Combating crime
When Samir Ali, developer for the real estate conglomerate Madison/Mayfield LLC, first entered the property on 5836 W. Madison Avenue to assess the redevelopment of it, his eyes focused on only one thing.

“There were pigeons everywhere,” said Ali, whose firm purchased the property in 2005. However, the pigeons were the least of his concerns.

The 12,000-square-foot, three-story building contained 39 units and a storefront property, although its top two floors had been abandoned for close to 30 years.

The property had been boarded up for much of that time-although this did not prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for drug users and assorted squatters.

“Certainly, rehabbing properties such as this one makes our job a lot easier,” said Officer Craig Williams of the 15th District Police Station, who has answered his fair share of complaints about misuse of unattended properties.

“We get a lot of concerned calls from residents in the community who have to live next door to an abandoned property whose owners are either not mindful or do not respond to criminal activities occurring at their buildings. It makes the entire community that much safer by rehabbing them.”

A major fixer-upper

Like many buildings that have been abandoned for several years, the 30-year vacancy of the property led to rampant vagrancy at the building, as units proved to have few salvageable elements in their interiors.

“Many of the fixtures and toilets were gone in the apartment,” said Ali, “perhaps due to items being taken by squatters throughout the years. There were holes in the walls, units that were burned out, and there was not a usable plumbing system.

“Nevertheless, the structure itself was quite strong, so we did not need to tear it down,” said Ali. “We only needed to focus on the interior.”

A hair salon was leasing the retail space on the first floor; however, the shop lost its lease shortly after development on the property began.

“We had engineers handle the plumbing, electrical, structural layout of the building, and develop an architectural design which required the approval of the Chicago Building Department,” said Ali. “It took about four months to approve the project.”

Securing the property

One of the big risks many developers face when renovating a property that was formerly a haven for squatters, is securing the tools used for building, such as saws and nail guns as well as items installed in the apartments.

“There is certainly an onus on the developers to assure the safety of their property during a renovation project,” said Officer Williams. “Squatters can take light fixtures, tubs or sinks and sell them. The likelihood of their being captured is vanishingly small.”

Even though developers and workers on the 5836 W. Madison project were aware of these risks, they still had a few items taken.

“We had a some copper tubing taken as well as a few power tools, but once we made the adjustments, we had no further difficulties.”

One of the concerns some in the community have about a rehabbed property previously occupied by drug users is, will there be a stigma attached to the building that would keep potential residents away.

“Absolutely not,” said Williams. “Seeing a property effectively converted into a livable affordable housing tenement actually attracts more people to the block. The prior condition of the building is generally irrelevant.”

The demand for residency at the 5836 W. Madison apartment does seem to bear this out.

After over a year-and-a-half of effort, the $1.5-million project features 39 renovated apartments that have all been filled.

It also has three functioning businesses on its first floor:

• Sarah’s Inn, a non-profit establishment that provides assistance to women who are victims of domestic abuse.

• Forum Mortgage Company, a real estate firm targeting potential homeowners on the West Side.

• MS Management, which provides medical services to nursing home residents.

“I wanted to assure that the building would provide services that would be beneficial to the community,” said Ali. “I wanted residents to know that we want to distance the property from it most recent past. I believe we have been largely successful in that area.”

In May, Samir Ali of Madison/Mayfield LLC received a 2007 Good Neighbor Award for the renovation of the 5836 W. Madison Street property.

The Good Neighbor Awards annually recognize outstanding property development throughout Chicago, in particular properties that have positively impacted their surrounding communities.