IN SUPPORT: Pilsen’s architectural heritage can be protected without pushing out the working class. Needed: a landmark district that protects Pilsen’s architecture, but provides better financial incentives to working class property owners, Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, 5/26/20
“Given Chicago’s maddening tendency to exalt its architecture with one hand while wrecking it with the other, we like the city’s effort to create a landmark district in the historic Pilsen neighborhood. But Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who opposes the creation of such a district, is not wrong when he says the expense of maintaining a building in a landmark district could further drive out current property owners and hasten gentrification.
“We see a solution somewhere in the middle: create a landmark district that protects Pilsen’s distinctive architecture, but provide better financial incentives to working class property owners who have to repair the structures.
“Chicago’s largest landmark district: The proposed Pilsen landmark district would be the city’s largest, encompassing 800 structures along and near 18th Street between Damen and Racine avenues.
“The brick and limestone commercial and residential buildings largely were built by the Czechs and Bohemians who settled in Pilsen during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and brought with them Baroque Revival and other classical architectural styles of their homelands. The designation also would include important outdoor murals that were created in 1978 and after by the neighborhood’s Mexican American community.
“Of the city’s nearly 400 individual landmarks and districts, almost none are in predominantly Mexican or Latino areas. Here’s a chance to address that inequity.
“Including murals within a landmark designation is a first for Chicago, but it is critical, especially in Pilsen. A developer in 2017 callously painted over a historic mural outside the former Casa Aztlan community center at 1831 S. Racine. The vibrant work created during the 1970s Chicano Movement was repainted on the building, but only after community outcry and protests.
“Under the landmark designation, buildings listed as ‘contributing’ to the district would be protected from demolition. And for exterior portions visible from the street, the city would require that all repairs or improvements retain the building’s historic look.
“‘Demolition-free district’: Sigcho-Lopez says the added expense of maintaining a landmark will drive out Pilsen’s working class residents and bring in those people who are affluent enough to repair and restore the buildings. So, as an alternative, the alderman last week proposed a ‘demolition-free district’ with similar boundaries as landmark designation, and also including the former St. Adalbert’s Church, 1650 W. 17th St.
“Sigcho-Lopez’s proposed ordinance would require community meetings, hosted by the alderman, to discuss the merits of any building permit application for a demolition or major reconstruction project, including any plan to convert a multiple-unit building into a single-family home.
“But when it comes to protecting buildings from demolition and unsympathetic exterior alterations, Sigcho-Lopez’s proposal goes surprisingly toothless.
“After holding the required community meeting, the ordinance then would require him to submit a written opinion — presumably with a recommendation — about the building permit application to the Department of Planning and Development within 30 days. But there would be nothing binding. Sigcho-Lopez’s own ordinance would allow the planning department to accept or overrule his recommendation. Sigcho-Lopez says his proposed ordinance ‘is best suited to protect the social fabric of Pilsen, including its residents, homeowners and landlords.’ We struggle to see how.
“A better way: The city should move forward with the Pilsen landmark district. The neighborhood’s architecturally rich buildings and beautiful murals — many of them nationally known — deserve protection.
“In addition, of the city’s nearly 400 individual landmarks and landmark districts, almost none are in predominantly Mexican or Latino areas, or reflect those communities’ Hispanic history and presence. A Pilsen landmark district could address that inequity and give the neighborhood a boost when it comes to snagging a bigger share as of the city’s architectural and heritage tourism trade. Right now, Pilsen has just two landmark buildings: Thalia Hall at 18th Street and Allport Avenue, and the former Schoenhofen Brewery buildings at 18th and Canal streets.
“Existing incentives: There is already a range of incentives to ease the burden of landmark building ownership. The city waives building permit fees for landmarked structures. If an owner lives in a landmark and spends 25% of the property’s market value — as determined by the county assessor — on a rehab or restoration, the building’s property taxes are frozen for 12 years.
“If the Pilsen district also were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many owners would be eligible to apply for federal tax credit equal to 20% of the cost spent to rehab their building into an income producing property. The state has a similar 25% tax credit.
“But the city should find more ways to sweeten the pot. For instance, the city’s variety of home assistance grants, such as the roof and porch repair program, could be part of the landmark district proposal. And looking more toward the long term, the city and state could lobby for an increase of up to 30% in the landmark federal tax credit.
“Meanwhile, it is encouraging to see the Pilsen landmark proposed as part of larger city plans to maintain affordable housing in Pilsen and neighboring Little Village. The city’s departments of Planning and Housing must work harder to combat the problems of equity and displacement that are at the root of Sigcho-Lopez’s and the community’s concerns.
“Along the way, the city just might develop a more equitable way to bring the benefits and cachet of architecturally significant buildings to other working class neighborhoods.” (Chicago Sun-Times, 5/26/20)