By Ben Joravsky

All summer long the Daley administration’s been getting heat for the behind-the-scenes ways neighborhood-development schemes are being hatched. But on August 8 the city got it right.

That’s the day the Department of Housing held a presentation by two teams of developers competing for a $50 million housing deal on land just north of Cabrini-Green. Actually, it was more like an interactive show than a formal presentation, as some 400 people filled the Steppenwolf Theatre to boo, cheer, question, and suggest.

“It’s democracy in planning at its best,” said 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who will have a key say in which planner wins. “Everyone got a chance to speak their mind. Now it’s up to us to make the right decision.”

The project, targeted for undeveloped city-owned land along Halsted just south of North Avenue, is part of a larger effort Mayor Daley calls his Near North Redevelopment Initiative. Twenty-five years ago it would have been hard to imagine a project of this magnitude that was mixed-income and claimed a mainstream politician like Daley as its champion. As recently as the late 1970s, most of the land around Cabrini was written off as an unsalvable slum. But three decades of development–sparked by the 1960s movement of hippies into Old Town–have shattered the myth that whites won’t move into black neighborhoods. Now the area’s booming, and low-income tenants feel under siege, likening themselves to Indians whose land was stolen by European colonists.

Last year Daley made residents a promise: in place of Cabrini’s high-rises, he would build an economically and racially integrated community of single-family homes, town houses, condos, apartments, shopping centers, parks, and schools in which displaced CHA tenants would be as welcome as anyone else.

If it works, and many skeptics doubt it will, the area roughly defined by Chicago, North, Halsted, and Wells will hold the first development of its kind in the country, a massive experiment in racial and economic integration. Indeed, Daley’s plan reads as though it were written by liberal integrationists. It promises to remove “obsolete public housing,” create an “economically and racially diverse neighborhood,” offer CHA residents “a stake in the future by creating new jobs,” erase “the stigma associated with living in public housing,” and “eradicate the segregation and isolation that come with living in densely populated public housing projects.” Already the city has seeded the initiative by building a new park, public library, and police headquarters.

Most of the area is tied up in a lawsuit filed against the CHA by Cabrini tenants, who want to be codevelopers of the public housing property. But the parcel along Halsted is owned by the city and unaffected by the suit, and Daley can do pretty much what he wants with it. He’s requiring interested developers to design and then manage a self-contained community of mid-rises, town houses, and single-family homes in which rich and poor will live side by side.

Why any private developer would accept the challenge is hard to say–obviously there are easier ways to make money in north-side housing.

“Why would anyone do this? Well, first of all there is a financial incentive–this is a big real estate transaction,” says housing commissioner Julia Stasch. “There’s also a psychic reward. To have bid on the project means you really want to participate in the renaissance of Chicago.”

The guidelines are challenging. Only 50 percent of the units can be sold at market rates; the other 50 percent will be rented at well below market to CHA tenants or working-class residents who make no more than $50,000 a year. In addition, the developers must reserve at least 40 percent of the contracts for minority vendors, while creating permanent jobs for Cabrini residents.

A review panel consisting of a Cabrini-Green resident, an architect, and several city planners was assembled to review applicants on the basis of their design, financial package, and management and affirmative-action strategies. Of the four developers who initially bid, the review panel narrowed the list to the Southwest Old Town Development Associates and the Holsten-Kenard Redevelopment Team.

At the start, Southwest was considered the favorite, if only because lead developer Dan McLean is a well-connected builder who, among his many other projects, constructed the near-south-side housing complex where Daley lives. For this project, McLean teamed with developer Bruce Abrams, architect Roy Kruse, and the Granite Development Corporation, an African-American-owned consulting firm.

The other team was spearheaded by Peter Holsten, a developer known for renovating and managing multi-unit buildings in high-risk neighborhoods.

Though the opposing plans described at Steppenwolf resembled each other in design and financing (a combination of federal tax credits and other government subsidies), the two teams’ differences in presentation were dramatic. Southwest opened with a dazzling high-tech slide show of town houses, mid-rises, play lots, and single-family homes clustered around open space. The five presenters, including Abrams but not McLean, pledged that at least 40 percent of all contracts would be awarded to minorities. “This is a unique challenge not just locally but nationally–a true mixed-income development,” Abrams said.

There were no specifics, however, on how Southwest would foster harmony in so diverse a community, on which black contractors Southwest would hire, or even on why McLean wasn’t present.

The Southwest presenters were hammered by hostile questions and denunciations, most of which accused McLean of breaking his promises to create jobs for Cabrini residents in another local project. At one point Al Carter, a longtime Cabrini activist, lambasted a Southwest presenter for smirking and not standing when responding to the audience. “You think it’s funny, but it’s not so funny,” Carter said. “It’s very disrespectful to answer questions sitting down.”

Holsten’s 12-person team of men and women, blacks and whites, was led onstage by Hoop Dreams star William Gates, who’d been hired as the project’s community liaison. His presentation was like a revival meeting, the audience joining in.

“As Cabrini-Green residents, we knew redevelopment was coming,” Gates began. “We want new housing but not displacement. For personal reasons I think we’re the best team because–and I’ll put it on the table–I’m on the team.”

“Put it on the table,” someone called out.

“I’ll be staying on [Holsten], to make sure they keep their promises,” Gates continued.


“I know you all will be staying on me–you already are!”

Gates then introduced Candice Howell, Holsten’s property manager, to talk about affirmative action and tenant jobs. A tall, imposing woman with a booming voice, Howell recounted how she rose through the ranks, starting as a low-income tenant in a rundown north-Edgewater building Holsten bought and transformed. She called out the names of various contractors who would work on the project. One by one they stood–a black electrician, a black plumber, a black window installer, a black drywall expert. “Hello,” Howell said. “We have the jobs. We’re for real.”

“What you see is what you get,” Gates said after Howell sat down. “I lived in Cabrini for over 20 years. I got my mother, a sister, aunties, and uncles there…”

“That’s 30 jobs right there,” called out Demetrice Cantrell, a young man in the center row, and the theater rocked with laughter.

Afterward, many Cabrini residents, carried away by the presentation, vowed to march on City Hall if Holsten didn’t win. But neither Burnett, the review panel, nor Stasch, who has the final word, would say who they favored. A decision will be made in early fall.

“There’s no question Holsten did the better job today, but we have to take more than this presentation into consideration,” said Burnett. “They were very popular with residents of Cabrini. But there’s more than residents of Cabrini who must be considered. I’m still not ready to say which one will get it. But it’s close–it’s really close.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Julia Stash, Walter Burnett Jr. photo by Dan Machnik.