Friday, April 18, 2008

Slippery Slope

Our neighborhood is rarely without its controversies. One of the most longstanding surrounds a building at a six-corner intersection that hums with activity much of the day. This flatiron-style building occupies a corner lot across from "Fireman's Park" and the Gap Outlet store that has long and somewhat problematically been credited for revitalizing economic activity on the strip.

The site in question has been known at various times as the Payless building (for its most recent ground-floor occupant) and the Morris B. Sachs building, its more official and longstanding name. The upper floors, a complicated arrangement of small units deemed unfit--some would say thankfully--for condo conversion, have been vacant for decades, and the city has wrestled for years over What to do about the Sachs building. It looked for a while like a new owner had big plans, but he was later murdered in a bizarre tenant dispute, and any hopes for the building were extinguished in the process.

Scroll ahead a couple of years. The City decided to buy the building and issue a request for proposals. In November of 2006 our alderman held a public meeting to take the community's pulse on what they might like to see there. At the time an idea to convert the building to supportive housing--affordable units to those making just 15-30% of area median income, along with social services to assist those with financial, job training, or substance abuse challenges--had been recommended. We joined with those who supported this vision, recognizing the increasingly prohibitive housing costs in our area and a growing need to accommodate disenfranchised populations. You might imagine that some local folks would feel discomfort with such a plan, and they rightfully showed up to the meeting as well -- some with very legitimate concerns, and others with unmistakeable NIMBYist leanings. This was actually one of the most fair and productive public meetings I've ever attended, and I left feeling that a solid public purpose would be realized for the Sachs building.

Well, two proposals were submitted in response to the rfp: one public development plan for supportive housing, and one private development plan for artists' lofts, with art-friendly retail at street level. I probably don't have to tell you which won the day.

True confession? I don't actually find the winning project that distasteful, on its face. Sure, artists' lofts are a dandy idea, and bringing human density to a vacant building is always a boon to a neighborhood. There's even an affordability component, and bravo for that. I suspect the people who move in will be good neighbors, too: making art, riding bikes or taking public transportation, and (because of course this is the whole idea, right?) putting money into the local economy.

But here's the rub: public moneys, to the tune of $10 million, are going to be invested in this building for a private developer's gain. This kind of investment is only justifiable, by both law and my own sense of ethics, when a public purpose is being served. Some would say the public purpose is revitalizing our economic corridor, but I'm sorry I can't join with those who'd call it a victory to see our community tax dollars entice a Blick's or a Border's to sidle into town.

At a rally last weekend to protest this decision, a young woman stood up and told her story of coming from a broken home, moving to Chicago, and finding her way to supportive housing. She was on her way to becoming another statistic, but with a roof over her head and some increased stability, she ended up graduating first in her university class. It's difficult not to be moved by a story like this, and to see it as a more critical and appropriate use for public funds than a Starbucks (or insert artsy chain store here), and a built-in customer base to support it.

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