In 2001, the Chicago Housing Administration (CHA) targeted one of the city’s first subsidized housing projects, built in 1935, for an overhaul. Eleven years later, the fate of the Julia Lathrop Homes remains uncertain, stymied by a collision of preservation and politics.
The complexity and many factions competing to influence the outcome have caused the delay. Concerns address the project’s density; the mix of subsidized, market-rate, and affordable housing units; and the question of who will occupy them. Also to be decided are whether to incorporate both retail and other non-residential uses; the degree of impact on traffic and property tax revenues; and the design.
Since it opened in the mid-1930s, Lathrop Homes has maintained a fairly even population mix of white, black, and Hispanic residents. But it’s Lathrop’s architecture and planning that place the project on a different plane from other public housing sites. Its handsome brick buildings, human scale, and almost bucolic landscape setting are truly unique in the city.
Courtesy Lathrop Community Partners
Preservationists are particularly concerned about how much of the original architecture and planning will survive the parcel’s reinvention. As Preservation Chicago’s Jonathan Fine suggested, Lathrop’s design virtues are partly a product of historical accident. After the Great Depression virtually ended all building and construction, what Fine calls a “dream team” of architects— including landscape architect Jens Jensen—became available to work on the Lathrop design.
Now, the question of whether the final project will incorporate aspects of that original plan seems almost an after-thought: The political, economic, and socio-cultural forces shaping the project are so complicated and overwhelming, they seem to trump most design considerations.
On April 30 the Lathrop site landed on the National Register of Historic Places. But six months later, CHA announced that its board had approved in principle demolition plans for Altgeld Gardens, Cabrini Green, and Lathrop Homes, which cast doubt on the agency’s commitment to rehabilitate the complex. CHA has razed thousands of public housing units in the past decade, in part to distance itself from the ignominious past of failed public housing superblocks.
Since announcing plans to rehabilitate Lathrop, CHA has gradually reduced the population there. Today, residents occupy fewer than half of the 925 units, because of the “moving to work” agreement, which permits CHA to receive HUD subsidies even for unoccupied units. Critics suggest this clears the way for CHA to do whatever it wants.
This summer, Lathrop Community Partners, the consortium assembled to develop the property, presented three alternative master plans to the CHA and community groups. The design team (Urbanworks, Farr Associates, BKL Architecture, Studio Gang Architects, CDM, Vincent L. Michael Consulting, and Wolff Landscape Architecture) devised three scenarios that treat the preservation question in varying ways.
The “Delta Greenscapes” option would institute the most drastic measures, demolishing all the structures and replacing them with about 1,300 housing units. It also would completely redraw the street plan.
The “Gateway” option would retain all buildings on the north half of the site, reconfiguring the site plan for a total of about 1,500 units.
“Riverworks” would keep many of the buildings on the north half of the site and appears to respect the north end of the landscape plan, while anticipating 1,600 units overall.
Community groups and both aldermen who represent the project site have objected to all three plans as too dense and generally unresponsive to the CHA-issued request. This doesn’t surprise Fine or other advocates.
“CHA pulled a bait and switch,” Fine said. “The RFQ called for 800 to1,200 units and for historic preservation to be a priority.” Yet neither is reflected in the final plans, he added. “They went through the motions of ‘community engagement,’ but there really wasn’t anything engaging in the process.”
Instead, “We got a market-driven, profit-oriented plan,” Fine said, that won’t serve residents or neighbors. While his group doesn’t focus on the many issues that face the planners, he said he thinks an emphasis on preservation could simplify the issues. “The problems at Lathrop have stemmed from breakdowns in security, maintenance, and tenant screening, not the architecture and planning,” Fine said.