Oak Park Regional Housing Center Executive Director Athena Williams, Pivotal Housing Partners Director of Development Charlie Johnson and Pivotal's Wyllis Mann present the Laramie Bank project at Ald. Emma Mitts' (37th) monthly community meeting | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

The redevelopment of the historic Laramie Bank building and the adjacent vacant lots is back on track after the Austin United Alliance development team secured a new project co-lead, West Chester, Ohio-based developer Pivotal Housing Partners.

As part of the Invest South/West initiative, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development sent out a call to redevelop vacant, mostly city-owned properties in neighborhoods facing chronic disinvestment.

In March 2021, the city chose Austin United, which was spearheaded by Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Heartland Housing, an affordable housing arm of Heartland Alliance, to redevelop the 5100 block of Chicago Avenue. But Heartland Housing ran into financial trouble during the pandemic and the properties it managed ended up in receivership in late May. This led Athena Williams, OPRHC’s executive director, to scramble to find another project co-lead.

She reported that Austin Alliance’s plans for the property haven’t fundamentally changed. The historic bank building will have office space, retail and a bank branch, and as Williams mentioned, a “coffee shop or a juice smoothie shop opening inside.”

They will build a brand-new 78-unit, six-story apartment building with a public plaza on vacant land west of the bank. Out of the 78 units, 45 will have rents that are affordable to residents earning at least 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), the average income for the Chicagoland area, and six will be affordable to tenants earning at least 50% AMI. The rest will be market-rate.

The AMI is adjusted every year. As of May 15, 2023, 60% AMI is $46,380 for a tenant living alone and $52,980 for a two-person household. Williams said that assuming construction is on schedule, residents will be able to apply for the affordable units as soon as Spring 2025.

Williams said that the search for a co-lead took her four months. She said it was a close call, but she settled on Pivotal because “they had a little bit more passion toward this project” than the others. With the developer now chosen, Williams said she expects the construction of the new mixed-use building to begin no later than January 2024, and the renovations of the historic bank building to kick off three to four months later. Austin United is expected to begin the leasing process by May 2025, with the goal of having the entire development up and running by around September 2025.

A presentation slide summarizing the changes in the Laramie Bank project | Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

Williams officially announced the new co-lead at Ald. Emma Mitts’ (37th) monthly community meeting, which took place on Oct. 26 at the 37th Ward office. She introduced Pivotal to the community, gave the updated project timeline and refreshed the residents’ memories on their plans. Williams said she wanted to reassure the community that the project isn’t dead in the water.

“We’re looking for this project to start construction, hopefully no later than end of January, but it’s going to happen, ladies and gentlemen,” she said.

Wyllys Mann, Pivotal’s senior vice president of development for the Upper Midwest region, said that his employer always tries to take on projects that are “catalysts.” Helping to restore a historic building and do their part to revitalize the Chicago Avenue corridor certainly fits the bill, he said.

“These are going to be state of the art, modern apartments in a truly special building,” Mann said, adding that it’s “amazing” to work a project that inspires so much passion in the community.

With the early July flooding still fresh on many attendees’ minds, Williams got questions about flood mitigation. She said that the building will have an underground water detention reservoir to ensure that too much water wouldn’t go into the sewers all at once.

Williams also answered questions about local hiring. The city requires that at least half of the construction work must be done by people who live in Chicago, but there is no requirement that they have to live on the West Side specifically. At least a quarter of the work must be done through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 3 program, which provides job opportunities for low-income residents, including those who live in public housing development or benefit from any HUD voucher program.

Williams said Austin United’s community outreach, which has been paused during the search for a new co-lead, will be getting back in full swing.

“Tonight is our coming out party, to let you know that we’re back,” she said. “There’s going to be a plethora of different events, from closing all the way up to lease-up. If you really want to get involved, be ready.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...