A city effort to preserve the architectural history of 18th Street in Pilsen seems to have accomplished the impossible: bring together developers and affordable housing activists to oppose a plan they say will unnecessarily complicate development and make maintaining existing housing stock prohibitively expensive. 

After the Chicago Fire, the area around Pilsen was like the Ellis Island of Chicago’s West Side, according to historians. Yet with declining immigration in the last couple of decades and the long-term expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus nearby, the neighborhood has turned into a magnet for tourism and developers. With a renewed interest in the neighborhood, the city is seeking to preserve what remains of the architecture and vestiges of culture, but many residents wonder what that will mean for them.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development proposed creating the Pilsen Historic District after former Ald. Danny Solis disappeared from public life when it was revealed that he was wearing a wire in an investigation into indicted Ald. Ed Burke. The poorly understood proposal came to light, it drew a multitude of residents to a public meeting in April at Rudy Lozano Library. Property owners objected to the expedited timeline set by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks within the Department of Planning, saying the process was rushed and the meeting was just a formality. 

The landmark commission’s urgency to designate a portion of 18th Street, and 13 adjacent blocks between Racine and Damen, as a historic district occurred when developers filed for a permit to demolish three buildings there. In a 120-page report, the commission argued the designation would protect the community against the razing or alteration of up to 850 buildings in the area, and getting the ball rolling on that process would halt the demolition of those units.

Residents testified and submitted 65 letters against the measure in a follow-up hearing at City Hall, arguing the designation would provide few benefits to current homeowners . In May, however, the landmarks commission unanimously voted to recommend the landmark district to City Council for a final vote in 90 days.

Upon taking office, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who serves on the Housing and Real Estate Committee and on the Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards Committee, began a community-driven zoning process to reduce what he considered undesirable and unaffordable development in the ward. His first move was to exercise his aldermanic prerogative to petition the planning department for a 365 day extension on the landmark proposal’s initial timeline.

“There will be no final vote next month. The process won’t be rushed and it can take up to a year,” Sigcho-Lopez confirmed. “I have spoken to the chair of zoning, and the zoning committee will respect the community’s decision. The proposal can be rejected at any point.”

At the urging of the alderman, developers Michael and Ronald Fox withdrew their permit applications to demolish the two-story buildings at 1730-1734 W. 18th St. One of the three addresses housed Lily’s Gift Shop, whose owner of 20 years was asked to leave in November so the developers could erect a four-story building.

Nixing those permits eliminated the intense time pressure that the city and residents were working under to deliberate the historic district.

A focus on architecture

Although Solis initiated the effort to list Pilsen in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, the national designation was mostly symbolic, homeowners say, and does not manifest itself in practical protections for them. Yet it did come into play when the Resurrection Project applied for state tax credits to convert St. Vitus Church into a housing complex and was rejected by the state’s preservation office because their blueprints dramatically altered the property.

The meat and potatoes of the designation at the city level would really pertain to the preservation of stone and brick structures of Bohemian Baroque influence. The commission is focused on architecturally unique flats, cottages, churches, schools, and banks built between 1870 and 1969, according to their report. 

Interestingly, the designation would omit St. Adalbert, which gave its last mass on Sunday, and St. Procopius from landmark protection. The Chicago Landmarks Ordinance states that no building that is owned by a religious organization and is used primarily for worship shall be designated as a historical landmark without the consent of its owner. 

Preservation Chicago suggested repealing the amendment, which dates back to 1987. Sigcho-Lopez said he would negotiate with the Archdiocese of Chicago for the inclusion of the structures, or otherwise downzone the religious sites so that future developers do not have clearance to convert them into luxury spaces.

It would be a measure to prevent what happened with St. Ann Church in Heart of Chicago, which sold earlier this year and is set to become condos without a zoning change.

“No matter how big the institution, no matter how powerful they are … we communicated to the Archdiocese that if they don’t come to talk to the parishioners and the community at large, their property will be downzoned,” Sigcho-Lopez said last week at a public meeting on the matter.

Important to note is that the preservation effort only applies to the facades of the buildings that can be seen from the public way. Property interiors and alleys are not factored in, and structures that don’t fit the preferred style and timeframe are marked “non-contributing” and left out of the list. Landmark extensions could also be added down the line.

“The Pilsen District will be unique in that it embodies the history of two groups important to the fabric of Chicago — Bohemian and Mexican communities. With this designation, the Commission will explore the intersection of cultural (sic) and heritage of both groups,” landmarks commission Chairman Rafael León said in a statement. 

The designation would cover murals painted after 1978. Pilsen artists agree that the bulk of public art arising from the Mexican and Chicano mural movement actually took place between 1968 and 1980, and much of it has already been demolished or erased. However, they welcome any protections by the city, muralist Hector Duarte has said before.

More red tape for homeowners?

Pilsenite real estate agent, Soledad Hernández Bucio, who works out of her property, Sol Realty, on 18th Street next to the Jumping Bean coffee shop, said she worries that a landmark designation would impose expensive maintenance criteria on the owners of those structures, something that the city denies. She counts herself among property owners who are getting squeezed by accumulating property taxes, insurance rates, water fees and the garbage tax. 

The landmark commission told residents they may qualify for tax incentives to maintain their properties, but owners have to spend at least 25% of the market rate value of their building in order to unlock those incentives.

“Nowadays it’s hard to find a nice building that sells for under half a million dollars. Does that mean I have to spend … $125,000 out of pocket before I can qualify for help?” Bucio wondered. 

Historic landmark status can also be a selling point for predatory real estate companies, Bucio warned. Brochures and online listings often tout historic designations to make an area more appealing to outside buyers and renters who might otherwise not have the neighborhood in their radar.

These and similar concerns brought over 100 people to the second public meeting held last Thursday at 1661 S. Blue Island Ave. There was an unusual consensus among homeowners, renters, and developers who believed the designation would mean additional red tape and having to deal with bureaucracy downtown just to keep up their buildings.

“Property owners will have to go through a review process if you are doing exterior alterations, if you’re proposing to remove something from the building or if you would like to demolish the property,” said Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of the nonprofit Landmarks Illinois, who sat on the panel. “Many times the staff will review those and many times approve them without them ever going to the landmarks commission.” 

At the meeting, a group of the developers towered over the crowd. Matt Richmond, representing “an informal alliance” of property owners in Pilsen, waved a stack of petitions against the proposal, claiming the city did “not understand real estate economics.” He was eventually shut down by people who accused him of being a speculator.

“You are not welcome here,” a woman yelled at the panel of preservationists and city representatives. “You are dealing with people who have lived in their homes for 40, 50 years. I am one of them, I was born and raised here, I saw my parents finance two homes. Who do you think you’re dealing with, coming into our neighborhood and telling us what to do with our homes?” 

The Pilsen designation is part of a larger plan by the city called the Pilsen and Little Village Preservation Strategy that aims to increase affordable housing via the Affordable Requirement Ordinance, attract modern jobs to industrial corridors, and build the El Paseo trail that will connect the sister neighborhoods.

The new co-director of the neighborhood group Pilsen Alliance, Ruth Maciulis, is skeptical. She says the nonprofit organization is not against a tool that would halt demolitions, but opposes the city’s “decidedly undemocratic” plan for implementation. 

“The preservation plan, like the proposed landmark designation, will never accomplish what their proponents claim because it contains a definition of affordable housing that is not affordable for the majority of our Latinx community, does not guarantee family-sized housing, and still allows developers to buy their way out of the program,” said Maciulis, whose group will be holding their own community discussions on the issue.

Some before-and-after studies in other cities have shown that landmark designations raise property values faster than properties that are not protected. A comparison of New York City’s multiple historic districts between 1980 and 2000 showed that home prices per square foot rose significantly more than non-designated homes.

Pilsen’s designation would be the largest in Chicago. Other well-known districts include Old Town, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, and Logan Square, according to the city website

“The gentrification of Logan Square, believe it or not, has actually been slowed from where it could’ve been when we were talking about demolishing single-family houses that keep families intact,” according to Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago and a Logan Square resident on the panel. “There was zero preservation of those buildings and now we’re probably at 75% preservation.”

In 2015, the City Council designated the Fulton Market a landmark. It was formerly a meatpacking district, like Pilsen, but is now considered gentrified by the tech industry and the bar and dining scene.

In the short and long term, declaring Pilsen a historic landmark would halt the destruction of its visually striking housing stock and reduce the ability for cookie-cutter luxury condos and retail chains to swoop in, preservationists argue. 

But ultimately, the landmark designation would protect the facade of 18th Street alone and is not designed to preserve or even address the livelihood of its longstanding homeowners, small business owners, and renters. That would require a multi-pronged approach, the Department of Planning and Development said.

Pilsen stakeholders have until May 2020 to decide for or against a city historic district. 

Jacqueline Serrato is a neighborhood journalist whose reporting captures the conditions and worldview of Mexicans and Latinos in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Chicago Tribune/Hoy, WTTW, DNAinfo, WBEZ,...

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