How a Plan to Save Buildings Fell Apart

April 7, 2021 Ι Bloomberg’s CityLab (with Elizabeth Blasius)

In 2018, Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development felt that they had a progressive plan to preserve one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Pilsen, on the city’s southwest side, was home to Eastern European immigrants in the 19th century; in the 20th century, it drew newcomers from Mexico. The overlapping waves of arrivals left enduring marks on the neighborhood’s architectural fabric, where ornate “Bohemian Baroque” buildings carry brilliant murals painted to express the area’s Latinx heritage. But residents of Pilsen were facing growing affordability pressures: According to the Chicago Sun-Times, median home prices went from $76,000 to $198,000 from 1990 to 2015, and the median sale price in 2019 was $430,000, per Chicago Magazine.

To protect more than 850 buildings in Pilsen, the city proposed establishing a historic district, primarily focused on simple, vernacular building types. In a first for the city, the plan called for the neighborhood’s murals to be preserved, a feature that moved preservation beyond bricks and mortar to more ephemeral signifiers of culture. Perhaps most importantly, the historic district was just one part of a larger preservation strategy that included housing supports, economic development measures, park space, and more. The hope was that these measures would relieve pressure on over-burdened neighbors struggling to stay in their homes, easing the path forward for landmarking.

In May 2019, the city’s landmarks commission unanimously recommended the district move forward and its regulations were tentatively in effect until the district was brought up to a vote before the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents much of Pilsen, successfully lobbied to delay the vote for a year to give the community time to consider the effects of landmarking. The planning department itself tacked on an extra six months to try to sell neighbors on the plan and respond to community concerns, holding three community meetings in English and Spanish.

“You have to tailor the district to the specific community,” says Maurice Cox, DPD commissioner, who joined the department in 2019, after the landmark plan was assembled. “[This isn’t] a one-size-fits all. We acknowledged that there was a fairly unique community and that there would have to be guidelines that we tailored to where they are — their income range, the circumstance of ownership.”

During negotiations, the city proposed shrinking the size of the district significantly, and offered an expansion of funds available through the Adopt-a-Landmark Program. But by December 2020, it had become clear that DPD’s effort didn’t work: The public remained “almost unanimous” in opposition, says Cox. After hearing neighbor after neighbor inveigh against the historic district, Cox pulled his support, and each of the 18 members of the Zoning Committee voted the district down.

The opposition came from a grassroots coalition of neighbors and neighborhood organizations, deploying some of the same tactics often used by preservationists to relay their causes. Voices from within the working-class Latinx community made it clear that they were unconvinced that landmarking would provide relief from displacement and gentrification.

And no wonder: Those are problems that historic districts — and preservation at large — were not developed to address.

The failure of the Pilsen plan illustrates a central contradiction in historic preservation. Preservationists present their work as a boon to culture, community and continuity; saving buildings helps to maintain the collective memories of place. But read to the end of most historic preservation assessments, and the final directive on what should happen to any place is defined by material commodities: why and where certain segments of certain buildings should be preserved. That kind of landmarking leaves culture and community unprotected.

This wasn’t the first time that Pilsen had been the focus of ambitious urban planning. The arrival of Mexican immigrants in the mid-20th century was itself the product of grand plans emanating from City Hall: Parts of the near West Side neighborhood, where many Mexican families lived in that era, were razed in the mid-1960s to build the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1963, eminent domain was used to acquire and demolish blocks of buildings on Pilsen’s east side for the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway. City services suffered: Into the late 1960s, the area had no public high school, so students were required to travel to Harrison High School in Lawndale, where, like most Chicago public schools of the era, non-English speaking students would be grouped in classrooms alongside students with learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

In 1973, Mayor Richard J. Daley championed Plan 21, an urban renewal project developed without community input that aimed to draw middle-class residents and shoppers back to Chicago. While the plan touted rehabilitation, its intention was to create a controlled buffer zone around the central business district, which would have led to the displacement of Pilsen residents.

While longtime residents remained concerned about municipal disinvestment, lack of services, and public safety, in the late 1980s, the neighborhood’s culture and architecture began attracting private-sector interest — along with members of the creative class. By 1990, efforts to redevelop the long-neglected (but landmarked) 1902 Schoenhofen Brewing Co. into residential lofts and commercial space were rejected by neighbors who demanded that the city protect the area for industrial use to provide jobs.

“Back in the 1990s, you had the city fining people for broken windows in Pilsen,” says Veronica Reyes, vice president of community ownership at the Resurrection Project, a nonprofit based in Pilsen that helps families gain access to affordable housing (and that did not support the historic districting effort). “There have been a lot of improvements, and since then it’s become a very desirable neighborhood. Who doesn’t want to have a landmark designation? But there are a lot of people we don’t think about when we think about preservation.”

When first presented in 2018, the local historic district was one component of a larger effort called the Pilsen and Little Village Preservation Strategy. The plan included a five-year Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) pilot aimed an increasing the affordability of large residential projects within Pilsen and the adjoining Little Village neighborhood, housing resources to help residents avoid displacement, and an industrial modernization strategy to boost access to quality jobs. Open space improvements were also part of the plan, including the purchase and transformation of an abandoned rail line into a linear park called the Paseo, similar to the 606 trail on the northwest side. The ARO pilot was implemented, but most of the other elements of the strategy stalled at the planning stage — except the historic district, which was implemented, almost in isolation.