“The proposed Pilsen Landmark District was branded as a way to keep the fabric of a historic neighborhood intact, but by the time it came up for a vote in the Chicago City Council, many believed it would only contribute to gentrification and push out longtime residents.
“Weeks after the vote failed, opponents and proponents of the measure are now searching for solutions as the neighborhood’s historic buildings remain very much at risk to opportunistic developers and the wrecking ball.
“How did a proposal seeking to protect the neighborhood’s residents and its architecture go wrong? How did historic preservation get so strongly linked to gentrification when the ordinance’s proponents said that wasn’t the goal?
“The proposed Pilsen Landmark District would’ve given landmark status to more than 900 buildings primarily on 18th Street between Leavitt and Sangamon streets. It would’ve protected buildings constructed from 1875 to 1910 in a variety of architectural styles, including Queen Anne, Victorian, Second Empire, Italianate, Gothic Revival and Worker Cottages.
“Those buildings were constructed as homes and businesses for the immigrants who have long made Pilsen home. The neighborhood was settled early by Irish and German families in the 1840s who were later replaced by Czech and Slovak immigrants by 1880. For the past half-century, the neighborhood has been Latino-majority.
“Preservation Chicago, a group that has sought to save historic buildings in a city well-known for its architecture, argued that creating the city’s largest landmark district in Pilsen would’ve protected the neighborhood’s impressive buildings while slowing gentrification since old buildings couldn’t simply be torn down and replaced with high-priced, cookie-cutter condos.
“‘I don’t think we have any real data on the impact of landmark districts as far as gentrification goes, but we do know it stabilizes communities,’ said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. ‘I’m not sure you can stop gentrification. But you can slow it down, which landmarking can do.”
“Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said his organization got involved with the idea of a Pilsen landmark process in 2006 when the neighborhood was included on a warning list compiled by his group called ‘Chicago’s Most Endangered Areas.’ He said the goal was encouraging a holistic approach toward preserving the spirit, look, feel and culture of the neighborhood.
“That plan ended up on the back burner until 2018 when the city resurrected the idea and wanted to make 18th Street a landmark district.
“While Preservation Chicago was an advocate for the plan, Ward admits a disconnect grew between some community members and the city. He wished there had been a ‘more robust conversation,’ as business owners and residents became distrustful mostly after ‘the last administration’ did little to engage the community. He said that’s unfortunate because everyone agrees the buildings should be saved but not in a way that harms residents.
“‘Ironically, we are all on the same page, and we must bring people in to explain why landmarking is safe,’ Ward said.
“Ward said the city could have done more to reduce some of the cost burdens by giving property owners in the district a $1,500 tax rebate or by waiving certain fees, but that message was drowned out by mistrust of former leaders.
“The buildings along 18th Street were protected from demolition while the proposal worked its way through City Hall. But now, the council’s failure to pass the designation or the six-month demolition moratorium means developers have no restrictions.
“‘It may very well be open season on demolitions, and there isn’t protection anymore,’ Miller said. ‘We have to trust developers that come into Pilsen are respectful of the community, but I’m not sure we can.’