An Oak Park nonprofit has won the opportunity to help turn a historic, but long-vacant West Side landmark into a vital community institution, but the prize threatens to deepen old divisions between Oak Park and Austin.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on March 8 that the city had selected a request for proposal from a team of entities, including the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, to redevelop the Laramie State Bank building at 5200 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin.

The bank building was completed in 1929 and is beloved for its architectural features, particularly the bas-relief art deco terra-cotta sculpture on the facade. The building has been vacant for at least at least seven years. In 1995, the city designated the building a Chicago Landmark.

The $37.5 million redevelopment proposal was selected as part of Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, which the city launched in 2019 in order to revive commercial corridors in blighted neighborhoods on the West and South sides.

The Oak Park Regional Housing Center and the Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization based in Chicago, anchored a team of designers, developers, architects and other stakeholders collectively called Austin United Alliance.

The Alliance team was one of seven groups competing to win the rights to develop the building. New Moms, which has offices in Oak Park and Austin, was part of a separate group that submitted a proposal.

The Alliance proposed renovating the Art Deco landmark’s structure and building a new facility on a 20,000-square-foot lot adjacent to the building.

The new campus will include a variety of “commercial uses that include a blues museum, bank branch, café, and business incubator. The adjacent land will be redeveloped with a mixed-income, multi-story rental building that includes a green roof, public plaza, social spaces, and outdoor art,” according to a summary of the project on the Invest South/West website.

The Alliance team estimated that the project would generate up to 150 construction jobs and 22 full-time positions once the development is completed.

An architectural rendering of Austin United Alliance’s plans for the Laramie State Bank building in Austin. | Provided

Athena Williams, a longtime Austin resident and the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, said this is the first foray into direct development in the nonprofit’s nearly 50-year history.

The Housing Center has a satellite office in Austin, where it offers homeownership workshops, rental and mortgage assistance, along with grants for home repairs and upgrades, among other resources.

“I am a product of the West Side and I’ve always had this vested interest in advocating for the community and wanting to see it grow and thrive and do better,” Williams said in January, adding that Heartland Alliance had initially expressed interest in collaborating in the area of tenant selection.

Williams, however, suggested the organization do even more than that and team up in the area of development. She said the pitch was made smoother by the fact that Rob Breymaier, Williams’ predecessor at the Housing Center and a District 97 school board member, is now COO for Heartland’s housing division.

But the city’s selection of the Austin Alliance proposal prompted significant backlash from Westside Health Authority, a venerable Austin nonprofit that also submitted a proposal along with a team that included the development firm Brinshore.

On March 8, while the mayor took the stage of the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin to announce the winning Invest South/West proposals — the bid by Austin Alliance was one of three winning Invest South/West proposals in three different neighborhoods that the mayor announced that day — protestors gathered outside with signs that read “Say No to Oak Park Housing” and “Stop the Land Steal.”

Morris Reed, the CEO of Westside Health Authority (WHA), said he felt that the Invest South/West process was unfair and indicative of yet another instance of the city selecting outsiders to develop the West Side.

Reed said that his team’s proposal was tied with another team’s bid for the highest score on a survey sent to community members who attended at least one of two informational sessions held in January.

“Each proposal was scored on a five-point scale based on community feedback about diversity of the respondent’s teams, their ability to develop local business and create job opportunities, and their prior experience on the West Side,” AustinTalks reported this month.

Westside Health Authority’s Soul City Center, which included a proposal for a cultural museum, and 548 Development each scored a 3.6 out of 5. The Austin Alliance proposal scored a 3.5. Ethan Lassiter, a planner for the city, told AustinTalks that city officials received 27 total responses out of roughly 100 people who participated at each informational session.

The survey, however, was just one part of the overall selection process, according to multiple people involved with the process. Other determining factors included the number of potential jobs created by each proposal and organizational capacity.

The Westside Health Authority projected that 15 jobs would be created by their proposal, which Reed said was more realistic than Austin Alliance’s jobs estimate, which he said he believes are inflated.

Morris Reed, far right, and other community members, including members of Westside Health Authority, protest outside of Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin on March 8. | Igor Studenkov

During an interview on March 12, Heartland Alliance CEO Earl Chase said that “a lot of things are estimates at this point,” but added that the development will bring many temporary construction jobs and permanent staff positions to the area.

“The alderman’s office and the mayor’s office told us they’re going with Heartland, because they demonstrated more experience doing this kind of project and that they have a better track record than us, but I challenged them,” Reed said during an interview conducted shortly after city officials informed him that WHA’s proposal was not selected.

“We’ve been here for 32 years,” he said. “Heartland does not have the same footprint that we have. But at this point, people seem more upset about the process than we are. This is not WHA’s fight, this is the community’s fight.”

“We’re bearing witness to what has been a prevailing culture of communities being gentrified, being redlined, being given away to the powerful interest groups and developers while pushing poor people out,” said Virgil Crawford, an organizer with WHA. “In this case, they’re pushing Black people out and that’s not the new way of doing things. That’s the old way. I’m actually seething right now, because I’m so put out.”

“You can’t just build a house or give somebody a job and think you’ve done community development,” said Jackie Reed, WHA’s well-respected founder, during a recent interview. “You have to give people ownership in the community and make people feel like they have a voice in shaping it.”

Westside Health Authority officials and other community leaders also gathered on March 8 outside of the Laramie Bank building for a protest.

Chase said that Heartland has a presence in Austin and other West Side communities through its READI Chicago program, which offers a range of services for at-risk men. She also lauded the organization’s track record for development.

The organization also has roughly 22 years of development experience on the West Side, said Breymaier on March 12. For instance, they developed the Mae Suites Apartments at 148 N. Mayfield Ave. in Austin, he said.

Chase lauded the Invest South/West process and the Lightford administration for their encouraging partnerships between developers and local nonprofits and other stakeholders.

“The process was very competitive and if you look at the other six development teams, everybody partnered with somebody,” Chase said. “To make sure we did right by the community, the city required that [teamwork] and you had some very qualified developers who applied. So, we did what we had to do, mobilized and got it done.”

Chase, who is African-American, also said that the Austin Alliance team is racially and ethnically diverse. He said the team’s design firm, Latent Design, is a certified Minority and Women-Owned Business (M/WBE), as are other firms affiliated with the project.

During her comments in Austin on Monday, Lightfoot said the “level of community engagement” that went into Invest South/West “has been historic,” adding that the program is not driven by a top-down approach “where we check the box on community engagement and do what we plan to do in the first place.”

But the mayor’s assessment of Invest South/West doesn’t exactly align with the perceptions of the Reeds, community leaders and even some aldermen.

Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together, told AustinTalks recently that he’s heard community members raise concerns about the lack of deep community engagement between prospective developers and residents during the process.

“What is the city’s intention around actually designing how this requirement for the community engagement will actually be put into effect in a way that holds these applicants accountable … to the community?” he said. “There’s not a process for the community to hold [the developer] accountable to […] That’s an issue.”

Shields is a member of the board of Growing Community Media, publisher of Wednesday Journal and the Austin Weekly News.

Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, who administers Invest South/West, has come under scrutiny from aldermen in the past for what they described as his top-down management style.

Last year, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said he would give Cox, who Lightfoot lured from Detroit in 2019, a “resounding ‘D’ or ‘F’” when it came to communication.

“Taliaferro complained of phone calls to the commissioner that go unreturned and being ‘left out of the loop’ on projects in his own ward,” according to a November 2020 Chicago Sun-Times report. “City planners communicate more with community groups than with the alderman,” he said.

During an emergency Zoom meeting Reed convened with roughly two dozen community leaders on Saturday, some people even criticized WHA’s lack of communication and engagement during the Invest South/West RFP process. Reed said that development teams only had roughly two months to create and submit their proposals, a period of time he said was rushed and didn’t allow for adequate community vetting.

During a recent interview, Williams also acknowledged that “two-and-a-half months wasn’t enough time, but we made it work” and pointed out that city officials had been holding community roundtables about Invest South/West since the program’s inception in 2019 — well before the RFP process started. City officials have said that the community input they got during those sessions helped inform the RFP process.

During an interview on March 8, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) conceded that she had no influence in the city’s selection of Austin United Alliance, although she submitted a letter of support for their proposal. She also submitted a letter of support for the WHA proposal. 

“No, I didn’t have a say [in Invest South/West],” Mitts said. “I think that’s more the mayor and her agenda and goals. This is her program and she is fully committed to seeing inclusion and broadening the scope, so everybody can get involved.” 

Mitts said she believes “everything” about the process “could have been strengthened,” but nonetheless believes the Invest South/West process was “as fair as it can be during a pandemic.” 

Deputy Commissioner Pete Strazzabosco told AustinTalks that “community input helped create the RFPs. Community input is going to help select the winning respondent, and it will further refine the winning proposal.”

Williams, who in the past has attempted to purchase the Laramie building and has a deep emotional connection to the landmark, said she also believes the process was fair.

Chase said that Heartland Alliance will “make sure the community is engaged along the way. I know Athena is doing a lot of work locally to make sure we have local support and to keep the community informed and engaged. We will be public about our plans, as we have been up to this point. We’re full disclosure on everything.”

On March 8, Mitts lauded Williams and vouchsafed for her role as a community advocate.

“Athena has lived in Austin her whole life. She’s worked with my office and she’s worked with Austin Coming Together [Williams co-chairs the organization’s Housing Committee],” Mitts said.

“She’s been around for a long time and she has a mindset of making sure she creates opportunities for our community using the resources she brings to the table and working with partners to get that done,” the alderman added. “She knows that has to be done by working with others.”

Still, WHA officials said they plan to vigorously fight the Austin Alliance development every step of what city officials admit will be a long and winding road. 

Strazzabosco added that the proposal will have to go through a maze of city departments, commissions and City Council committees before work on the Laramie Bank Building starts.

Igor Studenkov contributed to this report.