The city is considering housing asylum-seekers from South and Central American countries at the office and industrial complex at 1900 N. Austin Ave.
The possibility of using the historically vacant industrial building on the other side of the Milwaukee District West railroad tracks, at 6001 W. Dickens Ave., is off the table.
Both buildings are part of the once sprawling Zenith Radio campus – the Dickens Avenue building was its original factory, and the Austin Avenue office and warehouse buildings were part of its corporate expansion. The latter is occupied by a variety of office and industrial tenants and while the former looks abandoned, the real estate broker Steven Kohn told Austin Weekly News that its being renovated into a multi-tenant industrial building.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes both sides of the historic Zenith campus, announced on Oct. 9 that the city was looking at the Austin Avenue building to house migrants, as an alternative to using Amundsen Park fieldhouse further south. The Dickens warehouse has been pitched as the alternative site by several residents at multiple community meetings, as well as at a rally held on the morning of Oct. 9.
In a recent interview, Taliaferro said that the city is looking to use about 50,000 square feet of rented space to build showers and provide security and staff. He said that as of Oct. 22, the city completed building inspections, and negotiations were ongoing. Austin Weekly News was unable to reach building owner Peter Anerson by deadline.
Last month, the city announced that Amundsen Park fieldhouse is a potential site to house about 200 migrants, which triggered a strong pushback from residents and several long-time Austin community activists. Many said that they had nothing against asylum-seekers, but they didn’t want to lose the park’s indoor programs. As an ad hoc group prepared to camp out in front of the fieldhouse, Taliaferro announced that the city’s plans were “placed on hold.”
In a follow-up interview, he said that the city hasn’t taken the fieldhouse off the table altogether.
The Austin Avenue site includes a four-story office building with warehouses wrapping around its north, east and west sides. A fence separates it from the Amundsen Park to the south, and there are only two ways to get in, with entrances on Austin Avenue to the east and Narragansett Avenue to the west.
According to the complex’s website, the buildings include an event space, offices and industrial spaces. Many of the current tenants are industrial in nature, and there are several auto repair businesses.
The Dickens factory spans the blocks between Austin and Melvina avenues. The structure suffered a major fire in 2017, according to the DNAinfo Chicago report at the time. The property was donated to the Cook County Land Bank Authority, an agency established by the community that seeks to return abandoned properties to productive use by wiping out any debt the previous owners may have saddled it with and putting it back on the market. According to the county records, the land bank sold the property to the Logan Square-based MC Construction Group for $20,000 effective Oct. 18, 2021.
Real estate broker Steven Kohn, who was involved in the sale of the Dickens facility and is familiar with both former Zenith properties, said that while the former may look abandoned, appearances were deceiving.
“It’s being massively renovated, and it will soon be a really, really impressive building,” he said.
The repairs have been going slower than expected, Kohn said, due to supply chain issues and “labor issues,” and much of what has been done so far took place inside, including interior walls, roof and utility repairs.
“It’s going to be a multi-tenant industrial complex,” he said.
Kohn said that he was excited about the project because it would bring manufacturing jobs to communities where companies like Zenith Radio used to be the lifeblood. But he said that it will be a few months before he can give any concrete dates for when the renovations might be finished, let alone when the tenants would move in.
Kohn said that even if the Dickens building renovations were already finished, he didn’t believe it would be a good fit.
“The challenge [with] these industrial buildings and office budlings as well, [is that] there are just no showers, no bathroom facilities,” he said. “It looks like a big space, and it doesn’t have what people are going to need.”
The warehouse portion of the Austin Avenue property faces the same problems, Kohn said, and while the office building has a better HVAC system than in industrial buildings, the problem of having no restrooms and showers would still be present.
He said that to the best of his knowledge, the office tower may have about 20,000 square feet available, and the industrial building have around 40,000 square feet. While Kohn believed that they could be pressed into service as emergency shelter, it would take “weeks and weeks” to get them ready – and even then, it wouldn’t be a good long-term solution.
“This is not the kind of place that people should be housed,” he said. “I think the city is incredibly misguided if they think that’s how they should be handling these people.”
Taliaferro said that the city hasn’t been updating him on every step of the negotiation, but he said that the main issues were the costs of renting the space and figuring out the costs and logistics of putting in the showers. The goal, he said, was to find a deal that would make sense “from the financial perspective” for both Anerson and the city.
Taliaferro said in a recent interview that he hasn’t been given any timetable for when the deal would be complete. He said that to the best of his knowledge, the city wasn’t looking at any other sites in the area.
Taliaferro said he didn’t have any concerns about using the building as a shelter.
“1900 North Austin would be able to be used, with the right amount of property staffing as well as security to have migrants come in and occupy that space,” he said. “And Amundsen Park will continue to operate, with all the programs that they had prior to this announcement. That would be the perfect solution.”