Nearly a decade ago, the Chicago Housing Authority promised residents of Rockwell Gardens that they would transform the now-demolished public housing development into a vibrant mixed-income neighborhood. But the land that once hosted Rockwell remains mostly vacant.
East Lake Management, the developer chosen by the Chicago Housing Authority to remake Rockwell into “West End at Jackson Square,” as ads label the neighborhood, now wants to build a round of rental units at the former Rockwell site, which is in the blocks just north of the Eisenhower Expressway and immediately west of Western Avenue.
The plans have touched off fears that more rental units would mean the end of a homeownership component at a remade Rockwell. And questions remain about the quality of the first phase of the redevelopment, with a number of tenants complaining their units were shoddily built.
East Lake is planning 115 new units, 101 of which would be rentals reserved for households earning no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income, according to a city planning department staff report. Fourteen would be market-rate rentals. Public subsides are available for the project. In July, the city kicked in $1.2 million in tax increment financing to support the rental units. This spring, the Illinois Housing Development Authority recommended $1.5 million in state tax credits for them.
The shift toward rental isn’t unique to Rockwell. The real estate crash has hit developers hard all over the city, and those involved with the housing authority’s Plan for Transformation, which sought to create mixed-income neighborhoods in the place of high-rise public housing towers, are no exception.
But Mike Tomas, who works for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, which seeks to promote Garfield Park, said homeowners would anchor the area. He wants East Lake to find news ways to sell the remaining for-sale units.
“It’s totally disproportional right now. I don’t know how CHA and East Lake ever think they can get homeowners in there with such a high concentration of rental,” he said.
He noted that other city programs, like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, are seeking lease-to-own options to get homeowners into vacant, foreclosed homes. “Just to go all toward rental I think is short-sighted,” he said.
East Lake lawyer Rolando Acosta said people who wanted to purchase units during Phase I couldn’t get financing to close. Building more rentals won’t mean the end of the mixed-income promise at the site, he said. The firm is contractually obligated to build a development that is ultimately two-thirds rental and one-third for-sale units. “That’s essentially the math of the Plan for Transformation and that’s the math Rockwell fits into,” according to Acosta.
The company doesn’t believe that waiting for the for-sale market to return should hold up plans for rental.
“None of us can predict with accuracy when the for-sale market is going to come back,” Acosta said.
In October 1999, according to housing authority data, 439 units at Rockwell, out of 1,136 total, were occupied. Since the start of the Rockwell redevelopment, 157 units have been built, according to Acosta.
Seventy-one of the newly built units are rented to public housing residents, while 53 are rented at affordable rates. Another 10 are market-rate rentals.
The homeownership component is where the West End project has struggled the most. Fifty-five for-sale units were originally planned and 23 got built. Five units actually closed.
To build the next rental phase and set the stage for future development at Rockwell, East Lake has applied for a zoning change that covers more than 500 units over multiple blocks. The zoning change, which would roll into a “planned development,” a document that guides large-scale projects, was deferred from the Plan Commission agenda in November and December and, more recently, from the commission’s April meeting at the request of Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).
Fioretti didn’t return calls about the latest delay, but in a previous interview he said he wants to make sure the development would “survive for years to come and it’s an enjoyable community and will meet and exceed the goals of what homeowners have.”
Acosta said there were “10 to 12 meetings” with stakeholders in the project this spring. Community representatives will join the working group – one is set up at each CHA redevelopment site around the city – he said. A “design advisory committee” will also vet aesthetic concerns.
Tomas thinks East Lake should focus on finishing the first phase.
“Why are we trying to approve this zoning change now? Why aren’t they focused on the first phase? Nothing’s really changed,” he said.
Tomas worries community groups will lose leverage with East Lake if the firm gets all the zoning permissions it needs. But Acosta said having the next phases in a planned development was a way to clearly articulate where the project is going.
Underlying the debates about the future of Rockwell are questions about the quality of the first phase of the redevelopment.
Marie Taylor, a public housing resident who lives in one of the new units along Western Avenue north of the Eisenhower Expressway, said that she’s dealt with cracks in her wall and water seeping into her apartment during rainstorms. Some of her neighbors had pipes burst this winter, she said.
“I felt like it’s a new place. It looked beautiful. It was what I always wanted,” said Taylor, who moved into her unit in March 2007. “Then after I stayed here for a minute, things started crumbling. We weren’t even here a full year.”
Taylor believes residents of the former Henry Horner Homes – her neighbors really, living east of Western – got better replacement housing.
Clifton Cooper, head of the East Garfield Park Community Coalition, called the housing built along Western particularly poor – even a “monstrosity,” and worries the next phase will be just as bad, making it difficult to revive the neighborhood.
“It just has a profound effect throughout this community,” he said of the housing.
Acosta admitted there was a “difference of opinion” about the Phase I units.
“Phase I is built. At that point, whatever your position may be, your options are limited,” Acosta said.
Acosta noted all the units got occupancy permits from the city, and said the building materials used are similar to those found around Chicago. He said all units were vetted in the original working group, but the neighborhood changed during over time, incorporating new homeowners who weren’t previously involved.
Critical views aren’t universal – resident Cynthia Frierson, who has a two-bedroom unit on Van Buren Street, said she liked her place, and had no complaints, though she also dealt with a burst pipe this winter.
In Phase II, Acosta said the aesthetics will be improved, with masonry construction and bricks around the entirety of the buildings.
Cooper, however, has been fighting CHA and East Lake for years. A 2003 letter he sent to a raft of elected officials and public employees criticized East Lake and CHA for a zoning change needed for a previous part of the Rockwell work. He said he’s ready for a change.
“The goal is to get another master developer, to stop Phase II and get a new master developer,” he said. “There should be no Phase II unless Phase I is corrected.”
A community meeting about the Rockwell redevelopment has been scheduled by Ald. Fioretti’s office for 6 p.m. May 14 at the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club, 2102 W. Maypole.