Auburn Gresham — Auburn Gresham residents pushed back against the city’s attempts to create affordable housing in the neighborhood during an explosive community meeting Thursday.
More than six dozen Auburn Gresham residents joined the meeting Thursday night, which was hosted by the Department of Planning and Development. The plan was to discuss the future of Auburn Gardens, a $20 million retail and residential space slated for vacant land at 838-58 W. 79th St.
Residents have pushed back on plans for the development, instead saying they want more resources and businesses. But at Thursday’s meeting, officials told them they can have the affordable housing project — or they might not get a development at all.
The affordable housing complex is part of the Invest South/West plan, an initiative created by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to bring development to West and South side neighborhoods.
Evergreen Imagine JV, a joint venture between the Imagine Group and Evergreen Redevelopment, was the only bidder for the site and got the green light to move forward in March.
At almost every community meeting, neighbors have pushed back against the idea of affordable housing in their neighborhood. At a community meeting in April, more than 130 residents sounded off, bashing the housing and requesting more commercial-focused developments. At another meeting in May with Lightfoot, residents continued to share their frustration about a lack of transparency from the city.
Some neighbors have asked the city to bring necessities, such as a grocery store or pharmacy, to the area before adding more residents. They’ve called Auburn Gresham the “doughnut hole” of the city. Others have requested officials focus on stopping crime in the neighborhood.
At a June 9 community meeting, Ald. David Moore (17th) said that without community approval, the affordable housing project would not go forward. Residents were asked to write on sticky notes what they envisioned for a brighter Auburn Gresham.
Neighbors were glad to hear that affordable housing might not ever come to their neighborhood without their input.
But at Thursday’s meeting, neighbors learned from developers that if the affordable housing does not come to the neighborhood, there won’t be a development at all.
After answering poll questions — like “Is the quantity of housing important on the site?” and “Is the type of housing important on this site?” — community members challenged the wording of the questions.
“This poll is not all inclusive!” Nikia Hollie said in the chat. “Where is the option for, ‘I don’t want any housing on the site’?”
“Those two questions force you to choose housing when the immediate stakeholders do not want any low-income housing,” Tim Thomas said.
After residents questioned the validity of the poll, David Block, director of development at Evergreen Imagine, answered the silent question in the room.
“I feel like we’re dancing around this question, and if we’re going to be straight with one another here, it’s important that we address this issue honestly,” Block said. “My view as a developer is that there really is no development opportunity without housing.
“This is a market that is challenging to have a successful commercial business. And to bring successful commercial businesses back to this environment, the housing needs to subsidize that commercial opportunity. That is the nature of the development program that we’re talking about here.”
Resident Cassandra Watson said this was the first time she’d heard housing was the only option for the community.
“… I have attended many of these meetings, and this is the first time that it has been clearly put to us that this is about housing only,” Watson said. “And if we don’t have it, we don’t have anything else. So you’re not really asking for our ideas. You’re telling us there’s going to be housing … . This is a housing RFP. Period. We can give you a park and a bench. That’s pretty much it.”
As residents slammed the housing, requesting a new proposal for the neighborhood, Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox interjected.
“We are not putting out another RFP,” Cox said. “We will put out another RFP once we get through the cycle. There are nine other communities that are waiting for their turn to have an RFP issued. If you want to wait for nine other communities, you want to wait a year, we can do that. But there are communities that have welcomed this investment. … We have a willing, able team. Our duty is to work with them.”
One of the reasons the development company wants to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood is to give young, aspiring homeowners a chance to live in Auburn Gresham while they save for a home, Block said.
“I guess I see providing this type of housing, housing for working families … as an important step in the American social contract about how neighborhoods grow and how young people find their way …,” Block said.
But neighbors disagreed, saying living in a dense building in a neighborhood without resources and high crime will push people out, not bring them in.
Tensions remained high as neighbors questioned the validity of past meetings. The residents and officials did not reach a resolution.
Cox asked that community members remain involved in the discussion.
“… I just want folks to give us a chance,” Cox said. “Give us a chance to do this right. You have never been engaged like this before. And so you have to say something feels a little different here. … Give us an opportunity to prove that this can work. That’s all we’re asking.”
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