WEST TOWN — After more than 120 years of providing social services to local families, Onward Neighborhood House is selling its land and moving out of West Town, citing gentrification and waning demand for its programs.
The move follows the flight of a number of organizations that have opted to leave West Town or branch out to West and South side neighborhoods, like East Village Youth Program, which moved to Avondale in 2007, and Emerson House, which was once at 645 N. Wood St. before it shuttered.
As rent in parts of the neighborhood has gone up and underprivileged families have moved out, fewer and fewer are attending after-school programs and senior services, said Mario Garcia, executive director of the house.
"Our pre-school, we used to have three classrooms of 60 children. Now we’re down about 18 children in one classroom," Garcia said.
About six years ago, Onward Neighborhood House opened a center in Belmont Cragin, where Garcia said it was clear the organization was better needed and where it will now be focusing its resources.
"That’s going great," Garcia said. "All of our programs are full, and we have a wait list, and most of the families who use our centers are a short walk from the center or a short drive."
The social services nonprofit is selling the lot at 600 N. Leavitt St. for nearly $1.2 million, and its real estate listing on Coldwell Banker advertises the spot as a "prime opportunity to build."
Some West Town neighbors, such as six-year resident Liz Kuhn, are concerned about the potential for the building to be bulldozed or rezoned to pave the way for development.
Kuhn, 34, urged neighbors to send emails to Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) and several neighborhood groups asking them to fight for preserving the building and oppose any developer's plan that would add too many residents to the area.
"It's really about preserving the character of the neighborhood and honoring some of the history," Kuhn said.
Onward Neighborhood House started as a church at Ohio and Leavitt streets in 1893 before it moved into its current building at 600 N. Leavitt St. in 1928. Over the years it grew to offer a food pantry, English as a Second Language classes, a senior club and a Head Start program for underprivileged children, among other initiatives.
"It's a pretty residential, family-friendly area, and should there be increased density, you’re also talking about impact," Kuhn said, citing excess traffic.
Maldonado hasn't yet scheduled a community meeting to discuss the sale with neighbors but said Wednesday if the future owner wants to seek a zoning change and neighbors wish to discuss it, a meeting will happen.
Garcia said the organization has received a number of different offers but has yet to settle on a buyer. The settlement house plans to be out of the building by early August and is even looking to potentially expand into another neighborhood in the future.
About 10 employees will be without jobs after the move, though Garcia said the organization will be actively helping them find new work through career fairs.
And as for the families who did use Onward Neighborhood House services, Garcia said he's working with nearby organizations such as Erie Neighborhood House at 1701 W. Superior St. and Northwestern Settlement at 1400 W. Augusta Blvd. in an attempt to ensure they won't be left behind.
"We are doing everything in our power to help those families to transition," Garcia said.
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