“There’s no doubt Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood has the stuff to become an official city landmark district. Yet a plan to do just that is widely despised in the community, viewed by the local alderman, activists and many residents as a way to accelerate displacement and gentrification.
“How should the committee treat the plan, which already has the blessing of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks? Compromise.
“By cutting the size of the proposed district roughly in half and limiting protected structures to Pilsen’s commercial strips, the committee can safeguard an area of undisputed architectural and cultural distinction without imposing a financial burden on residential property owners. A significant share of those owners, it should be noted, are absentee landlords.
“Though it contains significant individual structures, like the shuttered St. Adalbert Catholic Church, Pilsen is primarily distinguished by its urban fabric — continuous rows of “Bohemian Baroque” buildings, impressive Classical Revival structures and colorful murals.
“The risks are cultural as well as aesthetic. Since 2000, Pilsen’s Latino population has dropped by about 14,000, city officials say.
“Floated by the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel as part of a multi-pronged plan to preserve Pilsen and nearby Little Village, the proposed district would cover roughly 900 buildings along the 18th Street commercial strip and in a mostly residential extension to the south.
“Yet it has gone over like a lead balloon, putting Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s chief planner, Maurice Cox, on the defensive. Among other things, city officials have been forced to counter claims that the district would saddle property owners with exorbitant rehab costs.
“But the remedy proposed by the local alderman, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, promises to be a paper tiger. He’s calling for a ‘demolition-free district’ that would follow the same borders as the proposed landmark district. Under the plan, the city would be prohibited from issuing demolition permits or approvals for major projects until the alderman had a public meeting about each request.
“Here’s a better idea: The committee should reduce the proposed district to about 465 buildings, mostly commercial structures on 18th Street and Blue Island Avenue. This alternative, suggested by planning department officials during three October community meetings, would preserve Pilsen’s architectural heart and would avoid hitting homeowners.
“It also would address the fact that a sizable share of property owners on 18th — nearly 45%, according to a 2020 survey by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute — live outside Pilsen. Absentee owners often treat their properties as investments, not cultural resources, opening the way for demolition.
“Unlike the alderman’s proposed “demolition-free district,” a landmark district offers a proven legal tool to prevent both locals and outsiders from selling to developers who would swing the wrecking ball.
“The city also is proposing financial incentives like a three-year, $3 million Adopt-a-Landmark pilot program to assist commercial property owners who have been in the Pilsen district for at least 10 years.
“In this debate, the two sides appear so polarized that it’s hard to know if any compromise is possible. Yet without one, a treasured Chicago neighborhood will be vulnerable to a more gentrification and demolition. That would be a tragedy for Pilsen’s people and buildings, and all of Chicago.” (Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 12/1/20)