Ben Schulman is a writer and editor based in New York's Hudson River Valley. When not writing about cities, he works with Small Change, an equity crowdfunding platform dedicated to building better cities.
First known as “The Gentry,” a new project has residents in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago’s Lower West Side feeling anxious.
In hindsight, maybe “The Gentry Building” wasn’t such a sensitive way to rebrand an old paint factory on Chicago’s Lower West Side.
The five-story red brick building sits in Pilsen, a neighborhood being squeezed by the pressures of redevelopment and changing demographics. When the project’s name was unveiled, it tapped into a wave of anxiety among locals who saw it as an all-too-appropriate moniker for what it would bring to the area beyond street-level retail and four floors of “creative” office space. Those details aren’t changing, but after the uproar over its name, it’ll now have a title stripped of all connotation: 917 W. 18th Street.
The controversy has everything to do with the forces at work in Pilsen, which has become something of a contested space. Historically a landing pad for immigrants in Chicago, it has more recently become a cradle for artists, and now a home to high-end restaurants, hipster hotspots, bespoke coffeeshops, and a rails-to-trails conversion project.
Though originally settled by Irish and German immigrants, it was the wave of Czech arrivals in the 1870s after the Great Chicago Fire that gave the neighborhood its name, and imprinted its present-day sense of history and place through the Bohemian-style building stock that defines it. Beginning in the 1950s, the neighborhood became a magnet for Mexican immigrants to Chicago, and the area has retained a predominantly Mexican presence since the late 1960s.
Located just three miles southwest of downtown Chicago, and long defined by its industrial heritage, the neighborhood was nearly 90 percent Hispanic in the 2000 census. A little more than a decade later, by 2013, the neighborhood’s Hispanic population had dropped to 82 percent, while the non-Hispanic white population grew from 8.2 percent to 12.4 percent against a backdrop of overall population drop, according to a paper by University of Illinois at Chicago professor John Betancur and his student Youngjun Kim.
It’s in this context that “The Gentry Building” struck a nerve.
The developer, Villas Capital Partners, alongside its brokerage agent, Nelson Hill, has been vocal about its intent to remake the building while being sensitive to its context and capitalizing off of the neighborhood’s position as “a vibrant hot spot and melting pot of new restaurants, cafes and nightlife side-by-side with long-standing traditional style restaurants and businesses,” according to its marketing materials.
The developer has “gone above and beyond to make sure the ‘new’ building will look and feel like the building of the past,” says Zach Pruitt, leasing agent and senior vice president with Nelson Hill. The intent, he says, is to bring a “newer feel, a high-quality office product” to Pilsen.
The familiar urban “discovery” narrative has long played out in neighborhoods such as New York’s Brooklyn Heights (dating to the 1960s), or Chicago’s Wicker Park (dating to the 1980s), where an ethnic or historic otherness is packaged and marketed as a mark of authenticity to be consumed. In Pilsen, this is met with a push by pro-development actors including City Hall, the local alderman’s office, and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce (which promotes Pilsen as a “true Chicago barrio”). On the other side is the area’s rich history of grassroots, neighborhood groups that have successfully leveraged local political power to resist full-scale redevelopment.
Byron Sigcho is the executive director of Pilsen Alliance, an advocacy group formed in 1998 that carries on the neighborhood’s tradition of grassroots activism, a lineage that goes back to the work of local labor leaders like Rudy Lozano, and beyond. The Pilsen Alliance first heard about the Gentry project from an aspiring restaurateur who looked at the first floor retail/restaurant space and was taken aback both by its moniker and what he found to be the highest asking price for rent in the immediate ZIP code—in the vicinity of $25 per square foot per year, according to the entrepreneur. Since being made aware, Sigcho’s group has been overtly attempting to confront the developer, leasing agent and alderman.
Sigcho dismissed the original name of the project as insensitive, “a ridicule and slap in the face of the long-time residents, history, and [the] current political climate of the Pilsen neighborhood,” as he wrote in a letter to local Alderman Danny Solis. Pruitt was quick to acknowledge that the initial name was alienating. “Within five days after the brochure was printed, after we received negative feedback from a gentleman interested in the retail space, the name was changed and immediately removed from emails, brochures, and all marketing,” Pruitt says.
Yet for Sigcho, his group and their supporters, the marketing miscue is just one part of the story. “Rents in Pilsen are skyrocketing because of speculative projects like theirs,” says Sigcho. (Rental rates for the office floors are projected at $18 to $20 per square per year. Pruitt says the rent for the retail/restaurant component is negotiable.)
Sigcho also takes issue with the nearly $200,000 in tax breaks that the developer received for environmental remediation of the building. If public funds are used, he says, then there needs to be a public benefit in return. “We would like to establish a precedent with these projects that are also beneficial to the community,” he says. “A community-benefits agreement where we can discuss and negotiate all of these possibilities is important.”
Since early December, the Pilsen Alliance has filmed actions delivering letters to the office of VCP owner John Pagone, protested outside the offices of Nelson Hill, and documented an invitation to Alderman Danny Solis to attend a community meeting that the group convened about the project. (Solis declined to respond or attend the mid-January event, where over 75 people met to voice displeasure.) The group has also noted that Pagone, as well as various Nelson Hill executives, have collectively contributed nearly $8,000 in campaign contributions to Alderman Solis, implying a sort of a quid pro quo that green-lit the development.
For his part, Alderman Solis, originally appointed alderman by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1996, has brushed off any accusations that he has “sold out” his ward, in regards to the 917 W. 18th St project or any others. “I’ve tried to balance improvement and stability of the neighborhood with opportunity for development,” he says.
He proudly states his ward’s accomplishments over the last 20 years: creating an industrial TIF district that has brought in 300 new industries and 5,000 new jobs; establishing the Pilsen Historic Landmark Residential District to protect the integrity of the neighborhood’s built form (though he bemoans that the recession stymied its full potential); and his engagement with what he calls, “legitimate community groups and organizers that deliver affordable housing to students and seniors and [provide] services.”
Of the Pilsen Alliance, “I think they are misinformed,” he says. “They aren’t looking at [development] in an objective way. No community should only be pegged as working-class and poor.” Solis also believes there’s political motivation behind the attacks. In 2015, Sigcho lost to Solis in the last election for 25th ward alderman.
Development pressure continues to mount in Pilsen. In late December of last year, a former factory about a half-mile away from 917 W. 18th St, was approved for conversion to 99 residential units. On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the Pilsen Alliance posted an op-ed, writing, “Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King moved to Chicago to seek fair housing and respect for communities in which working-class Chicagoans lived and worked. Today, gentrification threatens these very same neighborhoods. The most recent manifestation of this in Pilsen is ‘The Gentry.’”
The Pilsen Alliance held another community meeting on January 24th, to which Alderman Solis and representatives of Nelson Hill were invited. According to Sigcho, neither party elected to participate. He states that further "'actions' against the development are in the works."