DOWNTOWN — As soon as next month, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks could tell the City Council to support turning a swath of Pilsen into a historic landmark district — but some neighbors worry it’s a designation they can’t afford.
The proposal looks to preserve about 850 Baroque-inspired buildings constructed between 1875 and 1910 along with murals painted in 1978 and onward. This would be the first time a historic designation would include murals.
On Wednesday, the commission held a public hearing at City Hall to determine whether the proposed district meets criteria for landmark status and to listen to community feedback.
Matt Crawford, coordinating planner for the Department of Planning and Development, said the designation would preserve two significant time periods in the neighborhood’s history.
“The proposed landmark district in Pilsen includes a dense and varied collection of historic buildings built by European immigrants in the late 19th century and preserved and enriched by the Mexican community in this century. This designation is one of the first to recognize the multicultural importance of a Chicago neighborhood,” Crawford said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, the Landmarks Commission received 65 letters in opposition to the designation from property owners and five expressing support.
During the hearing, Ald.-elect Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) called for more time as well as a “robust, transparent community process” to help neighbors understand what a historic district would mean for residents and small businesses.
Community leaders and representatives from the Resurrection Project, Eighteenth Street Development Corporation and the Pilsen Alliance echoed these calls.
“There is very little benefit to current property owners.”
Soledad Hernandez, who owns and lives in a building on 18th Street, said many of the incentive programs aimed at protecting homeowners would be inaccessible to those who don’t have the money up front to make necessary renovations before they could become eligible for a 12-year property tax assessment freeze.
Under a property Assessment Freeze incentive, an owner who lives in the property would need to make a minimum investment of 25 percent of the property’s market value as determined by the Cook County Assessor.
“Investing 25 percent of the market value … is pretty impossible for most of us even if we wanted to,” Hernandez said. Hernandez called for more accessible incentives that would help those living in the proposed historic designation.
Pilsen homeowner Kyle Frayn echoed Hernandez’s concerns about the incentive program and “strongly opposed” the Historic Designation “as it currently stands.”
“There is very little benefit to current property owners,” he said.
Frayn argued that instead of helping homeowners, this designation in its current form would “incentivize developers to purchase up old buildings in the proposed district, gut rehab them and convert them into condos or high-priced apartments.”
While many residents expressed hope this would allay gentrification fears, Frayn said creating a historic district would not stop gentrification. “You only have to look at the historic district in Wicker Park” or other parts of the city, he said.
Arturo Garza, a longtime resident and multi-property owner in the neighborhood, is worried about her investment.
Garza said the district would “chop property values in half” and hurt longtime owners.
Supporters of the proposal said the designation would prevent developers from demolishing historic buildings and constructing new buildings of lesser quality.
Pilsen resident Robin Rodgon said it would prevent more teardowns and “preserve the character and integrity” of the neighborhood.
“If we don’t get landmark status, I’m afraid developers are going to come in and destroy what neighborhood is still left,” Rodgon said.
“The character has already changed so much … . This was a vibrant community, and we need to protect the architectural structure, and the people who live there.”
While Pilsen resident Al DiFranco supported the designation and called for its expansion to include all of Pilsen, he also feared it could be a “Trojan horse” for additional taxes, “which nobody wants.”
Resident Allan Mellis supported the district, but said the Landmarks Commission needed to help current owners “one-on one” to aid with the transition into a historic district.
During a community meeting last week, residents and community members expressed concerns about the expedited process, saying there was not enough time to evaluate how a historic designation would impact residents in the proposed district and the neighborhood at large.
The landmarking process was initially set to extend late into the summer, but it was expedited after the city Landmarks Commission denied a request to raze three Pilsen buildings at 1730-34 W. 18th St. in March.
Since that permit was denied, city code requires the commission hold public meetings and decide whether to turn the area into a landmark district within 90 days. Essentially, they can’t deny a landowner permission to do what they want with his or her property and then drag out the process for years.
City Council has an additional 90 days to vote on the commission’s recommendation, according to city code.
If no such recommendation is made within the timeframe, the demolition permit is then approved and the buildings are allowed to be demolished.
During the meeting, Mark J. Kupiec, an attorney for Michael Fox, who owns the 18th Street property, said the buildings were not contributing buildings to the district and demolishing them would not have an “adverse effect” on the preliminary district.
Mary Lu Siedel, director of community engagement for Preservation Chicago, cautioned that if the commission granted the demolition permits, any other owner could cite “this case as precedent to have their buildings exempt and open for demolition.”
“The city chose an option to expedite the process to save not only the current buildings seeking demolition but all future buildings of that same style,” Siedel said.
Origins of the Pilsen Historic Distict
In 2006, the majority of the Pilsen neighborhood was designated a landmark in the National Registry of Historic Places. In that same year, a Quality of Life plan was created and it requested the preservation of murals in the neighborhood. While these designations celebrate the architectural significance of the neighborhood, they don’t actually protect buildings.
In 2017, the Department of Planning and Development recommended a local landmark district for Pilsen, which would offer concrete protections for the existing structures.
Last fall, city officials unveiled the Pilsen Landmark proposal — one component of a five-part strategy aimed at preserving the Mexican and Mexican American communities in Pilsen and Little Village.
In December, the city’s Landmarks Commission approved a preliminary landmark recommendation that covers 1.5 mile stretch of 18th Street, Blue Island Avenue as well as residential blocks bound by 18 Street, Ashland Avenue, 21st Street and Racine Avenue in Pilsen.
The designation would require building permits to be reviewed by the Landmarks Commission to ensure a proposed project doesn’t diminish or destroy the historical or architectural integrity of a building’s exterior facade — which is anything visible from the street, city officials said.
Among the buildings in the landmark district are: Nemecek Photo Studio/Flats at 1439 W. 18th Street, which is home to Jumping Bean; Schlitz Brewery-Tied House, 1870 S. Blue Island Ave.; Store and Flat, 1529 W. 18th Street; Thalia Hall, 1215-1225 W. 18th St.; Joseph Jungman Elementary School; and St. Procopius Church, 1641 S. Allport St.
Among the 70 murals aimed to be preserved are: Mis Raices Son Mi Inspiracion (My Roots Are My Inspiration) at 1241 W. 19th St. by Javier Chaviza; Declaration of Immigration at 1800-08 S. Blue Island Ave. by Yollocalli Arts Reach and Salvador Jimenez-Flores; and All about the Women Mariachi at 1757 W. 18th Street by Alejandro Medina.
There are 59 Landmark Districts and nine extensions across Chicago, according to the Department of Planning and Development.
Members of the Landmarks Commission are expected to provide their recommendation at a meeting scheduled Thursday, May 16 in the Cook County Board Room, 118 N. Clark St., Room 569.
Read the report on the Preliminary Designation here.