compliance for green development, the result could be a project that is not only welcome locally, but also becomes a national and international success story and model. Doing it wrong could potentially result in a Michael Reese Hospital-like disaster. Let’s hope the CHA and Lathrop Community Partners end up making the right choice.
Aaron Renn is a nationally known urban affairs commentator who blogs as The Urbanophile.