SOUTH SHORE — More than two dozen South Shore neighbors pooled their funds to buy and renovate a blighted apartment building over the last year, offering a model for the neighborhood’s growth they say can benefit existing residents.
The cooperatively owned 7051 LLC bought 7051 S. Bennett Ave. for $600,000 in November 2020. The company has since put nearly $300,000 into renovating the property, and its apartments became available for rent this month.
The 97-year-old building is “built like a tank” with 16 apartments, five storefronts and terra cotta inside and out — “one of those ‘they don’t build them like they used to’ kind of buildings,” its owners said.
With access to public facilities like the lakefront, the South Shore Cultural Center and nearby Jackson Park, “there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a stellar place” for a successful community property, investor Stephen Stern said.
Stern, who’s lived in the area for about 30 years, sees it as an opportunity to “bring back 71st Street.” The project can complement a proposal from developer Alisa Starks — also a Highlands resident — to build an entertainment complex at 71st and Jeffery Boulevard, he said.
The 27 neighbors who pooled $282,000 upfront for the building’s purchase represent a diverse cross-section of the Jackson Park Highlands, South Shore’s landmark district of estates built on massive lots. All live within several blocks of the Bennett Avenue project.
De facto project leader Michael Kelley moved to the “tight-knit” community three years ago, and he said the project is a step toward realizing “the South Shore that we should have,” with walkability, amenities and fewer commercial vacancies.
Geralyn and Art Thompson fell in love with the Highlands as high schoolers, when they’d make “big money” clearing snow from the district’s big houses. The husband and wife moved to their current home from the Lake Terrace high-rise in 1985, realizing a dream years in the making.
Tyriece Kennedy will celebrate six years in the community next month. When he learned of the project proposal last year, amid the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder, he jumped at the chance to leave a positive “footprint” on 71st Street.
The neighbors’ immediate priority is renting out the 15 available apartments — one family already lives in the building’s only two-bedroom unit. Rents start at $825 a month for a studio with an older kitchen, up to $975 monthly for a one-bedroom with a remodeled kitchen.
If all apartments are rented, the project’s costs will be covered, Kelley said. That allows the owners to be selective about the businesses to fill the first floor, prioritizing the community’s needs over profit. CHACHA Gyro is the only existing commercial tenant.
“We’ll have the flexibility to offer really attractive terms, to lean in with partners that want to come in and take that space, open that restaurant, start up that business,” Kelley said. “Whether that’s going to be discounts on rents or contributing to buildout costs, our motivation first is to find right kind of business to come in, and then second, to make sure they’re successful so we can be collectively successful with them.”
If leases go unsigned, the owners will discuss making more improvements to the building. In the worst-case scenario — the building turns into a money pit and they can’t recruit renters — they’ll sell the property, which they bought below market value at a receivership auction.
But eight investors told Block Club they were in a good position to cover their costs. The investment plan was thoroughly researched, the building is attractive to renters and businesses will feel comfortable working with a diverse and local ownership group, they said.
The core group of five that’s overseen daily tasks since last year — Kelley, Kennedy, Hubert Thompson, Byron Gray and Sachin Parikh — produced a plan that was a “no-brainer” to invest in, Geralyn Thompson said.
“You can’t get any closer to the [Bryn Mawr Metra Electric stop], you can walk to the beach in four to six blocks, it’s perfect to get on Lake Shore Drive if you’re driving,” Geralyn Thompson said. “It’s an ideal location for young people to start living in a community that’s strong and vibrant. The chance of this failing is minuscule, in our minds.”
Though cooperative housing faces numerous challenges to surviving in South Shore, the model maintains a presence in the dense neighborhood.
“Good intentions aside, you need the resources” to invest in a property while keeping rental prices manageable for existing residents, Kelley said.
Beyond finances, the Bennett Avenue project benefited from its investors’ wide knowledge base. Among the neighbors are professional architects, building engineers, attorneys, real estate investors, computer specialists and marketers.
“You go back and forth between the idealism of wanting to make a change [and] the pragmatism of making an investment,” Kelley said. “You have to balance those two things to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, but that you’re covering your bases so that it can be sustainable.”
For projects like theirs to succeed, the owners said city grant programs like Invest South/West and the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund should set aside funds specifically for community-led initiatives. Politicians must also keep the heat on absentee landlords to sell their decaying properties to community-minded developers, they said.
“More investment and more inclusion in projects like [Invest South/West] would greatly help going forward,” Kennedy said.
With residents set to move in the apartments next month, the Highlands neighbors are preparing for the future. They’ll look to recruit businesses to the Bennett Avenue project and will discuss the possibility of future projects down the road, while building sustainability into their plans.
Community-led projects require “a lot of heavy lifting” from all involved, Kelley said, but the redevelopment proves it is possible for South Shore residents to buy and rehab a building for the neighborhood’s gain.
“It’s a real testament to the power of community, and our community especially,” Kelley said.
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