WOODLAWN — Woodlawn has seen more than $400 million in investment in the last five years. In some neighborhoods, that kind of money would have inevitably led to gentrification, forcing longtime residents from their homes.
But that's not the case, the largest developer in the neighborhood said in a new report about the investments.
Preservation of Affordable Housing, a national nonprofit which has sought to revitalize some of the nation's largest cities while keeping housing affordable, released a report Monday showing $400 million was invested in the neighborhood in 2011. That year, the group started redeveloping Grove Parc Plaza through a $30.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Bill Eager, vice president for the nonprofit’s Chicago branch, which is behind more than $100 million of that investment, said the neighborhood has improved greatly and is still a ways away from gentrification.
“There’s lots of room still for everyone,” Eager said. “There can be lots of development still in Woodlawn before gentrification becomes a problem.”
Local religious and political leaders agree the development has not led to displacement, at least not yet.
"I don't see a massive shift of people going out, but I am certainly concerned about it, and we are planning to address it now," the Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God said. "If you don't address it, it will happen."
Eager said for decades residents were leaving the neighborhood, which still has lots of available land for development that could be done without jeopardizing existing housing stock. He said the reversal of that trend is still fairly recent and pointed to U.S. Census data that showed young black families are moving back to the neighborhood for the first time in more than a decade.
Even before former President Barack Obama chose nearby Jackson Park as the site for his presidential library, there were signs people were looking to Woodlawn again. For-profit developers already in the neighborhood are expanding the number of homes they're planning, and North Side developers are looking at the neighborhood for the first time.
Those developers are looking not only at the presidential library, but also the University of Chicago’s investment in the neighborhood. The university is building a $27.5 million charter school at 1101 E. 63rd St., crossing an unspoken boundary at 63rd Street that had divided portions of the neighborhood controlled by influential churches and the university for more than 50 years.
All these projects together, along with investments into city infrastructure, total $400 million, according to Preservation of Affordable Housing.
Woodlawn Station will start construction later this month as one of the final projects funded by a 2011 HUD grant. [Courtesy of Preservation of Affordable Housing]
Grove Parc Plaza, a redeveloped apartment complex at 61st and Cottage Grove, probably is the most significant visual change in the landscape of the neighborhood in the last five years.
Brazier said the change is major.
"When you look at how it looked compared to how it looks now, it's night and day," Brazier said. "Woodlawn is a different place from what it looked like five years ago."
Preservation of Affordable Housing is in the final year of a $30.5 million grant from HUD to redevelop the subsidized housing project located in what was once one of the most dangerous parts of the city.
“It’s opened up Woodlawn in ways that were hard to visualize before,” Eager said.
The nonprofit is closing on financing this week for the $28 million Woodlawn Station, which will bring 55 mixed-income apartments and 15,600 square feet of retail space to 63rd and Cottage Grove and 15 mixed-income units a block south on Maryland Avenue. It will be the last project in Woodlawn funded by the HUD grant, Eager said.
The entire Grove Parc Plaza project was set to bring 965 units to Woodlawn, but will likely top out with more than 1,000 new units when it is completed, Eager said.
The project has not sparked anxiety in Woodlawn the way CHA projects have in Bronzeville, partially because it is much more modest in its experimentation with market-rate housing. It also has maintained one of the largest Section 8 affordable housing areas in the neighborhood by a nonprofit developer and guaranteed former residents the first option on any new units.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) said the project will make sure there will be affordable housing in the community over the long term as the neighborhood continues to improve.
"I don't think we will ever be able to say over the next 30 years that people were displaced," Cochran said.
He pointed to city regulations that would require many new developers coming to the neighborhood to also include affordable housing.
But there is increasingly more to lure developers to the neighborhood who don't want tax subsidies and the affordable housing requirements that come with them.
Brazier said he's heard similar theories that the neighborhood is still a long way from gentrifying, but he wants to start the conversation with residents now.
Brazier's church and the Network of Woodlawn on Tuesday night were holding their third in a series of workshops with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill about urban planning and community development. It's an effort by Brazier and other organizations to create an informed community that is eager to engage in big plans for the neighborhood that will come with the Obama library.
Preservation of Affordable Housing will remain a part of the development scene in the neighborhood as well.
Eager said the nonprofit has plans for more housing developments, but will be focusing increasingly on retail development in the neighborhood now that its HUD funding is coming to an end.
“We’ll be here for several more years,” Eager said.