Chicago’s Woodlawn: A Success Story in the Making

In the last few years, the long-struggling neighborhood has seen robust construction activity in the housing and retail sectors. Nonprofit developer POAH together with the city of Chicago have initiated a series of affordable housing projects meant to transform the community and trigger other residential, educational and cultural developments.

Twenty years ago, if anyone had told Woodlawn residents that their neighborhood would host a presidential library, a state-of-the-art golf course, a full-service grocery store and several modern housing communities, they would have certainly shaken their heads in disbelief. The area has been struggling economically for several decades as new retailers and investors shied away, population declined and gang violence increased. However, the situation is starting to change there, as it has in several other South Side Chicago neighborhoods. The facilities are part of developments already under construction or planned in the area at the initiative of the city of Chicago. Several of these projects are being conducted in close collaboration with the Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a non-profit neighborhood revitalization developer.

Since 2008, POAH has been working with the City of Chicago, HUD, the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), several neighborhood associations and other funding partners to create a historic resurgence in Woodlawn. Bill Eager, POAH’s vice president for the Chicago area, told Multi-Housing News that 458 new and rehabilitated units have been completed so far in the neighborhood and 246 more are under construction. Several projects are mixed-use, which means that new retail and commercial space will also be available. In addition, there are 92 units to be developed as part of projects pending approval and a 48,000-square-foot Jewel Osco grocery store expected to open next year.

Starting anew: Grove Parc Plaza

Bill Eager, Vice President POAH

Bill Eager, Vice President POAH

Woodlawn’s transformation started with the demolition and rebuild of Grove Parc Plaza, a three-block stretch of Section 8 apartments, which had fallen into disrepair but were considered valuable because of their proximity to the University of Chicago. Eager pointed out that when POAH started work at Grove Parc, housing markets in both East Woodlawn and West Woodlawn were very weak and the only activity in real estate consisted of distressed sales.

In 2011, POAH and community leaders applied for and earned one of the first Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grants from HUD, valued at $30.5 million. The agreement was that the developer “would demolish and rebuild Grove Parc as a mixed-income, mixed-use community in a multi-year, multi-phase effort. The work necessitated rebuilding some former Grove Parc units on the former footprint, and locating some in other parts of Woodlawn,” Eager revealed.

The 26 buildings that were previously making up the area between 61st and 63rd streets (Cottage Grove Corridor) were replaced with six buildings pursuing LEED certification: The Burnham, The Jackson (two buildings), The Grant, Trianon Lofts and Woodlawn Station. Four are completed, along with the nationally renowned MetroSquash, and two more are under construction. The first is Trianon Lofts, a 24-unit, mixed-use building bringing the first new market rate, two-bedroom rental apartments to Woodlawn in 40 years. The project also includes a 7,000-square-foot retail component. The second is Woodlawn Station, a 55-unit community offering market rate and affordable housing as well as 15,000 square feet of retail space.

How $31M can trigger $400M in investments

The aim of the $30.5 million grant offered by HUD was to encourage the construction of affordable rental and market rate housing that would help develop the surrounding community. The effect of the district’s new residential buildings that also offer commercial spaces exceeded expectations and generated $400 million in investments, including new educational and recreational facilities now underway:

  • Woodlawn Resource Center offers a range of community services, from career training to job placement.
  • MetroSquash—a 20,000-square-foot new construction where more than 300 young people receive academic counseling per year. The non-profit organization with eponymous name is also located on the Woodlawn Park footprint, with POAH contributing the land and Metrosquash financing the building’s development.
  • UCW—University of Chicago’s charter school in Woodlawn.
  • Lala’s Land of Learning—a children’s daycare center set to open a new location in Trianon Lofts.

In addition to these new projects, Daley’s Restaurant, a neighborhood landmark and Chicago’s oldest restaurant, announced it will relocate to Woodlawn Station next year. 

The enormity of the project was a lot for the city and community to absorb, financially and otherwise. However, the City has remained very committed and we have worked hand-in-hand with the tenant associations and formal and informal partners across Woodlawn,” said Eager.

Map of Woodlawn Projects

Map of Woodlawn Projects

 

Renew Woodlawn

Another program that spurred a new wave of investments is Renew Woodlawn, which POAH has been developing in partnership with the Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) and the Community Investment Corporation (CIC). The aim of the project is to rehabilitate formerly distressed small properties, many of which are located in West Woodlawn, and put them on the market. The new housing options are made affordable through subsidies of up to $75,000 per homebuyer.

In West Woodlawn, the for-sale market was dead when our work began, except for distressed sales. However, in the past 18 months that market has begun to recover. We have sold 28 formerly vacant or distressed small buildings to new homeowners through our Renew Woodlawn program, with sales prices now in the low $200,000s,” said Eager.

Work is ongoing, but the community has already started to benefit from these efforts as the violent crime rate has been declining and new residents are taking an interest into the area. As testimony to the success of the changes that have taken place so far, Woodlawn received the 2016 Chicago Neighborhood of the Year award from Curbed Chicago and was also chosen to be home of the future Obama Presidential Center, which is slated to break ground in nearby Jackson Park in 2018.