To the editors:
The Reader’s article on the conflict in Kenwood over a developer’s plans to renovate an old, abandoned hotel at 4910 S. Blackstone Ave. [September 6] omitted some fundamental facts and missed the real issue.
The real issue is not the rich vs. the poor, not “Upscale vs. Downscale,” nor a one-man crusade. Despite the ugly smear tactics by Bob Lucas and the KOCO (Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization) establishment, the conflict is not about the acceptance of low-income families and of decent, subsidized housing in South Kenwood. Our community has a proud record of welcoming over 760 units of subsidized housing in its midst, including public housing, and Section 8 projects. Most important, Kenwood has made this economic mix work. It has remained a stable, racially integrated community. It has held on to its middle-class base while welcoming a substantial number of low-income families scattered normally throughout the community.
This is no small achievement. We hear a lot of rhetoric about the importance of racial and class integration. Kenwood, south of 47th Street, is one of a handful of communities which has actually accomplished it. In contrast, North Kenwood-Oakland, KOCO’s turf, has lost over half its population during the last 20 years, the years of KOCO’s leadership, and is today one of America’s most impoverished communities.
The real issue at 4910 S. Blackstone Ave. is a cheap, substandard renovation plan and a developer with a terrible track record in the community. The building in question, given to KOCO for one dollar at a tax sale, is the old Hotel Riviera, a World War I-era hotel whose rooms had been converted to tiny kitchenettes. By the 1970s, it had become a notorious slum, a source of blight and danger in the community. Its chief defect was that its 270-square-foot, converted, hotel-room apartments were so small that the building could not attract a stable tenancy. Finally, overwhelmed with problems, the owner walked away and the building was abandoned.
When news about the renovation of the old hotel first began to circulate in the community, there was hope that a source of blight and crime could be transformed into something decent. This hope quickly faded, however, when KOCO’s intentions became clear. Despite the building’s history, KOCO proposed to use precious public and private investment funds to restore the building to exactly the same substandard, overcrowded configuration which caused it to become a slum. KOCO’s plan was to retain all of the building’s 24 converted hotel-room studios. They planned to do this despite the fact that nobody builds 270-square-foot apartments anymore. Even the CHA’s minimum standard for studio apartments is 450 square feet, almost twice the size of KOCO’s planned units.
As news of KOCO’s plans spread throughout the community, the Kenwood Open House Committee, South Kenwood’s principal community organization, asked for a meeting with Bob Lucas and his staff. At that meeting, KOCO was asked to modify its plans by increasing the size of the units and reducing the number so as to eliminate the problems which originally caused the building to fail. We also asked KOCO to permit an economic mix in the building by including both subsidized and market-rate units, a plan which has worked very well in Kenwood. We pointed out that the 4900 block of South Blackstone Ave. was also the site of a scattered-site CHA development and that it has been proven to be a very unwise policy to concentrate too many low- income units together.
Lucas, however, flatly refused any compromise. Further, he insisted, with a straight face, that the apartments would be rented to stable, moderate-income tenants, despite the overwhelming experience of the community that it is impossible to attract and retain such tenants with converted hotel-room apartments.
We knew from long experience what the likely scenario would be: difficulty in attracting good tenants leading to a financial crisis leading to a collapse of standards and rentals to anybody. The next chapter is usually sale of the building to a mysterious absentee landlord and the spiral downward to decay and danger accelerates. In the end the developers are long gone and the community is left to pick up the pieces.
The choice before Kenwood was simple: either give up and let KOCO roll over the community or resist. We chose to resist. This decision was influenced by long and bitter experience with KOCO. A few years before, on the very same block, KOCO had been the manager of a large multi-unit building with disastrous results–conflict, a rent strike, abandonment, demolition. One of our members said there ought to be a law to the effect that, “A developer should not be able to screw a block more than once.”
KOCO’s plans were dumped on the community with no consultation. This is a continuation of an arrogant, contemptuous attitude which KOCO has displayed toward the people south of 47th Street for many years. KOCO has no constituency in this area and seems to regard the community as a target of opportunity where it is free to do as it pleases with no accountability to the people affected.
When we refuse to go along with KOCO, we are called “racists and elitists.” Name-calling, however, can’t hide the ugly facts in this case which is an attempt by KOCO to earn some fat fees regardless of how much damage is done.
The people of Hyde Park-Kenwood have been through many battles and are not intimidated by name-calling and race baiting even when it comes from a black-led organization. We deeply believe that every community has a moral obligation to accept and welcome poor people within its midst but that doesn’t mean it has to accept every slapdash proposal that comes along. Size, location, plans, and management are all critically important to success. Failure to observe these standards leads to disaster as can be seen in many desperate neighborhoods in Chicago from North Lawndale to North Kenwood-Oakland.
John A. McDermott
Kenwood Open House Committee