LOGAN SQUARE — When the long-stalled Lathrop Homes redevelopment project is complete, folks will see the public housing complex, the largest on the North Side, in a completely different light, resident Juanita Stevenson says.
"Over the years, we were given a name: 'Those people over there.' Now, a lot of people [are going to] want to join those people over there," said Stevenson, president of Lathrop's Local Advisory Council and resident of 34 years.
Stevenson's excitement was shared by public officials, benefactors and other community members, all of whom gathered on Lathrop Homes' "great lawn" Tuesday afternoon for a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the beginning of the massive redevelopment project.
It's been a "long time coming" for proponents of the project, who have been entangled in a heated debate and legal battles with residents and housing activists over the future of the 32-acre complex, bordered by the Chicago River, Diversey Parkway and Clybourn and Damen avenues, for more than 15 years.
Many of the officials who spoke at the ceremony told tales of the tumultuous planning process, which stretches as far back as 20 years, though the final development team was chosen eight years ago.
"This project has evoked more passion in more people than most projects in Chicago," said Joy Aruguete, executive director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., one of three developers tapped for the project. Related Midwest and Heartland Housing are the other two developers.
That opinion was shared by 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno, who said, "There were many starts, delays and a lot of passionate arguments. It was difficult for a lot of us."
Eugene Jones, CEO of the CHA, said of the project: "I took a lot of lumps to the head, but it was worth it."
CHA CEO Eugene Jones hugs longtime resident and advisory council president, Juanita Stevenson, after the groundbreaking ceremony. [DNAinfo/Mina Bloom]
The final plan, which surfaced last summer, calls for a mixed-use campus with 1,116 residential units built over three phases, retail storefronts, a revamped riverwalk and new landscaping. The campus will simply be called "Lathrop," according to Curt Bailey, president of Related Midwest.
The first phase of the project, which was commemorated with the ceremony, will bring 414 new and rehabbed units to the complex. Of that number, 151 will be reserved as public housing units, 101 will be reserved as affordable housing units and 162 will be reserved as market-rate units.
Also during the first phase, crews will do historic preservation work on three existing buildings, build one new building, install the riverwalk and make improvements to the great lawn and other open spaces.
The development team is required by law to replace 525 public housing units, though, when it was built in 1938, the complex offered more than 900 public housing units.
Under a legal agreement, 525 replacement public housing units will be built on the North Side, including 420 family units and 105 senior housing units. That, plus an additional 105 public housing units, brings the total number of replacement public housing units to 630.
Michael Goldberg, executive director for Heartland Housing, said his team sees the redevelopment project as a "renewal of the promise made" when the housing project was built.
"It started back in 1938. The world was changing, the economy was changing. People were being left behind. And what was true back then is still true today — that housing is foundational. And what I mean by that is that we can't expect families to thrive ... to improve their quality of life ... if they don't have a safe, stable and decent place to live," Goldberg said.
After the ceremony, a scuffle erupted near the tent, with some accusing others of disrespecting the event. Public officials and developers left quickly after the scuffle started. It didn't escalate beyond shouting.