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Chicago readies two North Lawndale sites for sale and redevelopment

Published on Nov. 30, 2020 by Steven Vance

Updated on Dec. 2, 2020

Updated 12/2/20 to add more information about a failed redevelopment for the 4300 W Roosevelt Rd site.

Chicago’s planning department continues to roll out new Requests For Proposals for redeveloping city-owned land in the INVEST South/West areas. On Monday, City Hall planners dropped four new RFPs for lots with a mixture of city-owned and private property in New City, Bronzeville, South Chicago, and North Lawndale. The North Lawndale RFP is the second —the previous one came in October.

The deadlines for the initial three — Auburn Gresham, Austin, and Englewood — have passed, and this current group brings the total to eight. At least four more RFPs are forthcoming, for Greater Roseland, Humboldt Park (two, Chicago Ave and North Ave), and South Shore.

I’m going to highlight the two North Lawndale RFPs because I live in the same community area, three blocks from one of the sites, and I flew my hot air balloon over both sites to capture the “before” view.

Left: 3400 W Ogden Ave is a group of Chicago-owned parcels with a single privately-owned property in the middle that the city intends to acquire during the RFP process. Right: 4300 W Roosevelt Rd has two lots that total nearly 21 acres of vacant and “complicated” lots.

I think the RFPs are a good change for the planning department. The staff are doing a lot of diligent legwork for future developers and existing community organizers and putting them on more or less the same level when it comes to information symmetry in the pre-development stage.

The RFPs show that the city is focused on pushing for sales of the significant vacant lots. A “wait and see” approach — that doesn’t allow for community self-determination or place-based investing — had been customary. Another big difference is that the city has acknowledged funding gaps for redevelopment and is explicitly planning to provide some subsidies.

4300 W Roosevelt Road

This property is…how should I say it…complicated.

The huge vacant lot is bounded by Roosevelt, Kildare, 5th Avenue, and Kostner. The site’s past as an illegal dump was brought up recently in a podcast called “The City” (season 1), co-produced in 2018 by esteemed local reporter, Robin Amer. The podcast’s official website has been offline for a few days, but this article Robin wrote in USA Today, which co-produced the podcast, sets up the premise.

Before that, you may have seen the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) propose in 2014 building the Obama Presidential Library there.

The site is nearly 21 acres, is owned by the City of Chicago, and is bisected by an elevated railroad line (owned by CSX) that connects to the former Sears distribution center less than two miles east.

The RFP summarizes the history thusly:

This site of a former Copenhagen snuff plant has a long history as a vacant property. After clearance of the land, the site sat vacant for years and was an illegal dump. Most recently, [24th Ward] Alderman Scott Jr.’s office has received numerous development proposals for the site. A private entity had a redevelopment agreement on the site but did not complete new development and the RDA has since expired.

The redevelopment agreement mentioned in the RFP was for Central City Studios, LLC, to build “build two film studios, two television studios, one multi-purpose studio and accessory office and hospitality space and install certain broadcasting equipment, with the two phases to be linked by a sixty foot wide covered roadway spanning an existing railroad right-of-way”. According to the RDA from June 1998, the project was going to cost about $192 million and the company was going to buy the land from Chicago for $1.75 million. (The RDA mentions architectural plans, but I didn’t find them.)

Left: This undated photo shows the Copenhagen Snuff factory that was formerly on the site; dumped tires and other debris are in the foreground. Hat tip Michael Medina. Right: Screenshot of a 3D model of the dumping ground, created for The City podcast.

One of the many benefits of the city preparing an RFP this way — replete with history, showing nearby assets and amenities, and explaining public and private investments — is how it starts every respondent with an equal amount of information. Another benefit is how it identifies “community priorities”, based on engagement work that the Chicago Department of Planning & Development (DPD) has already been involved in.

For the 4300 W Roosevelt Rd RFP, DPD identified these community priorities:

  • Opportunities for training and employment of low and moderate income residents. Proposals that prioritize hiring from specific local ZIP codes will get weighted higher.
  • Community wealth building (a common INVEST South/West priority): Proposals “that include local property or business ownership that reflects the community (co-ops, partnerships, alternative equity models) shall receive additional weighting”.

Additionally, DPD has set forth some development goals, including:

  • “Create an industrial space or mix of uses that transition well at this site, which serves as a gateway between a residential community and the rest of the industrial district to the west.” (The RFP specifies any development here should be industrial.)
  • “Create new development that produces opportunities for local wealth creation, by either the participation of Black/local businesses in development and construction and/or local business tenants and property ownership.”

Responses to the RFP are due December 24, 2020. One of the qualifications I noticed was that respondents need to describe their experience redeveloping contaminated sites. Page 20 describes some of the past remediation efforts on the brownfield, and requirements for the next development.

3400 W Ogden Ave

The vacant parcels along Ogden Ave between Homan Ave and Trumbull Ave are all owned by the city, except for one, in the middle, where there’s a cement floor. An abandoned building there was demolished in 2016.

The lot has been vacant since before 1998, except for a single-story car repair shop that was demolished in 2016. Aerial photo by Cook County; inset photo by B.G.

Just like the rest of the RFPs, designers have created renderings that show what could be on the lots in the future. In this one, a “preferred development concept” has been drawn by Studio Gang that “is representative of the community’s vision, based on DPD’s outreach efforts, and a market analysis of the potential for new development on the corridor”.

Studio Gang depicted a six-story building on the offered parcel, while across the street, a five-story building takes over the police station’s overflow parking lot. The “images are intended to capture the site’s potential and inspire creative proposals”, not to suggest a proposal that fits neatly within what’s drawn. The design concept shows the space of the service drives being put to better use for people, as landscaping and plazas.

The parking lot isn’t part of the RFP but it is the site of a future affordable housing development with ground floor retail (more details have not been announced). Two blocks west of here, the Pink Line stops at Central Park Ave and Ogden Ave.

Each RFP also comes with a sample pro forma. This one suggests a mixed-use building with 50 dwelling units of mixed-income housing supported by Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). But, it also shows a funding gap of nearly $10 million.

Like Chicago Cityscape’s Incentives Checker feature, the RFP follows up with a list of geographically-available incentives:

  • Opportunity Zone (OZ), New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC), and Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which attract investors looking to lower their tax liabilities.
  • Enterprise Zone, which can reduce taxes paid for utilities and construction materials as long as an agreed upon number of jobs are created.
  • Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which are grants to spur economic development, business expansions, and mixed-use construction projects.
To inspire creative proposals, each RFP has renderings that elicit a “preferred development concept” representing a community vision based on the planning department’s outreach and engagement.

Finally, I appreciate that the RFP highlights the insanity of Ogden Ave’s width along this blog: eight travel lanes, and service drives in each direction, each with a travel lane and a parking lane, for a total of 12 lanes. Ogden Ave here has about 30 percent less car traffic than Ashland Ave through West Town (per a 2018 count) and twice the lanes.

Chicago readies two North Lawndale sites for sale and redevelopment was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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