Lathrop redevelopment group eyes preservation

For Juanita Stevenson, it's been hard to keep the community together at Lathrop Homes for the last few years. Many of her neighbors moving out because they don't know what the future holds for the development.

It's one of the last  Chicago Housing Authority projects to be addressed under the agency's Plan for Transformation, which has reworked nearly every public housing site, either tearing it down to make a new mixed-income community or rehabbing units and increasing services to residents.

"Nobody wants to live in something old and raggedy, but people don't want to lose the community that they were born in," say Stevenson.

This week, Stevenson and others took an important step toward figuring out what will happen to Lathrop, meeting with city and CHA officials and housing advocates to form a new working group for Lathrop Homes.

Julie Brown, attorney at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and member of the working group, says she's excited about the process.

"There appears to be a strong interest in approaching the redevelopment at Lathrop creatively with the possibility of going in a way that hasn't been done at previous sites," says Brown.

That's because Lathrop doesn't meet the stereotype of public housing. Its low-rise, brick buildings were built in the early 1930s, long before the highrises of the 50s and 60s. Its unique architecture landed it on the Landmarks Illinois list of endangered historic places in 2007.

"It's a special place," says Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. "There's a lot of beauty in it. There was care taken in what the place looked like to make it a very liveable and desirable place."

This unique layout means that instead of just two options - bulldozing or rehabbing - Lathrop's working group is considering a third choice.

That would involve preserving Lathrop's historic beauty, while modernizing it for today's families.

"That's the starting point for discussion," says working group member Stephanie Villinski. "It seems like everyone's open to talking about the options."

Residents have allies like Villinski and housing organizer John McDermott of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association working alongside them to make sure their concerns and ideas are heard.

One of those concerns is bringing in more market rate housing. CHA's new mixed-income developments usually split housing into thirds - one-third market rate, one-third affordable housing for middle to low income people, and one-third public housing.

In other communities, the model makes sense. But Lathrop sits in the middle of a wealthy North side community - Roscoe Village - and McDermott says the community needs more affordable housing.

"The surrounding community is blessed with market rate development," says McDermott. "We are going to continue to urge CHA to preserve Lathrop as an affordable community with out market rate homes."

The working group will meet monthly to discuss these issues and most likely pick a developer to help them shape their vision. They will then proceed with redevelopment plans, after construction details and financing are worked out, and then continue to oversee progress. This process, says Brown, who's been on many working groups, can take years.

CHA says the working group members won't be the only ones included - additional meetings will take place allowing other community members to contribute and express their concerns.

"This working group, like the others, is large enough to reflect broad interests, and small enough to work together productively toward the ultimate goal of developing a new mixed-income community," says Matt Aguilar, spokesperson for the CHA. "But the broader community will still be engaged throughout the process."

Although it's a lot of work and compromise, Lathrop's leaders are happy to finally be planning their community's future. They love their home and have strong vision of what could be.

"When I look at it, I get excited because I know something good is coming out of this," says Juanita Stevenson. "When people sit down together and talk about a community, that's a good thing."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.