WIN: Pilsen Preliminary Landmark District Moves Forward, But More Community Meetings Required

1730, 1732, and 1734 W. 18th Street in Pilsen Threatened with Demolition. Photo Credit: Google Maps

After many years of advocacy, outreach and preparation, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks approved Final Landmark Recommendation proposed Pilsen Chicago Landmark District in May 2019. This means that the Commission has now recommended this process to Chicago City Council and committees for review, meetings and hearings, including community public hearings and educational outreach. The timing had been accelerated from the typical one-year process between preliminary and final approval to a three-month process due to the open status of a demolition permit request by a developer for three contributing properties on 18th Street. With the new preliminary protected status, the demolition permits will not be issued, unless the Chicago City Council does not vote to make it a Landmark District within 90 days.

A series of community meetings are typically conducted prior to a Chicago Landmark designation to help inform community members about the details of the designation, to educate about the benefits, and to dispel some of the common myths. However, few of these meetings were held due to former Alderman Daniel Solis being absent from public view for many months after being prominently featured in the news and linked to a federal investigation. This left the Pilsen community without the support of their elected official to schedule and conduct community meetings.

Pilsen has a dense and varied collection of historic buildings built by Bohemian immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century and preserved and enriched by Mexican immigrants over the past 50 years. Preservation Chicago supports the proposed Chicago Landmark designation of the many buildings of Pilsen, extending for nearly a mile-and-a-half along 18th Street, between Leavitt on the west and Sangamon on the east, and the 13 blocks bounded between Ashland Avenue, 21st Street and Racine Avenue.

Newly elected 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he neither supports nor opposes the proposed Landmark District. He acknowledged the significant threat to the community fabric of Pilsen, voiced concern regarding the accelerated process, indicated the need for additional public meetings and insisted that the voice of the community needed to be better heard.

“We need ample community input and a comprehensive understanding of the benefits, consequences and options available to ensure that this is a net benefit for our residents, many of whom are losing their apartments and homes to the lure of big money from developers. It is critical that we hold more public meetings and make an informed and responsible decision on a proposal that would determine the trajectory of a neighborhood that’s been home to generations of immigrants, Mexican-Americans, artists and families.” (Sigcho-Lopez, 5/15/19)

Preservation Chicago agrees with Alderman Sigcho-Lopez on every point. Pilsen has been under intense and sustained pressure from speculative real estate developers. This development pressure threatens the historic building stock, drives up sale and rental prices, and accelerates community displacement.

As reported by Carlos Ballesteros in the Chicago Sun-Times in “Death of a Pilsen Gift Shop,” after nearly 20 years in business, the owners of Lili’s Gift Ship located on 18th Street were forced to close after rents skyrocketed and their lease was not renewed. Unable to find another storefront in Pilsen at a rent they could afford, owners Hermalinda and Edelio Raygoza had no choice left but to sell their remaining stock at weekend flea markets.

Lili’s Gift Ship was located in one of the three buildings threatened with demolition and its pending development permit has caused the accelerated landmarking process. Despite the building’s need for major repairs caused by years of neglected maintenance, the long-time owner sold it in 2013 to a suburban real estate agent for $390,000. It was then flipped in 2014 to a Chicago-based development company for $575,000. It was then flipped again in 2016 to a suburban development company for $950,000. The current owner/developer applied for a demolition permit with plans to build a $1.5 million new building. During public comments at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing, representatives of the developer suggested that the Landmark designation would prove a hardship as it would prevent the demolition of their building. The only way for them to make a profit on their speculation would be new construction, high-end tenants and high-end rents. (Ballesteros, 3/3/19)

When new construction is more profitable than the existing building, a property’s value is in the land. In this case, owners have a strong disincentive to invest anything more than the bare minimum to maintain their building as they reasonably assume that a new buyer will demolish the building regardless of its condition. By preventing demolition, a Chicago Landmark District prevents demolition and powerfully shifts the value of the property from the land to the existing historic building. Once the building becomes an important asset, building condition matters to a prospective buyer and reinvestment in building maintenance is incentivized.

When demolition of contributing buildings and new construction on those sites is prevented by historic Chicago Landmark District protections, buyers of income properties — such as retail storefronts and apartments — evaluate purchase price again off projected rents in the existing building versus projected rents from a newly constructed building. In general, older storefronts and older apartments rent at lower rates than new construction making these spaces more attainable and sustainable for locally owned mom and pop entrepreneurs and business owners. Had the real estate speculators based their purchase price on rent increases, profits made on subsequent sales would have been modest. The rapid increase in the real estate speculators’ purchase prices was based on the prospect of demolition and new construction.

The proposed Pilsen Landmark District encompasses a portion of the earliest boundaries of the City of Chicago, dating back to when the City was first incorporated in 1837. The community was initially settled in part by the builders and workers of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, the development of nearby railroads in the 1840s and 1850s and by the McCormick Reaper Company plant in the 1870s. Later, this was followed by other factories and industries and the construction of the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, opened in 1900, which reversed the flow of the Chicago River and diverted polluted water away from Lake Michigan. This area of Chicago’s Lower West Side has always been a port of entry into Chicago and its neighborhoods by waves of immigrants—very much like New York’s Lower East Side and Bowery District.

From the Irish and Germans to the Bohemians—Czech, Slovak and Eastern European communities, to the Latino and Mexican-Americans that have settled there over the past decades, Pilsen has an amazing richness in both its built environment and its ethnic fabric. Preservation Chicago absolutely supports and celebrates these layered histories and hopes this designation will further encourage long-term stakeholders and the diversity of this community’s fabric to remain. This Landmark District designation should also protect the incredible collection of large-scale murals and artwork located throughout the community.

Pilsen, also known as the Lower West Side and Community Area Number 31, has over 800 buildings identified as significant structures in the Chicago Historic Resource Survey (CHRS). This large number of significant buildings puts Pilsen among the top five largest community areas with the most significant historic structures identified in the entire city of Chicago. Only West Town, Lincoln Park, the Near West Side and the Near North Side have a greater concentration of these types of significant buildings. Many of those communities have multiple Chicago Landmark Districts, where Pilsen has none.

Pilsen also has some of the most intact historic streetwalls, and these are among some of the oldest in Chicago, with many structures dating to the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. These structures range in a wide variety of architectural styles from Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque, Renaissance Revival, Gothic Revival, Victorian, Workman’s Cottages and the Vernacular to name several styles represented here. Some of these buildings are defined by large corner bays, multiple groupings of dormers extending from their rooftops of the commercial buildings along 18th Street, and many exhibiting incredible craftsmanship, details and integrity. There’s also a unique selection of fine-quality buildings in Pilsen, which exhibit a certain scale and architectural quality, dating from the last decades of the 19th Century, which distinguish it from other communities and both residential and commercial districts across the City.

We’ve been honored to work with members of the community, elected officials and the City over the past four years towards this Chicago Landmark District. This outreach also includes efforts to save nearby historic St. Adalbert Church—called “the Mother Church of Chicago’s South Side Polish Community,” designed by architect Henry Schlacks.

We at Preservation Chicago wish to thank the Department of Planning & Development’s Historic Preservation Division, Commissioner David Reifman, Eleanor Gorski, Dijana Cuvalo and Matt Crawford, in addition to Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez for their efforts to bring forth a Pilsen Chicago Landmark District.

Recognizing the Illinois Bicentennial and celebrating 200 years of Statehood, we cannot think of a better honor than to recognize a unique and diverse community in Chicago with an amazing history like Pilsen and its contributions over time to our City, the State of Illinois and the Union, as a designated Chicago Landmark. We are grateful for the opportunity to fully support this proposed Landmark District and look forward to continued outreach and community discussions with the residents of Pilsen.

Additional Reading
Should Pilsen welcome a new historic district? Let’s ask the people of Pilsen, Byron Sigcho-Lopez, Chicago Sun Times Op-Ed May 15, 2019

Pilsen residents are in no rush for the city to establish a historic district;It would encompass 100-year-old buildings and the neighborhood’s murals, Ryan Smith, Curbed Chicago, April 26, 2019

Should Pilsen Become A Historic Landmark District? Some Say City Is Trying To ‘Shove This Down Our Throats; The process initially was set to extend late into the summer, but was expedited after someone tried to demolish three buildings in the proposed district., Mauricio Pena, Block Club Chicago, April 18, 2019

City of Chicago Pilsen and Little Village Preservation Strategy, Updated May 2, 2019


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