The first thing many passersby notice about the Julia C. Lathrop Homes is the column of white vapor pouring out of a manhole on the south side of Diversey Avenue. Since 1938, a steam plant on the Chicago River has warmed up Lathrop’s 30 buildings this way. But now most of the people who lived in this low-rise housing development are gone, relocated at the behest of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) over the last 15 years, and the steam lends these boarded-up brick buildings an air of film noir loneliness.
About 900 families once lived here, but fewer than one in five units remain occupied. As part of its $1.6 billion Plan for Transformation, CHA encouraged families to move out of Lathrop so the New Deal–era property could be rehabilitated. Lathrop escaped demolition—the fate of 18,000 other public housing units in the city since 2000—but four years after CHA had estimated work would be complete, Lathrop awaits redevelopment.
CHA’s Plan for Transformation, initiated in 1999 under Mayor Richard M. Daley, called for the construction or rehabilitation of 25,000 public housing units by 2010 to replace those lost in the demolition of high-rises at Cabrini Green and other sites around the city. The agency, now the largest owner of rental housing in Chicago, remains more than 3,000 units short of its goal.
The idea was to break up concentrated areas of poverty in former public housing sites by interspersing market-rate condos and rentals with subsidized and public housing units. But some former residents, who remember Lathrop fondly, say they were deceived by CHA, which first considered keeping Lathrop’s units 100 percent public housing and later issued a request for proposals to develop a mixed-income community instead.
Courtesy lathrop community partners; Courtesy bKL Architecture
Some have decried CHA’s plan to rebuild public housing sites into mixed-income developments as a way to push out the very poor, while others say its vision of economic diversity will avoid the mistakes of past public housing projects.
Lathrop may be the crucible for that debate. Current plans for the entire redevelopment call for 504 market-rate homes, 400 public housing residences, 212 affordable units and 92 units for senior citizen public housing residents. (The senior housing is an existing private development that will be not affected by the new plan.)
After years of delays, construction on Lathrop is set to begin in 2015. A team of developers known as Lathrop Community Partners is in charge, with Related Midwest leading Heartland Alliance, Bickerdike, Magellan, and Ardmore Associates. Designers including Farr Associates, bKL Architecture, Bauer Latoza, Wolff Landscape Associates, JGMA and Studio Gang Architects have collaborated on the master plan, which attempts to balance historic preservation—Lathrop is on the National Register of Historic Places—with new development.
“We’ve got all these competing demands,” said Jacques Sandberg, Related’s vice president in charge of affordable housing. “When you’re combining all these constraints, and we’re ultimately preserving almost in total the north half of the site, then we have to provide the density somewhere.”
Most of that density will come during future phases from the redevelopment of the buildings south of Diversey Avenue. But two new structures on the northwest and southwest corners of Diversey at Clybourn and Damen Avenues will reach six stories, stepping up gradually from the campus scale of Lathrop’s historic buildings.
Designers at bKL Architecture want the massing of the new buildings to mimic the rhythm and proportions of the original structures, so they proposed punctuating their facades with vertical bands to recall the existing geometry. A datum line between two colors of brick will maintain the historic structures’ lower scale. As the new buildings move away from the older development, higher floors clad in lighter cream-colored masonry rise away from darker material beneath the reference line. Likewise, the fenestration of the new buildings references the existing architecture, though the size of the windows themselves grows as the facade moves further south.
Flanking Diversey Avenue before it crosses the Chicago River between the neighborhoods of Northcenter and Logan Square, the new buildings will serve as a gateway to the new development, according to their architects. “One of the big issues is how do you change the perception of Lathrop?” said Thomas Kerwin, principal of bKL Architecture. “Hopefully this helps signify that it’s a new place.”
Lathrop’s legacy is unique. Many former residents who lived there after it was desegregated in the 1970s remember it as a racially diverse and harmonious community. Devoid of dehumanizing high-rises, its ample courtyards flowed into a Jens Jensen-designed “Great Lawn” along the Chicago River. While the community did suffer some of the same problems as other low-income housing developments, including gang activity and crime, its relative stability is something those redeveloping it hope to preserve.
Still, as Kerwin said, for Lathrop to succeed as a mixed-income community it needs to shed reputations—whether earned or not—associated with housing projects. As the first phase of Lathrop’s development gets underway, Jacques Sandberg of Related said improving pedestrian connections to neighboring Hamlin Park could help wary neighbors remember what made the development attractive in the first place. “We think that if we really make the riverfront a special place, we’re going to bring in people on foot and on bike,” said Sandberg. “Originally it tended in some respects to be an island of tranquility. At the time that this was built, you wanted to turn your back on the squalor that was the city. In this day and age people are embracing the city.”
That sentiment resonates with Margaret Frisbie, who runs Friends of the Chicago River. She says the redevelopment of Lathrop is an opportunity to weave nearly half a mile of riverfront real estate into the surrounding community, providing public spaces and green infrastructure to retain stormwater. “I think that having green open space that was pretty and pleasant made [Lathrop residents] feel more like members of a community that mattered, and therefore made them unified in their pride of place,” said Frisbie. “I find it hard to imagine how you would create that feeling in the sterile concrete jungles that were Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes.”
Juan Moreno, whose firm JGMA was chosen to rehabilitate the historic structures north of Diversey Avenue, also has high hopes for the river as a social space. JGMA’s plans will leave the existing landmark structures intact, but the firm is investigating ways to connect pedestrian traffic and residential open space with the riverfront. “For those that say Clybourn is a wall, we want to say, ‘come on in,’” said Moreno.
In May, CHA authorized a $3.5 million loan to Lathrop’s developers, which rebooted lagging redevelopment efforts. Construction on the project’s first phase, which would restore the historic properties north of Diversey Avenue and replace two existing buildings with bKL Architecture’s “gateway buildings,” could begin early next year. Debate over the new construction’s style and scale is likely to continue, as the second phase of redevelopment will include most of its increased density in taller buildings south of Diversey Avenue.
Some neighborhood groups, affordable housing advocates, and at least one Alderman—Scott Waguespack—have challenged CHA’s plan for a mixed-income community, calling for the housing agency to restore the public housing units it demolished in the Plan for Transformation’s early days before offering CHA sites to market-rate renters. That debate will go on, too. Related’s Jacques Sandberg said the current plan strikes the right balance. “We’re not going to be able to please everybody by nature of the project,” he said. “But I think we’re knitting together a complicated set of issues into a viable plan.”