Related Midwest’s 2010 deal to head up redevelopment of the Chicago Housing Authority’s aging Lathrop Homes threw the private developer into an 80-year-old public battleground.
In the decades after Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Plan for Transformation called to restore all 925 of the winding riverfront property’s original apartments back to public housing, the housing authority made multiple revisions to its master plan for the site. In 2006, it settled on a mixed-income model, which drew scathing backlash from affordable-housing activists.
Twelve years later, as Related prepares to welcome its first crop of new tenants at the 35-acre property, it faces pressure to maintain Lathrop’s affordable legacy while, as a for-profit developer, making the most of a coveted slice of real estate.
Designed by renowned 20th-century architects including Jens Jensen and Robert De Golyer, Lathrop hugs the north branch of the Chicago River at the nexus of four rapidly-growing neighborhoods: Lincoln Park, Roscoe Village, Bucktown and Avondale. Related faces stiff expectations for the area’s rebirth.
“This project is a series of compromises from everybody, whether it was affordable housing advocates, preservation advocates or accessibility advocates,” said Will Tippens, the company’s vice president of architecture and planning. “Everyone had to give and take a little bit to make it a reality.”
Related — alongside nonprofit partners Heartland Housing and Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation — is restoring nearly all the original buildings on the site, save for a few south of Diversey Avenue set to be razed and replaced by a pair of five-story apartment buildings.
The new construction will bring Lathrop’s total number of units up to 1,116. About 45 percent will be market-rate and another 36 percent will be administered by the authority. The rest will be subsidized on a sliding scale for tenants making up to 80 percent of area median income.
The first phase of the redevelopment is slated to be done by summer 2019 and includes 414 units, the first 85 of which will be ready for tenants this August.
Related’s team of property managers is still sifting through the nearly 3,000 applicants vying for the first set of affordable units set to come online this year, a spokesperson said. The team will prioritize the 140 families who still live in unrenovated Lathrop units, followed by the 120-or-so who were displaced since 2000 and have expressed a desire to come back.
Tippens and Sarah Wick, who is project manager for the redevelopment, took The Real Deal on a tour of the massive construction site.
Builders are paving a sprawling plaza at the most visible edge of Lathrop — a pie-slice corner at the six-way intersection of Diversey Parkway, Damen and Clybourn avenues — to carve out the complex’s main gateway.
On the side of the main office building facing the street, about 2,000 square feet of space have been set aside for retail, with potential outdoor seating in the plaza. No tenant has been signed yet.
“The landscaping is going to be how we help people find their way into the site from the outside,” Wick said. “We think the sheer amount of open space is going to attract people from the surrounding community.”
Paths wind inward from the complex’s main access points on Clybourn and Leavitt street, leading to some parking but mostly open pedestrian spaces.
Courtyards in front of each building are divided into a tree-lined front lawn and a paved back plaza, mimicking Jensen’s original design. At the back of the courtyard, brick arches will frame a path to the river.
The brick exteriors, limestone pillars and main stairwells are all that’s being kept of the Depression-era walk-ups.
The units — each building has between 15 and 60 — were originally “partitioned into tiny little rooms with very little closet space,” Tippens said. Remodelers knocked down interior walls and combined the kitchen and living room, creating an open floor plan.
Each unit’s fixtures, including dishwashers, in-unit washer-dryers, plank floors and quartz countertops, are identical across all 1,116 units in the complex, a point emphasized early in the design process.
The dated layout of the squat buildings puts windows on all sides of each apartment, even pouring natural light into the bathrooms — a quirk rarely included in new residential construction.
The units skew small. Studios span between 450 and 600 square feet, one-bedrooms will go up to 850 square feet, and three-bedrooms will be between 1,200 and 1,350 square feet.
Related declined to disclose rents until leasing gets underway in mid-July, but Zillow lists two-bedrooms within sight of the complex around $2,000. According to the listings site, Lincoln Square’s median rent in April was $2,622. For Bucktown and Avondale, median rents were $2,470 and $1,900, respectively.
Related Midwest lists 4,600 affordable units in its portfolio with another 3,000 on the way, including the hundreds being built at Lathrop. In 2011, the company acquired and renovated the HUD-subsidized, 2,400-unit Parkway Gardens complex in the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn, with a promise to keep them affordable for the long-term.
At the geographic center of the complex’s northern half, Wick and Tippens walked past a sprawling thicket of overgrown grass, marked off at the edges by orange tape.
By summer 2019, the space is set to become Lathrop’s Great Lawn, which will slope up to a shallow-stepped terrace to form a “performance bowl” fit for summer festivals, Wick said.
Project planners see the north branch of the Chicago River as the site’s backbone and key selling point, but it wasn’t always that way, Tippens said.
“In 1938, the river was basically seen as a sewer, so the site was built with its back turned to it,” he said. “So we’re trying to use landscaping, like lighting and the way paths are oriented, to draw people back toward it.”
Crews are cultivating a “nature trail” along the river from Diversey up, rooting out invasive trees and curating a habitat clean enough to attract the area’s native turtles and otters back home. Residents and visitors will be able to reach the water through a kayak launch site, just across the nature path where a long brick townhome is being remodeled into a boat shed.
Last month, the City Council approved an ordinance allowing Related to dig stilts into the river for a suspended white ramp, which would swoop 60 feet out over river and carry cyclists under the east-west Diversey bridge.
“We want people to be purposefully and intentionally doing things around the river,” Wick said. “The idea is to get more people to start seeing the river as an amenity.”