After years of abandonment, the Laramie State Bank building, 5200 W. Chicago Ave., may finally get a new lease on life.
On Aug. 11, the Chicago Community Development Commission voted unanimously to authorize the city’s Department of Planning And Development to invite developers to submit proposals not only for the building itself, but for the entire block of Chicago Avenue, between Laramie and Latrobe avenues.
This is part of the city’s Invest South/West initiative, which aims to attract investment and development to chronically disinvested West and South side communities, including Austin. Although the city doesn’t own any of those lots, development commission officials indicated that the current owners are willing to sell and the city is prepared to buy the land if any issues do arise.
The city intends to send out requests for proposals later this month, with proposals due by the end of November. The goal is to start construction by 2022. Already, Austin-based Westside Health Authority has expressed interest, saying that they hope to turn the site into a museum of African American culture.
Laramie State Bank was built in 1929. Longtime Austin residents John Young Sr. and Earline Ruffin bought the building in 1994, and it was designated a Chicago Landmark by the City in 1995. But the building has been boarded up since 2012 due to multiple building code violations.
According to the Chicago Department of Buildings, as of July 2017, that included safety issues with its water system, elevators, doors and windows, as well as its outside walls. Its historical terra cotta structure was found to be “loosened, cracked or broken.”
In addition to the bank itself, city officials said that Young and Ruffin currently own two lots on the west side of the block. The remaining five lots in between are owned by Chicago Ave LLC.
Ethan Lassiter, the city’s planner for the west region, said didn’t identify the owners of that corporate entity, but he said that “both ownership groups have been supportive” of what the city is doing. Ideally, both would simply sell the property to whoever submits the best proposal without the city ever buying anything.
“The city prefers and desires to facilitate a private transaction between the RFP respondents and the current property owners,” Lassiter said. “If [the negations] became a challenge, the city, again, has the acquisition authority. It’s not our goal, but if [that authority] has to be used that way, it would be considered.”
He said that, while the city will request proposals for other West Side sites, given the continuing deterioration of Laramie Bank, “stabilizing the historic structure has become a priority.” Lassiter added that while the city’s requirements are broad, officials will look at redevelopment that reflects community needs. The city website indicates that developers and community nonprofit organizations can submit proposals.
During the meeting’s public comment period, Jacqueline Reed, WHA’s founder and director emeritus, said that the organization is interested in turning the site in the “African-American Culture and Arts Museum.”
“One of the things that the community needs the most is the way to learn about our rich history and culture, and the African-American [community] doesn’t have such an institution on the West Side of Chicago,” she said. “We would also see that this would provide a significant connection for African-American youth and [show] how history shaped the culture they experience today.”
The museum would include interactive exhibits, such as one that allows young people to wear traditional clothing from various African cultures and one that allows them to be in the perspective of a Chicago Defender reporter. The usual would also serve as a cultural space for dance and other entertainment.
Quiwana Bell, WHA’s chief operating officer, noted that her organization already has several facilities in Austin, with its headquarters located only a few blocks east, at 5051 W. Chicago Ave.
“We’ve developed a lot on Chicago Avenue and we would really like to see this development happen,” she said.