Making Government Work

How Do You Redevelop an Infamous Housing Project? Chicago Has an Idea

April 9, 2014
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How Do You Redevelop an Infamous Housing Project? Chicago Has an Idea
Tim Boyle/Getty Images
The land on which public housing once stood is ripe for a rebirth.

When the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) broke ground on the Cabrini-Green public housing project in 1942, the country was undergoing a rash of urban renewal initiatives. City officials were clearing out slums and placing residents into affordable housing. At its peak, the Frances Cabrini Row-houses and William Green Homes housed 15,000 people. The tide turned on these residences, however. By the time the last of the network of high-rises and row houses was demolished in 2011, the project was infamous for gang violence and squalid living conditions.

With only scattered low-rise units and dozens of acres of vacant land remaining, CHA has a new idea for urban renewal. The “Plan Forward: Communities That Work” proposal, introduced last year, aims to redevelop Cabrini-Green and the Near North Side, in addition to replacing or rehabbing 25,000 subsidized housing units in the city by 2015 (a goal originally set for 2010), reports Atlantic Cities.

A PDF of the plan envisions the area to include new buildings, retail, green space, and a new L-train station. An area once known for its housing units will become home to a mix of residential property types: CHA says half the new residential units to be market rate, another 30 percent public housing, and the remaining 20 percent affordable housing.

The proposal also breathes new life into what remains of Cabrini-Green. Though all of the William Green Homes have been razed, the Francis Cabrini row homes still stand. The remaining 583 72-year-old structures are eligible for the National Park Service’s register for historic properties. About 150 of those units were renovated in 2008, while the the others remain vacant. CHA’s new plan recommends preserving 30 percent of those and demolishing the remaining units to extend the nearby street grid.

In the Near North Side, where Cabrini-Green once fully stood, gentrification has taken root, alarming critics that worry about how the plan will serve the residents that used to live there. With a Target and high-end condos already in the neighborhood, is time already up for them? Lawrence Vale wrote for Design Observer in 2012, that “in the coming years the former site of Cabrini-Green will fill up with new housing; and there is equally little doubt that not much of this housing will serve the residents who once lived in the vanished projects.”

Things like 2000’s Consent Decree for the residences of Cabrini-Green seems to address these concerns. The decree includes a mandate for 700 public housing units in the Near North Area and the creation of the “Near North Working Group.” As of now, 434 units have been built. The NNWG, represented by a collection of government and housing officials, now provides “overall direction” for future development.

According to Atlantic Cities, a request for proposals from developers is expected sometime this month; after that, new designs will go through a public approval process and financing still has to be secured. But with a year to go until 25,000 units are replaced or rehabbed, there is still hope for the land that once was Cabrini-Green.

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