Redesigning Lathrop

Architect Magazine Ι January 2017

The Julia C. Lathrop Homes, built in 1938, are one of the oldest Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) projects in the city. Inspired equally by Ebeneezer Howard’s English Garden Cities and company towns like Pullman on Chicago’s far South Side, Lathrop was designed by a cadre of architects punching below their weight during the Great Depression, including Daniel Burnham’s son Hubert and Robert De Golyer, who designed high-end Lake Shore Drive high-rises. Lathrop’s collection of brick three- and four-story, U- and T-shaped courtyard buildings—31 in all—offer a sense of warmth and New Deal humanity.

Each building is pedestrian-scaled and low enough to the ground that you can greet your neighbors on the top floor when you walk by, which is what Cindy Scott does on an October afternoon as she takes me on a tour of the neighborhood, located on the North Side. She raised four kids in Lathrop and has lived there for 30 years. Like many CHA residents, she has internalized the lessons of the agency’s failed high-rises—the towering concrete blocks built during the 1950s and ’60s, the most notorious of them being Cabrini-Green. Lathrop was different, she says. There were gangs, drugs, and prostitution, but she never felt in danger. If the threat of violence loomed, those involved gave her advanced warning. “Even when there were gangs, if I was outside with my children, they’d say ‘Ms. Scott, you need to go inside,’ ” she says. “I could walk down the street [coming] home at two in the morning and I felt safe. People watched over me. People watched over my kids. I love this community.”

But Lathrop now stands on the verge of a radical transformation. After the CHA—cash-strapped, its projects crumbling—suffered a high-profile collapse and federal takeover in 1995, it unveiled its Plan for Transformation, an ambitious reinvention of its approach to public housing. In conjunction with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the CHA agreed to work with developers in the private market to tear down 18,500 of its public housing units and replace them with mixed-income developments. By putting public housing residents next door to people paying market rates, the agency aspired to remove the stigma and social dysfunction of concentrated poverty.

In 2006, as part of the plan, the CHA called for Lathrop to be demolished. But Preservation Chicago placed the development on its annual Seven Most Threatened Buildings List, calling it “the best public housing project Chicago ever built.” The CHA reversed course, hiring developers Related Midwest and the nonprofits Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. and Heartland Alliance, who will preserve 21 out of the 31 historic buildings and add in a handful of ground-floor retail spaces. The first phase of the $75 million project, on the north side of the site, only includes renovation work and has been approved by the city planning commission. Construction is scheduled to begin early this year.

Lathrop is shaping up to be one of Chicago’s most significant historic preservation victories. There are only a few examples of the CHA renovating its affordable housing developments, and the agency has never before attempted to transform one of its existing projects into a mixed-income community, and on such a massive scale. (Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation and Landon Bone Baker’s Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative renovated a handful of CHA public housing units into market-rate housing, though that project is primarily oriented around a community center arts hub.)

Yet not everyone has championed the Lathrop project. In anticipation of redevelopment, the CHA instituted a leasing freeze at Lathrop in 2001, and today 140 residents occupy the project’s 910 homes. Related Midwest is proposing 1,116 rental units for the site, about 60 percent of which would be subsidized: 400 units would be public housing, and another 200 or so would be lightly subsidized. The rest would be market-rate. That’s more equitable than many mixed-income developments, but Leah Levinger, the executive director of the nonprofit Chicago Housing Initiative, argues that the entire Lathrop project should have been public housing. Consider Chicago’s pressing need for affordable housing: In 2014, 282,000 households applied for the CHA wait list; in a lottery, only one-third were awarded a spot.“Mixed-income is great,” Levinger says, “when it doesn’t come at the expense of poor people.”

The Push for Social Cohesion
This summer, Kevin Meyer, AIA, of Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects (JGMA), which was commissioned for the first phase of work at Lathrop, showed me the plans in the firm’s Chicago office. JGMA can’t alter the external appearance of the buildings, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Significant restoration work is needed to fix crumbling parapets and damaged walls.) Instead, the firm is proposing interior renovations for both the market-rate and subsidized units, which will be consistent in every way. Those changes will push semi-public, social living spaces like kitchens and living rooms towards the site’s wide community lawn, and will knock out walls to make rooms and bathrooms less cramped and more open. One building will be turned into a community center with a kitchen and landscaped public plaza. Overall, the apartments will have 90 different floor plans, a far cry from the relentless standardization of past CHA high-rises. “There are so few that are the same or even mirrored,” Meyer says. “Almost every one of them is unique.”

“This whole idea of transforming existing buildings absolutely friggin’ fascinates me,” Juan Moreno, AIA, (the firm’s namesake) tells me when he joins our discussion. The Lathrop buildings, he says, “are incredibly well-crafted,” and Related Midwest’s plan appears to be a perfect blend of preservation, embrace of the landscape, and sensitivity to public housing density concerns. Still, the Lathrop project poses a significant challenge: How do you redesign the site so that everyone wants to live there, without making CHA residents feel like they don’t belong? “How do you change the psychology, fully knowing that we can’t touch the outside [of the buildings]?” Moreno asks.

The job of creating social cohesion, a sense of community, will largely fall to Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), the Brooklyn-based landscape architects. MVVA will restore the original landscape by legendary Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen, connecting it to a former liability-turned-selling-point: the adjacent Chicago River. For Depression-era residents, the river was a festering sewage slurry fed by factories. “If you look at the entries to all the buildings,” says Meyer, “they turn their back to the river.”

The revised plan will reorient the units to the river and build out the city’s expanding network of riverwalks. MVVA has also designed a new hybrid dog run and “council ring,” Jensen’s most famous and elemental contribution to landscape architecture: a simple circle of rocks, demarcating a communal forum. “It really can function as that social circle,” says Gullivar Shepherd, the MVVA principal in charge of the Lathrop project.

When Shepherd tried to kayak the Chicago River, he discovered pent-up demand (kayaks strapped to back porches) and a lack of infrastructure: He had to scan neighborhood blogs to find a spot to put in. “I had the same experience having snuck onto the High Line [pre-renovation],” he says. In response, the firm has designed a boat house and kayak slip slicing into the water, amenities that will help draw visitors to the site. “Just looking at housing as a social service isn’t enough in this day and age,” says Shepherd. “It’s about integrating [it] with the city.”

The Market Upside (and Downside)
Lathrop appears well positioned to have significant market upside. The project is surrounded by affluence (homes on sale in the nearby Roscoe Village neighborhood go for $1 million or more), making it the perfect location for such a project, Moreno says. The market-rate renters subsidizing the affordable development are likely to be young professionals who are more open to living with different demographic and economic groups, and who can help champion the mixed-income concept.

It “ends the isolation of CHA tenants that was the result of 40 years of segregation,” says CHA spokesperson Molly Sullivan. “This is the model being adopted across the nation, and the one that has worked—resulting in greater opportunities for CHA tenants and renewed investment in communities that had seen none for more than 50 years.”

Yet long-time residents like Cindy Scott remain skeptical of the project. She and the other remaining Lathrop tenants will be offered units, but Scott fears that “the market-rate people are not going to want us there.” Those affluent arrivistes will be swooping in to claim what she and her neighbors struggled to preserve. Moreover, she says there’s already plenty of retail in the area: big box stores, local restaurants, chains. For her, the live/work/play suite of urban renaissance amenities misses the point: People need homes, not kayaks.

Levinger of the Chicago Housing Initiative argues that because Lathrop is surrounded by the well-moneyed, “it’s already a mixed-income community,” she says. “To privatize and take away public housing from some of the best-resourced areas of the city doesn’t make sense, except for a marketized approach. It’s everything the Plan for Transformation, in terms of lip service, was designed to create. It’s one of the rare public housing success stories.”

To make up for the lost public housing units at Lathrop, the CHA has agreed to build 630 subsidized apartments in the neighborhood. Since tearing down nearly 19,000 affordable housing units as part of the Plan for Transformation, the agency had, by the end of 2015, built back just 2,600 public housing units in its mixed-income properties. According to a University of Chicago study, just 11 percent of residents living in CHA affordable housing units have moved back once those projects were redeveloped. (As reasons for not returning, residents cited lack of information, bureaucratic hurdles, and new rules and requirements in mixed-use housing, among other concerns.) Vouchers, which allow residents to use CHA funds to rent from private landlords, have picked up much of the gap, though they usually only cover rent in the city’s poorest, most segregated neighborhoods.

Indeed, there’s a stark divide between how mixed-income developments benefit the city, and how they benefit low-income residents, says Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., who has studied Chicago public housing extensively. Consider that Chicago’s Near North Side, where the Cabrini-Green redevelopment is located, is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city. Areas like these, especially those close to downtown are “boom boom booming,” Popkin says. “But most of the economic activity isn’t benefiting [affordable housing residents] directly.”

Advocates of mixed-income housing have argued that by giving economically isolated groups access to networks of people with higher levels of social capital, the resulting interactions might help break the cycle of poverty. So far, argues Popkin, there’s little evidence of that. The best chance for success, she says, rests with the current generation of children in public housing who have grown up in mixed-income communities—the children who will soon move into Lathrop. “We have kids growing up who are safe and in much better housing, who are not being exposed to crime and all the other things they were dealing with in the old public housing,” Popkin says. “The jury is out on what’s going to happen.”