PILSEN — As the city’s Department of Planning and Development attempted to hit the reset button on their plan to landmark parts of Pilsen, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) and longtime neighbors skewered city officials for continuing to push a plan that lacks community support.
At a virtual meeting Monday night, city officials sought to allay homeowners’ financial concerns and residents’ fears of displacement as they push to landmark about 900 Baroque-inspired buildings in the neighborhood. They also floated a smaller plan which would see 465 properties landmarked.
Longtime neighbors who oppose the plan argue the designation would stack working-class homeowners with added costs, restrict what owners are able to sell their properties for and lead to more gentrification. But the city has moved forward on the plan anyway, with officials saying the historic designation will prevent booming developments from changing the neighborhood’s character.
Commissioner Maurice Cox acknowledged the community opposition and said the designation was not a “foregone conclusion.” Cox envisioned the new set of meetings as a way to hit the “reset button” after last year’s meetings failed to “comprehensively address community concerns” or involve residents in the “decision making.”
“The department should have made clear that we are here to listen and to offer our expertise and help you meet your goals,” Cox said. “It’s clear that we have to do better for the people of Pilsen.”
But even with setting the new meetings, Sighco-Lopez and attendees said city officials were not respecting the will of the Pilsen residents. Sigcho-Lopez criticized Commissioner Cox, the Department of Planning, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot for extending the timeline for the designation rather than calling the issue up for a vote.
After 12 months that included community meetings and focus groups, his constituents’ stance on the landmark district has not changed, he said — they don’t want it.
The community had collected “323 affidavits — a vast majority who live in the proposed district —where 95 percent of the homeowners opposed it,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
It is “sad to see this kind of undemocratic process continue in the city of Chicago,” he said.
“In our community, we are respectful of democratic process. We are respectful of what our constituents [have] said,” Sigcho-Lopez added.
A city spokesman previously told Block Club a number of the affidavits were from outside of the district.
A Smaller Plan
During Monday’s nights meeting, city officials said the landmark district aims to address trends and growing concerns from residents around demolition and displacement in the gentrifying neighborhood.
Among those trends, Pilsen had seen 14,000 families leave the neighborhood since 2000, 90 demolitions since 2006 of buildings that had “naturally occurring” affordable housing and the erasure of murals, said Gerardo Garcia, a lead planner with the city.
Longtime homeowners are also burdened with rising housing costs and legacy businesses, many Latino owned, are slowly leaving the neighborhood, he said.
Garcia outlined the original landmark plan that aims to preserve 900 buildings built between 1875 and 1910 and murals significant to the neighborhood that has long served as a port of entry for immigrants, most notably Czech and Mexican immigrants. He also presented an alternative that would reduce the landmark district’s footprint by including 465 buildings concentrated on the 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue commercial corridors instead of 900 building, Garcia said.
In an effort to address financial burdens, the city proposed instituting a $3 million adopt-a-landmark pilot program over a three year span to assist longtime commercial property owners within the alternative district boundaries. The money would help property owners who have been in the district for at least 10 years, Garcia said.
An additional $3 million from the Department of Housing would also be available to longterm homeowners to complete necessary repairs and refinance their homes to maintain naturally affordable rents, city officials told residents.
The Department of Planning would also work with the Department of Cultural Affairs to catalogue existing and lost murals and commission new murals in Pilsen, he said.
Officials said the landmark district could also have a density preservation overlay, but did not provide specifics on how it would work if enacted.
But those new incentives presented to ease homeowners concerns were not enough to move support for the plan.
Following the city’s presentation, attendees pressed city planning officials to consider alternatives to the landmark plan.
Rather than landmarking parts of the city, Elizabeth Blasius, an architectural historian in Logan Square, asked city officials why the department wasn’t considering comprehensive demolition reform instead.
The commissioner said he was “certainly open” to a conversation of comprehensive demolition reform but that wouldn’t save Pilsen today.
A landmark district gives the city a “legal right to hit the pause button” in the face of a demolition permit request, Cox said.
“It is a deterrent and it is defendable in a court of law. This is the most robust tool we have been given. All of the other strategies have been temporary moratorium would not stand up in a court of law,” Cox said.
Asked to give an example of a landmark designation saving neighborhoods from gentrification, Cox said a landmark designation does not save neighborhoods from gentrification.
“It stops people from demolishing Pilsen. Plain and simple… It’s going to be that collection of strategy that will stop gentrification, not the landmark district in and of itself,” he told residents.
‘Do the right thing and vote no’
In the Zoom comment section, attendees blasted city officials for failing to answer questions on why the city continued to push the landmark when the community was clearly against it.
Mary Gonzalez, who has lived in the neighborhood for 62 years, and other residents wondered why Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), the chair of the Committee on Zoning, refused to call the matter up for a vote.
Cox said the vote would come following the six month engagement process.
A review of the proposal has been tabled until November, according to a letter from Tunney, saying the city’s planning department was granted a six-month extension in July to “engage community stakeholders.”
Attendees called on city officials to respect the community. “Do the right thing and vote no,” one property owner wrote.
“No reason why this is not getting scrapped up and have a do-over. This ordinance needs to be off the table,” another attendee wrote.
A frustrated Sigcho-Lopez said the landmark district would not benefit the community, especially in the face of the financial hardship made worse by the pandemic.
Sigcho-Lopez called on the city and the Cook County Assessor’s office to come up with a plan that would help longterm homeowners and tenants stay in the neighborhood.
As a moderator interrupted the alderman, Sigcho-Lopez said “we are going to listen to people in Pilsen. In City Council, we can continue playing games, but here I will finish.”
Residents have been “really loud and clear. We need to vote down this landmark, we need to vote it down now, and let’s start working on real preservation,” he said.
Commissioner Cox said he was not “wedded to any one tool.”
“I’m willing to work with whomever to design the tools that are necessary. In the end it has to work for residents,” Cox said.
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