CHA's New Way

CHA's New Way

Four units will be combined to create an arts center.
Courtesy Landon Bone Baker

While much of Chicago’s large-scale public housing has been demolished, a small, abandoned 36-unit Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) property on the South Side is being reborn as an innovative mixed-income project with public, affordable, and market-rate housing as well as a cultural center for residents.

The project is a collaboration between artist-planner Theaster Gates, Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA), and Brinshore Development, working in coordination with the CHA. The project calls for 12 units for CHA residents, 11 units of affordable housing for artists, and nine market-rate units, possibly for home ownership. The market rate units will also be targeted for artists. “We want to be able to attract South Side artists—artists of color—who normally have to go to the North Side to make art or make music,” Gates said.  Four of the original 36 units will be combined to create a cultural center for the complex, which could include workshop, gallery, or studio space, open to all residents.

The Rebuild Foundation, a non-profit that Gates founded, will recruit artists and manage the cultural space. The goal is for resident artists to mentor CHA residents and their children as well as work with schools in the neighborhood.

The site plan indicates the arts center at the center of the U-shaped block. (Click to enlarge.)

Gates has been working in the Dorchester neighborhood for almost six years, rehabbing four houses as alternative live-work spaces for artists and community members. Working with neighbors, he is also caring for two vacant lots in the area. “We’ve been exploring how a cluster of houses could become a cultural amenity,” Gates said. “What’s really cool about this project with CHA is that it’s really focused on raising people’s quality of life. How do we celebrate the lives of people no matter what means they have?”

For the CHA project, Landon Bone Baker will focus on making the midcentury building’s shell more energy efficient. The CHA resident units will be conventional three-bedroom units, whereas the artists’ units will be left relatively raw so they can be built out by tenants and owners. “It’s a chance for us to look at these buildings more spatially, rather than just in terms of the number of rooms, so that if removing some joists and opening up a unit into the space above makes the most sense, we can do that,” said Catherine Baker, a principal at LBBA.

For Gates and LBBA, reusing the existing buildings is important. “The full obliteration and recreation of neighborhoods is not natural,” Gates says, referring to wholesale destruction of vast tracts of public housing in Chicago. “How do we work with the existing fabric of a neighborhood and dream what we want the neighborhood to be?” While the buildings themselves are not of particular architectural merit, the townhouse scale and its mature trees relate well to the surrounding neighborhood.

They hope the project could serve as a model for other parts of the city and beyond. While housing authorities around the country have adopted New Urbanist-influenced, mixed-income rebuilding programs, some have struggled to attract market rate residents, and others have failed to develop planned commercial uses.

“This model could be a different way to attract a variety of residents,” Baker said. “It’s really about enriching the lives of all residents. It’s a different notion of amenity.”