THREATENED: Cook County Land Bank Chooses Proposal to Demolish Washington Park National Bank Building (Chicago 7 2016)

After a lengthy public process that generated three proposals for the Washington Park National Bank Building, the Cook County Land Bank Authority chose to select the ONLY proposal that did not include reuse and renovation of the historic building. Despite learning about the meeting where the vote would be conducted the night prior, Preservation Chicago widely publicized the meeting and attended to present an impassioned defense of the historic building during the public testimony before the Cook County Land Bank Board of Directors.

Preservation Chicago calls on Cook County Land Bank Authority Executive Director Rob Rose and the Cook County Land Bank Authority Board of Directors to reconsider and reopen the decision regarding the redevelopment of this historic building. The Washington Park National Bank Building is an important neighborhood anchor on a commercial corridor that has seen the tragic loss of many important buildings. It is essential for the long-term reinvestment and prosperity of this commercial district that this historic building be preserved and redeveloped.

Located at 6300 S. Cottage Grove, the Washington Park National Bank was constructed in 1924 by architect Albert Schwartz. The building’s elegant Bedford Indiana limestone façade includes Corinthian pilasters, a projecting cornice and decorative parapet. The historic Washington Park National Bank name is chiseled into the limestone entablature. Unfortunately, the Washington Park National Bank Building has no Chicago Landmark protection against demolition, and it was overlooked by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS) and has no orange-rating to offer any demolition delay protection.

Prior to winning the run-off aldermanic election, Jeanette Taylor declared her opposition to tearing the building down and told the Chicago Crusader that she would not approve the demolition if she wins the 20 th Ward Aldermanic election runoff. “They need to be transparent. I’m going to bring the city and the community back to the table.” (Johnson, The Chicago Crusader, 3/29/19)

Mary Mitchel in her Sun-Times column wrote, “Woodlawn Works, one of the losing bidders, is raising questions about the fairness of the process. That group argues the winning bidder, Revive 6300, a joint venture between DL3 Realty, LP and Greenlining Realty USA (and the only group that proposed demolition), made several major changes to their proposal after the RFP response submission deadline. What I find most disheartening is the spokesperson for Woodlawn Works asked for anonymity, claiming he feared for his safety because of “powerful players” in Woodlawn.” (Mitchell, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/23/19)

Preservation Chicago supported the Cook County Land Bank Authority and Metropolitan Planning Council for coordinating and facilitating the workshops and RFP process to catalyze the redevelopment of this historic building. However, while the RFP recognized the benefit of historic preservation, the language did not prioritize historic preservation. The outcome of the selection process makes the RFP’s highly unusual conditional wording regarding historic preservation worth additional attention. Certainly, the strong public support for preserving and reusing the historic building was ignored. The questions regarding the integrity and impartiality of the process cast a shadow on the first substantial project of the Cook County Land Bank Authority and its Board of Directors.

“Benefits of Historic Preservation – The CCLBA also recognizes the sustainability benefits of adaptive reuse and historic preservation which in many cases provide the most comprehensive method of sustainable development – provided they also serve to achieve the economic development, community building and revenue generating objective of the CCLBA – without compromising or constraining the best redevelopment solutions.” (from The Cook County Land Bank Authority’s Request for Proposals (RFP) Master Developer for the Purchase and Redevelopment of the Washington Park National Bank Building 6300 S. Cottage Grove, Chicago Illinois, released September 2018 )

A Structural Assessment Report of the Washington Park National Bank was completed as part of the RFP process by Probe Consulting Services in August 2018. While the report acknowledged that the building is littered with construction debris from decades of neglect, it concludes that “that the existing framing system of the building is structurally sound, intact, and still in good condition and that the building is salvageable and can be repaired to restore its full structural integrity.”

Adaptive reuse is often more complicated than new construction. However, if revenue generation is a priority for the CCLBA, there are many economic incentives to make the preservation option economically the most attractive. Economic incentives might include federal historic tax credits, state historic tax credits, Class L tax designation and, eligibility for Adopt-a-Landmark funds none of which are available on a new construction project. Research has established that people seek out authentic spaces to gather and shop. Revitalizing this incredible bank is the right thing to do for the Woodlawn neighborhood and the City of Chicago.

The Cook County Land Bank Authority was created in 2013 by the Cook County Government to spur development by obtaining, refurbishing and selling off vacant, abandoned, or tax-delinquent properties across the city. It has been reported that the Cook County Land Bank Authority acquired the Washington Park National Bank at a tax sale auction. The Woodlawn community and the wider preservation and architecture community expected a much better outcome than the proposed demolition and replacement with a building nearly identical in size but “suburban office park in its appearance,” as stated by a community member.

It was most recently owned by the Metropolitan Apostolic Church, headed by the Rev. Leon Finney Jr. The church bought the property in 2001. By 2017, the building’s facade was crumbling, the basement kept flooding, and there was a tree growing out of the roof. The church also was $3.7 million behind on property taxes. (Ballesteros, Chicago Sun-Times, 4/1/19) Rev. Finney is also the property owner of Loretto Academy in Woodlawn, a Preservation Chicago 2019 Chicago 7 Most Endangered Building.
Demolition should not be an option considered for this historic building. The Woodlawn community is strong and resilient, but it has suffered through decades of disinvestment, bad policies, demolition and the vacant lots that follow. The community is burdened by too many empty lots already, and any new construction ideas should be directed to towards activating a vacant lot and not destroying a neglected yet important community landmark and anchor.

“There are only a few buildings left in Woodlawn that embody the power and vitality the neighborhood’s history stands for. Tearing down another one is an unnecessary injury to Woodlawn’s history and to its current residents,” wrote Michal Safar, president of the Hyde Park Historical Society, in a letter to Rose dated Friday, March 29. (Ballesteros, Chicago Sun-Times, 4/1/19)

The four-story neoclassical bank building was an anchor building in the once bustling 63rd Street commercial district. This district was a center of the South Side with many great entertainment venues, hotels and ballrooms. The area was a prominent hub for Jazz-era clubs and all forms of entertainment and shopping flourished into the 1960s. After the community suffered a period of extended decline and disinvestment, the Washington Park National Bank Building was mothballed, fell into disrepair and has been vacant for more than a decade.

Now is the time to adaptively reuse the Washington Park National Bank Building. Woodlawn and this once prominent commercial corridor are again experiencing reinvestment. The nearby Grand Ballroom at 6351 S. Cottage Grove Avenue by architects Lowenburg + Lowenburg from 1923 recently underwent a beautiful restoration.

Additionally, the long-vacant former Strand Hotel across the street was adaptively reused as a residential apartment building with street-level retail and art gallery. The Strand Hotel received a Landmark Illinois preservation award which praised it as “an inspiring example of how historical preservation can spark positive redevelopment and reuse.”

Additional Reading
Plans to demolish historic Woodlawn bank building irks some area residents, Carlos Ballesteros, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/31/19

Historic Washington Park National Bank building facing demolition in Woodlawn; The Cook County Land Bank Authority voted for redevelopment over adaptive reuse, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 3/15/19

Planned demolition of deteriorated South Side landmark sparks outcry, Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/23/19

A Woodlawn landmark set for demolition, Candidates and preservationists rally to save crumbling Washington Park National Bank building, Erick Johnson, The Chicago Crusader, 3/29/19

Cook County Land Bank To Demolish Structurally Sound 1924 Washington Park Bank Building Despite Promises, Community Input & Options To Save It, Woodlawn Works, The Beachwood Reporter, 3/20/19

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