For seven years, people living in the Julia C. Lathrop Homes and their neighbors in West Lakeview and North Center have been waiting for word on the fate of the 35-acre public housing project at 2000 W. Diversey Avenue. In that time, many of the project’s 1930s-era brick low-rise buildings have been boarded up and fenced off, and people living in the city’s oldest housing project have been shuffled from one side of Diversey to the other.
Now, after a process widely criticized in the community for a lack of clarity and transparency, there are new indications that key stakeholders may soon know the plans for the parcel of land at Clybourn, Damen and Diversey Avenues. Members of a “working group” comprised of aldermanic representatives, neighborhood groups and resident advocates have been invited to a meeting at the federal Housing and Urban Development offices downtown on June 19th. An email obtained by Center Square Journal tells recipients that “CHA believes they (sic) will be ready to present the (Lathrop) plan” at that time. However, the email includes a caveat that stakeholders should look for a confirmation next week to make sure the plan is truly ready, an acknowledgement that numerous community and “working group” meetings on the fate of Lathrop Homes have been postponed and canceled over the last several months.
Going on the main website for the Lathrop Community Partners — the consortium of developers and agencies involved in the project — provides very little guidance on a timetable: it still promises “a master plan by March of 2013.” When asked for comment on the process and status of the development, a CHA spokeswoman provided an emailed statement which said the agency is “continuing to work” with stakeholders, and that the CHA and Lathrop Community Partners intend to present a plan “in the near future.” As this article was being posted, CHA had not responded to multiple requests for comment about the status of the June 19th meeting.
Asking other stakeholders in the process provides little other information as well. “We don’t have any more access than anyone else does,” said Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward borders Lathrop Homes. “We have not seen anything by way of a plan or a concept since November, and that gets to the question of ‘what kind of a process is this?’”
Kevin Bruursema is more direct: “If lots of activity with very little clarity was the goal, that has been achieved.” The campus pastor at New Life Community Church, 2958 N. Damen Avenue, has hosted discussions about the future of the Lathrop project, and became an advocate for neighbors and residents seeking assistance working through what both he and Sajovec describe as a confusing process of community outreach. “It’s like getting into the worst customer service loop ever,” Bruursema said. “Nobody ever has the answer. I think it was built to avoid ever having anyone responsible for engaging the community.”
However, the chief spokesman for the alderman that represents Lathrop Homes on Chicago’s City Council is more sanguine about the governmental fits and starts that have typified the Lathrop project. “Generally, that can happen with large bureaucracies,” said Matt Bailey, communications director for Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st). “We like to think we’re a consistent bridge between the residents and the CHA.”
The last open engagement of Lathrop residents and neighbors happened back in November of 2012. That’s when Lathrop Community Partners released three proposals for redeveloping the site, and New Life Community Church hosted two open houses to collect feedback from the community. Based on the group’s own notes from those open houses, the biggest concern was over the number of housing units in the development. Each of the three finalists included 1,600 units of housing, at least 50% of which were to be “market-rate.” However, the CHA’s own guidelines set a ceiling of 1,200 housing units for any new development at Lathrop.
Sajovec said like the neighbors and existing Lathrop residents, he and Ald. Waguespack were “pretty concerned” about the increase in density, citing the lack of nearby “L” service. “If you were looking around for an area to put high-density residential, you wouldn’t pick this one,” he said. Bruursema agreed: “They weren’t recognizing the impact on streets. I don’t think this community could handle it.” Bailey also indicated that Ald. Moreno’s office had “specific concerns about density and preservation,” given Lathrop’s status on the National Register of Historic Places and the parcel’s access to the North Branch of the Chicago River. Sajovec said project leaders have recently been “hinting” that they may bring the density level down, but it’s not clear whether the new plan tentatively set to be presented on June 19th will reflect that.
Of course, as with any development in the City of Chicago, there’s one specific constituent whose feedback is heeded above all others, and his office is on the fifth floor of City Hall. Back in April, Mayor Emanuel joined CHA chief executive Charles Woodyard to announce a new strategic plan for public housing that includes mixed-income developments and vouchers to help low-income people afford units in privately owned buildings. Emanuel’s “Plan Forward” replaces the Daley-era “Plan for Transformation” adopted in 2000 that led to the demolition of numerous high-rise housing projects, including the Cabrini-Green towers.
It’s not clear how the rollout of the “Plan Forward” has affected the timetable for the Lathrop project, and there’s little information to suggest that Emanuel or his office has expressed a specific point of view about the future of Lathrop. Bailey would only say that “obviously” the mayor’s office has input, though he had seen no specific indication of engagement from Emanuel.
But if the scheduled June 19th meeting is postponed or canceled, no one who’s been watching this process since the Lathrop Homes were targeted for redevelopment back in 2006 will be surprised. Bruursema said most of the 160 remaining families living on the south side of Diversey are older, have health problems and just want to know where they’re going to be able to live: “If the plan was to wear them down, that has worked.”