South of North: What's urban renewal doing in a hot neighborhood like this? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

South of North: What's urban renewal doing in a hot neighborhood like this? 

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It's not a very large neighborhood. The major distinction of the eight-block area that runs southwest from the corner of North and Wells is that it has stubbornly resisted large-scale redevelopment for over 30 years.

Tucked between middle-class Sandburg Village and destitute Cabrini-Green, this neighborhood of mainly poor and working-class families has resisted social, political, and economic forces ranging from the late real estate mogul Arthur Rubloff to bands of marauding arsonists.

Now, after years of obscurity, these streets have become the target of developers eager to push the wildfire development of Lincoln Park south of North Avenue. Ironically, however, their campaign might be stalled by a government-backed program that is supposed to spur the area's revival.

Since 1985, Chicago has been actively pursuing an urban renewal program originally known as the "Mohawk-North Slum and Blighted Area Project" on the western end of this neighborhood. The project would permit the city to acquire through condemnation proceedings most of the land that lies along the west side of the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Mohawk and the east side of the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Larrabee. The city would also acquire property on Blackhawk Street and on the south side of North Avenue between Mohawk and Larrabee. The city would then sell this land to developers who would develop it under city guidelines.

"It's absolutely absurd to put urban renewal in this area," said Jean Washington, spokeswoman for the Near North Property Owners Association, which is fighting the project. "It's like putting urban renewal on Astor Street."

If Washington overstates the case, there's no denying that real estate values in the area have skyrocketed in recent years, and that the area is ripe for redevelopment even without government help. For Sale signs by several of Chicago's most upscale realty firms have sprouted on shabby three-flats and cottages like dandelions in May. Vacant lots that were selling for as little as $10,000 two years ago are now commanding $50,000 to $75,000. The area is being eyed by developers from as far away as Milwaukee.

Many residents of the area now want to see the Mohawk-North project scrapped. But Burton Natarus, the local 42nd Ward alderman, doesn't. Natarus says the city has already committed federal Community Development Block Grant funds to the project, and he argues that unless Chicago goes ahead and acquires the property through urban renewal it won't have a voice in deciding what type of new development comes in. Natarus says he wants to see a mix of housing, with special emphasis on rental housing for middle-income residents. If its future were left to the forces of the private sector, Natarus argues, the area would probably become exclusively an upscale extension of Lincoln Park.

Doug Guthrie, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing, says the city wants what Natarus wants. "We'd like to see an economic mix of housing, but we're not sure exactly what that means right now," Guthrie said. "I do think we will be spurring investment in the area. It gives us the opportunity to make sure that development does take place."

Many residents doubt that the city will actually provide for low- and moderate-income families. They note that just across North Avenue are dozens of acres of former urban renewal land now occupied primarily by fancy town houses priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The contract one large Section Eight development north of North had with the federal government is about to expire, and that housing will shift to the private market. Residents also note that the city has sold two parcels it owned on the east side of the 1400 block of Mohawk for $40,000 and $50,000, hardly property costs compatible with low-income housing.

"It would do an awful lot for Mr. Natarus's neighborhood if he would allow this urban renewal project to die," said Mary Joe McGinty, who is vice president of the Near North Neighborhood Association and who recently built a new home about 50 feet outside of the urban renewal zone. "It would do a lot for the city's tax rolls and it would do a lot for the people who have lived in the area for 30 years and who now stand to make some money on their land but have their backs to the wall. If Alderman Natarus allows this program to go through, he will be depriving these people of their right of who they can sell their property to."

Residents also argue that redevelopment of the area would take much longer to accomplish under the urban renewal program than it would if the private sector had a free hand.

"The city's redevelopment program is not going to be done in three years; it's not going to be done in five years," said McGinty. "But if they let the private sector do this, the entire area would be redeveloped in two years."

In response, Natarus contends that the only thing holding up urban renewal is the objections of the neighbors. "If they didn't try to fight this thing, we could have it finished in no time."

The area was first designated an urban renewal zone in the mid-1970s, when the city was hoping to get the YMCA to build a new facility there. Those plans were scrubbed once YMCA officials realized they would require the displacement of numerous residents. Instead, the New City Y went up on the southeast corner of Halsted and Clybourn.

Although the urban renewal designation was never repealed, plans to clear the area more or less fell by the wayside. But in 1985, they resurfaced when developer William Moorehead, the main real estate player in the area, proposed acquiring all the land in the urban renewal area as well as most of the property along the east side of Mohawk.

According to architectural renderings, Moorehead would have leveled virtually all the buildings in the area and constructed a series of courtyard-style town house complexes, much in the fashion of Evergreen Terrace--a well-maintained complex of low-income rental units Moorehead manages about a block south of the urban renewal zone. Moorehead has developed several other projects in the area--always on urban renewal land.

But Moorehead's plan for Mohawk-North died on the vine when local residents insisted that occupied buildings in the area be spared and that the territory not be turned over by the city to a single developer.

Natarus contends that it is hypocritical of residents to now oppose urban renewal. He argues that the community has had a voice in the redevelopment right from the start and helped draft the guidelines under which the city now wants to get to work. He contends that the city project is being sabotaged by real estate speculators who are driving up property values.

"We had to do our homework and ring a lot of doorbells before we were heard on this," responded Mary Jo McGinty. "If the city had its way, we would have been left out completely."

Early in 1987, the city filed eminent domain suits to acquire the vacant lots in the area. Thus far the city has closed on 11 of the lots and another 33 sales are pending in court. The city had already owned six vacant properties in the area.

Under law, the city is required to pay the fair market value of a property at the time an eminent domain suit is filed. But because of rapidly climbing real estate prices, what the city is currently offering in Mohawk-North is only a fraction of what is now being offered on the open market.

"Us poor people have stuck it out in this neighborhood through a lot of rough times," said Katheryn Ellis, who has lived in the area since 1962. The city offered Ellis and her disabled husband $20,000 for her property; a private developer has since offered $70,000.

"We have lived here a lot of years when nobody wanted this land. And now that we can get something for our property, the city is telling us to get out and that they will pay us what they want to pay," said Ellis. "And if they ever tear down Cabrini-Green, this property is going to be like chocolate cake. The city knows they are going to get rich on this land."

Ellis recalls that in 1976, Alderman Natarus opposed clearing the Mohawk-North area. He characterized the area at the time as stable and working-class. But Natarus says the area has continued to deteriorate since then, and government assistance in redevelopment is now crucial.

"If you have ever been through the area, you know it is terrible," said Natarus. "The difference between the north side of North Avenue and the south side of North Avenue is incredible; it is like night and day. Something has to be done with the area and we can't afford to wait while the people in the area try to make up their minds."

Doug Guthrie of the Department of Housing points out the legal guidelines for assessing land under eminent domain. Property owners can arrange a private assessment and then go to court seeking a higher price, and if they remain unsatisfied with a judge's figure they can ask for a jury trial on the matter.

But William Hellyer, an independent attorney who has been advising the local residents, argued that this kind of legal fight would be "very costly and very time consuming" and most of the property owners could not afford it. "These are not rich people," McGinty said.

During a recent meeting with Natarus, nearly 20 residents and a few interested developers urged Natarus to have the urban renewal status of the neighborhood repealed. Natarus conceded this was possible, but he insisted the project has gone too far for him to turn back now.

Natarus has also argued that some residents have been saying for the past 15 years that they were going to rehabilitate their own properties, yet little of this has taken place. However, many residents claim they were stymied by the redlining of local banks, many of which are now eager to get a piece of the action. Natarus has also suggested that much of the opposition to the city's plan is coming from newcomers to the area who don't want to be followed by new low-income, probably black, residents.

Guthrie says the city hopes to complete the acquisition of property in the area over the summer, and to begin soliciting proposals and bids from developers by fall.

Despite these looming mileposts, residents of the area insist they have not given up. Jean Washington, who has lived there for 35 years, says residents have been fighting to preserve the neighborhood since the late 1950s, when Arthur Rubloff sought to acquire the entire area between his Sandburg Village complex on LaSalle Street and the old Marshall Field apartment complex on Sedgwick, which has since become the Town and Garden apartment complex, operated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Washington says Rubloff made three attempts to take over the area before giving up in the mid-1960s because of community opposition.

Washington also says many residents refused to leave the area between 1968 and 1975, when arson was wiping out more than half the area's housing stock.

"We've been through a lot in this area;' Washington said. "We're not about to cave in now to City Hall."

But Natarus seems equally adamant that the Mohawk-North program will proceed. "People seem to have forgotten that all this major development taking place in Lincoln Park would never have started in the first place if it had not been for urban renewal programs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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