Will Fed tax credits go to preserve the Julia C. Lathrop Homes?

CHICAGO-The US Department of Housing and Urban Development will convene a meeting today for all stakeholders in the rehabilitation of the Julia C. Lathrop Homes public housing development. Participants will discuss whether the effort might eventually use federal tax credits meant to foster preservation of historic buildings.

Last year, the 32-acre site on the city’s Northwest Side was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the few public housing developments to win that distinction.

Attendees will include staff from HUD, the Chicago Housing Authority, historic preservationists, neighborhood activists and public housing residents. The meeting will kick-off what HUD calls a Section 106 process, which a spokesperson claimed will help provide the “full and open discussion of options” required anytime federal funds could be used for redeveloping historic properties such as Lathrop.

Many of these stakeholders were alarmed last November when Lathrop Community Partners, the consortium selected by the CHA to turn the 1930s-era development into a mixed-income community, unveiled at a neighborhood open house three possible plans for Lathrop. One called for its complete demolition and replacement, and another demolishing the southern half.

“At this point they’re not taking historic preservation seriously,” said Jonathan Fine, president of the nonprofit Preservation Chicago, who wonders if the developers have given up on using historic tax credits to finance the project. He points out that, unlike the hulking behemoths built by the CHA in the postwar era, the more humane Lathrop was designed by world-renowned landscape architects like Jens Jensen. “What they have to work with is so much better than anything they can build there. It is green, it is bucolic, and it is an asset to the city.”   

“Just because we showed three plans and one of the plans did not have historic buildings doesn’t mean we were discounting the use of historic tax credits,” countered Kerry Dickson, the senior vice president of Related Midwest, one of the lead partners for the consortium. After last fall’s open house, his group collected hundreds of evaluations filled out by community members, and historic preservation, including the use of tax credits, remained one of the most popular ideas. He promised that LCP will incorporate that thinking into a more detailed plan, which they will unveil this spring.

Still, many in the community remain wary. The developers had also proposed to replace the 925 current low-rise and walk-up units with 1,600, including many in giant new skyscrapers, even though the CHA had asked for a plan with fewer than 1,200. Both the homeowners in the surrounding neighborhood and Lathrop’s remaining public housing families recoiled and have not been shy about criticizing Related Midwest.

Fine sees the Section 106 process as a way to restore some balance to the planning effort. “It’s an opportunity for us to have a more in-depth discussion.”