Bloomberg CityLab: One Nation, Under Renovation

“In late 2019, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a landmark investment in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Invest South/West would direct $1.4 billion in total, including $750 million in public funds, to redevelop properties across the city’s South and West Sides.

“Focused on 10 specific neighborhoods, the program’s first projects broke ground in August and September. Teams of workers will turn a firehouse into a culinary hub and event space; a stately Art Deco bank is set to be converted into an art space that will anchor an attached mixed-use development. Another former bank, in Humboldt Park, will be renovated into Latino-owned commercial offices, an entrepreneurial incubator space, and a Latino cultural center, as well as housing.

“These reuse projects aim to do more than fill the gaps of Chicago’s legendary vacant-property crisis: In reanimating shuttered historic buildings, the initiative aims to restore the economies of commercial corridors that were victims of destructive mid-20th-century ‘urban renewal’ initiatives.

“‘It’s about time that we see this trend, after decades and decades of thinking we save neighborhoods by demolishing buildings,’ says Maurice Cox, who leads Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. ‘Now I think we realize we save them by reusing them.’

“The wave of retrofits goes far beyond Chicago: The popularity of fixing up older buildings in US cities recently hit a record high. As of spring 2022, the majority of architecture firm billings come from renovation work, not new construction, according to the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

“Conversely, Invest South/West looks to adaptively reuse buildings, such as the 1929 Laramie State Bank, that are cultural touchstones in these South and West Side neighborhoods. Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design is working on the West Side neighborhood of Austin’s Invest South/West project with two other firms, Valerio DeWalt Train and Bauer Latoza. She says this focus on renovation is ‘necessary to continue to anchor the memory of those neighborhoods.’

“Cox’s strategy is to use Invest South/West to restore what remains of the neighborhood downtowns that proliferated all over Chicago. These commercial districts were satellites of the downtown Loop that allowed neighborhoods to function like ‘villages with their own town centers,’ he says. During community meetings, Cox says neighbors ‘almost always turned to some of the existing buildings that they used to remember as being vibrant — local amenities like banks, pharmacies and theaters. It starts with the acknowledgement that there are amazing assets that are primed for reuse. This is not charity. This is just good business.’

“Some buildings targeted for renovation by Invest South/West are landmarked. But the program, which has faced criticism for construction delays, is casting a wider net on older properties that aren’t as well known outside their neighborhood, and the non-landmarked buildings are subject to 90-day hold on demolition permits that can allow the planning department to assess historic value.

“That cycle may have reached its bleeding edge with buildings like the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center, completed in 1985. Derided as garish and impractical, this postmodernist icon soon fell into disrepair; after surviving a preservation fight, it now awaits a refresh from its soon-to-be new owner Google.” (Mortice, Bloomberg CityLab, 10/19/22)

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