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Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards

Pilsen Neighbors Ask City: Why Force A Landmark District We Don’t Want But Refuse To Save A Beloved Church?

Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said the church was not in any “immediate threat” of being demolished — but smaller buildings in Pilsen are.

Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th) announces plans to downzone St. Adalbert Church following the final services at the Pilsen church in July 2019.
Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
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PILSEN — As Pilsen residents push back against landmarking a large swath of their neighborhood, some former St. Adalbert parishioners and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) are questioning why city officials are pushing the landmark district while ignoring efforts to landmark the beloved church.

During a pair of community meetings in the past week, Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox faced questions about why the Landmarks Commission hadn’t yet designated the Pilsen church at 1650 W. 17th St. a historic landmark.

Cox said he agreed the church was “worthy of landmark status” and “clearly an iconic neighborhood treasure.” He said while he expects the church to be designated a landmark, it has to be done “once it’s determined … what the Chicago Archdiocese and the Catholic Church intend to do with the complex.”

That drew criticism at the meetings from residents who said if the archdiocese gets a say over landmarking its property, shouldn’t residents get to decide about a landmark designation on their property.

Cox said the church and convent were “orange rated” in the city’s Historic Resource survey. Any permit to demolish an orange-rated building would trigger a 90-day demolition hold while city staffers determine if it qualifies for landmark protections, according to the city’s demolition delay ordinance.

Cox said the church was not in any “immediate threat” of demolition. Instead, the city’s current priority is to save homes and commercial buildings for which the city was tracking demolition requests, he said.

Julie Sawicki, president of the Society of St. Adalbert, one of two groups fighting to save the church, feared it would be “too late to save the entire property” if the city waits until a demolition request to be submitted. 

If the city waits, “that would mean a developer has bought St. Adalbert. They are crawling all over St. Adalbert,” Sawicki said. “It is imperative that the Landmarks Commission acts immediately in landmarking the interior and exterior of the church as well as the rectory and the convent.”

Real Estate Deals

In the last four years, the Archdiocese of Chicago has twice gone under contract to sell the property, but both deals have fallen through. 

Most recently, City Pads, a developer who sparked ire among residents after “whitewashing” a mural at the Casa Aztlan community center, was under contract to buy the church complex for $4 million in September 2019 — months after the church was deconsecrated.

But a year later, the archdiocese and the developer said the deal was off the table but would not say why. 

A real estate listing for the church remains online and has been updated to reflect the property is no longer under contract. The church is for sale for $3.95 million, according to the listing.

Credit: Mauricio Peña/ Block Club Chicago
St. Adalbert Catholic Church’s future is in limbo as parishioners wait for a decision by the Vatican’s highest court.

Last year, after Block Club reported the $4 million contract, City Pads said it would not put housing in the former sanctuary building. At the time, City Pads said it wanted to build a co-living apartment building on the site.

The company also had plans to rehab the convent and rectory to make way for more apartments.

RELATED: Beloved Pilsen Church Parishioners Fought To Save Being Sold To Developer For $4 Million

The property — consisting of the sanctuary, rectory, convent, school and a parking lot — spans 2.1 acres in the heart of the changing neighborhood. St. Adalbert was founded in 1874 by Polish immigrants. The current church building was built in 1912.

The archdiocese announced in February 2016 that St. Adalbert would close due to the more than $3 million needed to repair the church’s 185-foot towers, which have been surrounded by scaffolding for years.

The archdiocese tried to sell the church building in November 2016, when it contracted with the Chicago Academy of Music. That deal also fell through.

In September 2018, the archdiocese hired commercial real estate firm SVN Chicago to try to sell the property again. A real estate listing at the time infuriated some Pilsen residents because it touted the church’s towers as “perfect for penthouse units.” The language was later removed.

Efforts To Landmark St. Adalbert

Mexican and Polish parishioners have waged several years-long battles to try to save St. Adalbert from being closed and sold.  

Parishioners have appealed the deconsecration of the church, and the issue is making its way through the Vatican’s judicial system. Sawicki’s group has pitched a plan to maintain the religious character of the complex by converting the church into a shrine and the convent into a B&B style retreat house marketed for faith-based tourism.

Since taking office last year, Ald. Sigcho-Lopez has tried to rezone the property to only allow for parks and open space, a tactic meant to tie the archdiocese’s hands.

The alderman has also sought landmark status for the former church and rectory. In addition, community members submitted proposals to landmark the convent. Neither request has made it on to the Landmarks Commission agenda.

Credit: Leroyesha Lane/ Block Club Chicago
St. Adalbert Church is located at 1650 W. 17th St. in Pilsen.

Now as discussions have resumed on a larger Pilsen landmark district — that excludes St. Adalbert from the designation — Sigcho-Lopez, former parishioners and residents are wondering why the church has been ignored. 

“If St. Adalbert isn’t a landmark then I don’t know what is a landmark,” Sigcho-Lopez said during last week’s meeting. 

During the second community meeting on Wednesday, Sigcho-Lopez said he found it “highly problematic” that city officials were not moving on landmarking the church. The reason why it had not yet been landmarked by the city was that developers are eyeing the property, Sighco-Lopez said.

“We support the landmarking of St. Adalbert as an iconic site,” he said.

Referencing Cox’s comment that the landmark of the property would have to wait until the archdiocese decided what it intended to do with the property, Sigcho-Lopez said the city should have the same consideration for homeowners when it comes to the larger neighborhood landmark designation.

Landmark should be a “voluntary process. If homeowners want to landmark their buildings, let’s make it so they can landmark their buildings, we will be happy to help them with that process,” he said.

Sawicki said before private citizens are asked to accept a landmark of their personal property, a proper gesture would be for the city to first landmark the “pearl of Pilsen” and “make sure that it is not in jeopardy.”

Cox reiterated they were keeping a “very careful eye” on the church. 

“Churches, cathedrals of that nature, are not easily demolished. They are built for the century. It is really the small house on a street, a two or four flat that is lost consistently,” Cox said.

Cox said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had “inherited a recommendation” for landmarking everyday buildings in Pilsen that are subject to demolition requests.

“It’s the transformation, the change, the loss of that neighborhood by a thousand little cuts, so we felt strongly that that type of demolition could and should be stopped,” he said.

Pilsen Landmark District

During Wednesday’s meeting, city officials once again presented the landmark district, which aims to tackle growing concerns from residents about possible demolition and displacement in the gentrifying neighborhood.

Pilsen had seen 14,000 families leave the neighborhood since 2000. Since 2006, there have been 90 demolitions of buildings that had “naturally occurring” affordable housing, 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.

Credit: Department Planning and Development
A map of the proposed Pilsen Historic District.

Garcia outlined the original landmark plan that aims to preserve 900 buildings built between 1875 and 1910 as well as 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 buildings, Garcia said.

Credit: Screengrab
The Department of Planning and Development shared a reduced footprint during Monday’s night .

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.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said the organization “fully” supported the landmark designation for the city’s original or alternative plan, as well as the landmarking of St. Adalbert.

Miller urged the city to expand incentive opportunities and consider a community benefits agreement to help longtime homeowners and small businesses.  

We don’t want the landmark

But during the second meeting, Sigcho-Lopez and residents were resolute that they don’t want a landmark district.

Pilsen homeowner Laura Paz told city officials to put it up to a vote instead of dragging the process out.

“We don’t want the landmark,” Paz said. “We do want to stop the demolitions but we don’t want the landmark. This is what the community is saying. I don’t know why you don’t listen to what the community is saying?”

Some attendees asked the city to consider demolition moratoriums and other mechanisms to stop demolitions rather than landmarking an entire area.

Another Pilsen resident asked why the city was pushing the plan despite community opposition. 

City officials said the district was not a foregone conclusion and they were following recommendations from the Committee on Zoning to allow for community engagement. 

A review of the proposal has been tabled until November, according to a letter from zoning chair Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who said the city’s planning department was granted a six-month extension in July to “engage community stakeholders.”

Asked if a date had been set for the hearing, Tunney’s office did not return a request for comment.

The city has until January to make a final decision on the landmark. If no action is taken, the landmark goes into effect in February. 

The city will host its last meeting on the proposed landmark at 4 p.m. Oct. 27.

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