Residents express concerns about displacement due to OPC construction

A map of the City-owned land for which the Chicago Department of Planning and Development’s plans to issue requests for proposals. Red properties are vacant lots along the 63rd Street business corridor, yellow is the site of the Obama Presidential Center campus and the locations of the former Fiske, Betsy Ross and Wadsworth schools and the vacant firehouse at 1405 E. 62nd Pl. are marked.
Courtesy of the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development

Staff Writer

Amidst persistent concerns about the rise of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park and the specter of gentrification in Woodlawn, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) held two meetings on July 31 and Aug. 1 about the content and process of the city’s planned solicitation of requests for proposals (RFPs) for the hundreds of empty residential and commercial lots they own across the neighborhood.

Residents expressed optimism about new amenities, businesses and economic opportunities, skepticism about the City’s process for selling the land and deep concern about Woodlawn residents getting priced out of their homes.

Discussing commercial development, Aarti Kotak, the managing deputy commissioner of the DPD Bureau of Economic Development, emphasized the government’s goal of creating black wealth as Woodlawn ascends with the OPC’s establishment and providing amenities desired by Woodlawn residents and as well as OPC tourists.

To these ends, Kotak said all commercial proposals received during the RFP process would be considered at the same time for the sake of transparency and cohesive, complimentary, successful development. She promised to solicit community feedback about the proposals and that DPD would do a feasibility screening of developers’ financial and business aptitude.

Kotak encouraged individuals to submit proposals for parcels of land. She said DPD was in conversation with local Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) about creating an independent committee to monitor and advise the City on the process. All final determinations will be the city’s prerogative.

When asked whether the city already has a plan about the development of Woodlawn, Kotek said there are around 10.

“There are community plan and resident plan after plan,” she said at the first meeting. “My goal standing here is to try to lift up into reality what people have been promised or what people have spent their time saying what is wanted over and over.”

Kotek said the RFP process could be used to screen developers for their commitment to hiring a local, minority workforce, as the city itself could not “compel” this.

When asked what the city would do for Woodlawn residents who desire to open a business but lack sufficient capital, Kotek said the public and intended goals of the property sales are to prioritize locally and black-owned businesses and that the municipal Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which provides grants to business and property owners on the South, Southwest and West sides for real estate development, rehabilitation or projects supporting new or expanding businesses or “cultural aspects,” “was created for this.” She said that 56 percent of the Fund’s grants have gone to black recipients.

Additionally, Kotek hypothesized about strategically selling property at market rate to support the sale to a business proposition “that needs a lift,” saying this process again benefits from the RFP process.

Anthony Simpkins, the managing deputy commissioner of the DPD Housing Bureau, discussed the sale of residentially zoned land, saying the city owns around 540 parcels, or nearly 40 percent of Woodlawn’s total.

“When it comes to concerns about ‘white-sizing’ private development [and] concerns about gentrification and development … city land represents a significant resource to help guide development and improvement in Woodlawn to ensure that the long-term residents of Woodlawn are able to participate in and benefit from that development,” he said on July 31.

Simpkins said the RFP process was an impossibility for residential development because of the quantity of City-owned land. What was possible, he said, was to develop, through a process of proposals, feedback and revisions with the community, a set of criteria to evaluate and accept proposals. He acknowledged that those within the community likely have different goals but that sales would not begin until a final set of criteria was established.

Sharon Payne, a Woodlawn resident since 1980 and member of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), expressed concern on Aug. 1 about what will happen to low-income and working class households in the course of Woodlawn’s gentrification. She called affordable housing a human right.

“We should not be displaced because they’re having a mad land grab,” she said, calling for business ownership to reflect Woodlawn’s community and a 30 percent affordable housing share in the neighborhood for working class and senior citizens, a term out of the proposed OPC community benefits agreement (CBA).

A map of the Woodlawn Community Area, with yellow areas City-owned planned developments and red areas vacant, City-owned residentially zoned land. – Courtesy of the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development

At the same meeting, STOP Executive Director Alex Goldenberg referenced a Woodlawn study, “Getting Ahead of Gentrification,” which estimated that a 15 percent rise in rents would push out half of Woodlawn’s population.

“If the value or the principle is really to keep people here, then there has to be an aggressive intervention with set asides to keep the people here,” he said at the second meeting. While he acknowledged that the city was having a public meeting for residents then, he said they would also meet with developers who donate to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Cochran.

“Who are they going to listen to?” he asked, advocating replacing the 20th Ward incumbent before Simpkins cut him off.

Those with higher incomes expressed concerns about housing as well.

“Even as we’re looking at these lots, and being someone who is a perspective homebuyer, I’m actually in the donut hole, and I know quite a number of people who are,” said Márquez Rhyne at the second meeting. “I’m not struggling enough economically to be given access to some of these programs, but I don’t make enough to get into solid housing.”

“I can literally live anywhere in the continental US, and I’m being pushed out of Chicago to purchase homes,” he said, adding that “market rate” housing is really for the affluent. He reported that the cost to buy the condominium he rents was $85,000 when he moved in but identical, unimproved units in his building now go for $135,000.

Rhyne said his mother and grandparents had been pushed out of Woodlawn due to gang violence. “Now I’m coming back trying to reclaim part of our family heritage, but I can’t afford it,” he said, adding that he was considering moving to Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte, North Carolina, “because I can go in and snap up houses like that — but not here.”

On July 31, Woodlawn Community Development Corporation chairman and noted property owner Rev. Dr. Leon Finney compared the present situation to Woodlawn’s land battles with the University of Chicago in the late 1960s.

“If you want to be heard and you want to have your thoughts and ideas manifested in public policy, you must organize to make it happen,” he said, acknowledging 1Woodlawn and the West Woodlawn Coalition in attendance. He encouraged homeownership for neighborhood stability and told the audience to “establish the criteria ourselves” and “organize to make them happen.”

“This is a land grab, let’s be clear,” said Woodlawn resident Sandra Bivens after the July 31 meeting. With many Woodlawn renters afraid of being priced out in the near future and residents near the fixed income of retirement age afraid of being taxed out, she called for more affordable housing with diversified ownership of rented units and said “there has got to be some kind of mechanism” to keep elders’ taxes down.

Devondrick Jeffers, an organizer with STOP, called for the city to adopt the CBA ordinance and to turn its lots into community land banks, where the community itself would make decisions regarding land allocation.

“They’re getting feedback, but the process is unclear, the responses aren’t being recorded, according to the folks who ran the meeting,” he said on July 31. “So it’s unclear what’s going to come out of this process — that’s my greatest fear, that we just spent two hours in a room, and nothing is going to happen out of this process.”

July 31 meeting attendee Tyra Owens, who lives in Bronzeville and works in Greater Grand Crossing, said she was afraid that DPD was withholding a timeline from the public, that “things have already started moving and the people and the community [do] not know.” She said she did not understand the event to have been a community meeting when none of the residents of the Grant at Woodlawn Park, 6129 S. Cottage Grove Ave., an affordable housing development, attended it. (The second meeting was held at the POAH Woodlawn Resource Center, 6144 S. Cottage Grove Ave.)

“What I would like to have happen is that the agency comes up with a timeline and informs people about this timeline — not only when meetings are going to happen, but when they expect to have these lots actually developed on.” she said.

Kotek said on July 31 that the process of soliciting feedback from the community about the commercial RFP process would be completed in a month. Simpkins said at the same meeting that the residential process has no timeline but that they are trying to complete it “sooner rather than later.”