Preserve & Prosper

Preserve & Prosper

The historic apartments will be renovated for affordable housing.
Courtesy Hartshorn Plunkard

A long-vacant, historically significant apartment complex in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, perennially included on various endangered buildings lists, seems one step closer to survival after the city’s Community Development Commission (CDC) approved a plan to repurpose the Rosenwald Apartments.

While Preservation Chicago’s Jonathan Fine classifies it as a victory for preservationists and cultural historians, not everyone in the neighborhood agrees that the project as planned will prove a positive addition.

The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin reported that the commission approved a plan to provide $25 million in tax increment financing toward a $110 million renovation of the complex. A venture called Landwhite LLC presented a plan, with designs from Chicago architects Hartshorne Plunkard, to convert the structure into 331 rental apartment units, 95 percent of which would be priced to attract working and lower-income families, leaving 5 percent at competitive market rates.

The abandoned Rosenwald apartments.
SilverRaven / Flickr

The building complex has a rich history and architectural pedigree. In the 1920s, the retail mogul and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald commissioned architect Ernest Grunsfeld Jr. to design the Michigan Avenue Garden Apartments to provide decent housing for an upwardly mobile middle class in the city’s growing “black belt.” Grunsfeld, probably best known for designing the Adler Planetarium, also left a rich portfolio of grand suburban villas. This is one of his few multifamily designs: a sprawling, four-story block complex around a private 2-acre courtyard. Since its 1929 completion, residents reportedly have included such luminaries as Quincy Jones, Nat King Cole, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

While the Bronzeville neighborhood has seen something of the real estate cycle reflecting the nation at large—and the increasing development activity on Chicago’s South Side since the turn of the millennium—it remains far from gentrified. It is no overstatement to call the area directly around the project site “blighted,” and the building itself has been vacant for a decade.

Rendering shows how the Rosenwald apartments would be restored.

Some neighborhood groups are unhappy with the plan and fear that the overwhelming number of non-market rate renters won’t jibe with the community’s perception of itself and its direction. “What’s at stake in Bronzeville,” read a statement the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership delivered to the CDC, “is the vanishing middle class and affordable quality housing options for them.”

Paula Robinson, the Partnership’s executive director, nevertheless maintains an optimistic outlook. As Kamin reported, with the TIF financing boost, Landwhite only has about half its money in place, so there’s still room for a package that will encourage converting more units to market rate. And with careful management oversight and tenant screening, she thinks it can be done. “It’s really about the marketing,” she says.

Regrettably, marketing doesn’t seem to be Landwhite’s strong suit, at least not on the surface. While Kamin reported it had offices in Granger, Indiana, and New York City, it doesn’t have much of a traceable history: no website. The contact phone number Alderman Pat Dowell’s office had was the mobile phone of one of its principals, who didn’t return calls at press time.