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How a Plan to Save Buildings Fell Apart

In 2018, Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development felt that they had a progressive plan to preserve one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Pilsen, on the city’s southwest side, was home to Eastern European immigrants in the 19th century; in the 20th century, it drew newcomers from Mexico. The overlapping waves of arrivals left enduring marks on the neighborhood’s architectural fabric, where ornate “Bohemian Baroque” buildings carry brilliant murals painted to express the area’s Latinx heritage. But residents of Pilsen were facing growing affordability pressures: According to the Chicago Sun-Times, median home prices went from $76,000 to $198,000 from 1990 to 2015, and the median sale price in 2019 was $430,000, per Chicago Magazine

To protect more than 850 buildings in Pilsen, the city proposed establishing a historic district, primarily focused on simple, vernacular building types. In a first for the city, the plan called for the neighborhood’s murals to be preserved, a feature that moved preservation beyond bricks and mortar to more ephemeral signifiers of culture. Perhaps most importantly, the historic district was just one part of a larger preservation strategy that included housing supports, economic development measures, park space, and more. The hope was that these measures would relieve pressure on over-burdened neighbors struggling to stay in their homes, easing the path forward for landmarking.

In May 2019, the city’s landmarks commission unanimously recommended the district move forward and its regulations were tentatively in effect until the district was brought up to a vote before the City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who represents much of Pilsen, successfully lobbied to delay the vote for a year to give the community time to consider the effects of landmarking. The planning department itself tacked on an extra six months to try to sell neighbors on the plan and respond to community concerns, holding three community meetings in English and Spanish.

“You have to tailor the district to the specific community,” says Maurice Cox, DPD commissioner, who joined the department in 2019, after the landmark plan was assembled. “[This isn’t] a one-size-fits all. We acknowledged that there was a fairly unique community and that there would have to be guidelines that we tailored to where they are — their income range, the circumstance of ownership.”

During negotiations, the city proposed shrinking the size of the district significantly, and offered an expansion of funds available through the Adopt-a-Landmark Program. But by December 2020, it had become clear that DPD’s effort didn’t work: The public remained “almost unanimous” in opposition, says Cox. After hearing neighbor after neighbor inveigh against the historic district, Cox pulled his support, and each of the 18 members of the Zoning Committee voted the district down.

The opposition came from a grassroots coalition of neighbors and neighborhood organizations, deploying some of the same tactics often used by preservationists to relay their causes. Voices from within the working-class Latinx community made it clear that they were unconvinced that landmarking would provide relief from displacement and gentrification.

And no wonder: Those are problems that historic districts — and preservation at large — were not developed to address.

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab