Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
Editorial> Rethinking, Restarting at the CHA
Fresh thinking is needed to complete Chicago's public housing makeover.
Demolition at the Cabrini Green Houses in Chicago.
Steven Vance / Flickr

In late September Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the appointment of Charles Woodyard as the new CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). In addition to the day-to-day job of operating the agency, Woodyard is tasked with restarting the stalled Plan For Transformation, the citywide initiative to rebuild public housing sites as mixed-income neighborhoods. Woodyard comes to Chicago after a career spent in Charlotte, North Carolina’s city government. Though his tenure as head of Charlotte’s much smaller housing agency received generally positive marks—and included similar New Urbanist-influenced rebuilding projects—it will take innovative thinking to get the Plan restarted.

The goals of the Plan were comprehensive, and reflected former Mayor Daley's penchant for Big Ideas, love of demolition projects (and their related contracts), and zeal for privatization. It was also largely dependent on market demand for new housing, something that evaporated in 2008. Chicago, with anemic population growth and a vastly overbuilt stock of new housing, will likely not be one of the first markets out of the slump, so new ideas are acutely needed.

The Plan’s one-size-fits-all approach of demolishing almost all of the city’s high-rise public housing actually followed in the steps of 1960s-era Urban Renewal, which created those high rises in the first place. While high-rise public housing had the unintentional consequence of concentrating poverty and fostering crime, the wholesale destruction of those places also disrupted thousands of lives and left vast tracts of the city open and barren (it also likely contributed, directly or indirectly, to the dramatic drop in the city’s African American population, according to the most recent census).

In a city where real estate values are stagnant at best, these tracts also contribute to the oversupply of land within the city, which contributes to keeping values low. This is less the case in wealthier areas, such as the former site of Cabrini Green, where developers are moving ahead with projects like a new Target Store. Sites on the far South and West side are a much tougher sell.

So it's encouraging that in addition to appointing Woodyard, Emanuel called his friends at the Fed and quickly arranged a boot camp of sorts with Woodyard and HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, to “recalibrate” the Plan in light of economic realities. The Obama administration has urged greater coordination between HUD, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Energy, which is a laudable mission, and they have provided small grants to communities to pursue integrated, sustainable development projects. No prescriptive vision has emerged, however, that would compare to HOPE VI, the New Urbanist model that thoroughly informs the Plan.

The redevelopment of Atrium Village, also near the site of the old Cabrini Green, offers some interesting lessons. Miles away from the front-porch nostalgia of HOPE VI, designs for this privately developed mixed-income community are dense and urban. Many residents will rely on the adjacent transit lines, and the project integrates green space and ground floor retail. Best of all, the vast majority of residents will be relocated on site, as the project is developed in successive phases.

Could a similar approach be applied in Bronzeville, building on the relative adjacency of IIT? The redevelopment of the CHA sites effects former residents, but it also impacts all Chicagoans, living in this largely stalled city. Let’s hope some new ideas emerge soon. Chicago architects could certainly use the work.

Alan G. Brake