The powerful developer contracted with remaking Rockwell Gardens, a Near West Side public housing complex, offered a series of commitments on Tuesday about the next phase of the redevelopment’s design and operations.
The promises were intended to respond to criticisms from some Near West and East Garfield Park residents that Phase I of the remade Rockwell was badly constructed and poorly designed. Another issue was the promise by the Chicago Housing Authority to bring mix incomes to the site. Critics fear that effort might be abandoned.
East Lake zoning attorney Rolando Acosta said that in Phase II, the firm will use masonry instead of wood-frame construction; add additional private security patrols to further monitor the neighborhood; create a committee to vet building designs; and hire someone from the neighborhood to assist Rockwell and 2nd Ward residents in landing jobs.
Acosta said East Lake would give Chicago police officers a 10 percent discount on for-sale units. It also would allow West Side Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) to choose two neighborhood residents to sit on a group convened at each public housing redevelopment site for review purposes.
Much of Tuesday’s meeting was a freewheeling discussion about the project. Some public housing residents living in Phase I units built by East Lake complained about the quality of their housing, expressing frustration about life in the new development.
Tiffany Allen described her apartment as “falling apart,” damaged by mold and ants, and being too small for her family. There was a sense, too, that rules governing how public housing residents use the new units are overly punitive.
“We don’t have a playground where our kids can play. Right now my kids feel like they’re in prison,” Allen said. “‘Mommy, can I go outside?’ – ‘No.’ Because I’ll get in trouble if they go outside and play. That’s wrong.”
But despite the problems, Allen doesn’t want to move into a larger unit on the South Side. “I stay in an overcrowded apartment and I just feel like they’re trying to get us out of there,” she said of the housing authority.
Of predominant concern to many newer homeowners who bought near the Rockwell site – which spreads over the first few east-west blocks north of the Eisenhower and west of Western – was ensuring that for-sale units in the remade Rockwell get built and sold.
Phase II calls for construction of 112 rental units, 14 of which will be rented at market rates, according to Acosta, with the rest supported by various subsidies. No market-rate units are planned for immediate construction. During Phase I, just five people bought units, Acosta has said previously.
The Tuesday meeting got heated at times. Differing priorities among audience members showcased some of the tensions.
“When you’re building a community, homeownership goes first,” said Monica Brown, herself a property owner. “And I don’t know who got this bright idea that we have to do the renter piece of it first. Homeowners set the pace of what the community is going to be. It’s all right if the renters come after the homeowners. But you guys are kind of doing it backwards,” she added, sparking yells of disagreement among several audience members.
“If you don’t like that community, move out of it!” said Michelle Towns, a former Rockwell resident who now lives in East Garfield Park.
“It’s not going to happen,” responded Brown.
“I was in the development for 41 years,” added Ella Hill, who has moved into a Phase I unit. “Who are you supposed to be?”
At other points, some in the audience were skeptical of East Lake’s new commitments. Ald. Fioretti, who called the meeting, said his office and East Lake did not have to arm wrestle “too hard” to get to the deal.
Fioretti has given his approval to the project. The Plan Commission is scheduled to consider the zoning changes East Lake needs for the future phases at Rockwell, today, June 18.