Ellen Hao

They don’t want to give agendas to the community. They don’t want to give us anything,” reflected Anderson Chávez, a youth organizer with the Pilsen Alliance. The “they” Chávez was referring to is the Pilsen Land Use Committee (PLUC), an advisory committee set up by Alderman Daniel Solis (25th) to advise him on large-scale developments seeking a home in Pilsen. PLUC is intended to represent the community voice in decision making and uphold an only-in-Pilsen mandate of twenty-one percent affordable housing in all new developments over eight units. The committee is comprised of executives from four local nonprofits: The Resurrection Project, Alivio Medical Center, Eighteenth Street Development Corporation, and the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council.

Opponents see PLUC as an extension of Alderman Solis and largely a justification for the choices he makes in the community. Over the past year, tensions between the community, Solis, and PLUC have been on the rise as Pilsen has become increasingly unaffordable and gentrified. According to Lauren Nolan, economic development planner at University of Illinois at Chicago, since 2000, after adjusting for inflation, rents in Pilsen have increased by twenty percent. The community at large has lost over three million dollars in affordable housing—a loss many attribute to PLUC allowing developers to bypass the twenty-one percent affordable housing mandate in Pilsen by paying fines or providing other non-housing related benefits to the community.

For the past year, the Pilsen Alliance, a grassroots anti-gentrification group, has been organizing community members to demand transparency from PLUC and answers to their questions regarding how and why they have allowed developers to skate by without providing affordability to the community. They have largely been ignored or blocked by the members of PLUC. Last month, the Pilsen Alliance’s Youth Committee held a meeting at the Rudy Lozano Public Library to discuss PLUC, what should be done to gain access to what they are doing, and what bylaws they follow. All members of PLUC—and Solis—were invited. None of them showed.

“We invited every single person who is a part of PLUC, and none of them are here,” said Karla Velasco, a youth organizer with the Pilsen Alliance, during the meeting. “We also invited Alderman Solis…he’s not here also…We want to have a discussion with you, we want to talk about what you are doing. We want to know what goes on in these meetings that you don’t want everyone to know about. So why are you not here? Do you not care about the community?”

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Courtesy of the Pilsen Alliance
Courtesy of the Pilsen Alliance

The feud between PLUC, the Pilsen Alliance, and the community at large is not a new one—rather, it is an extension of a decades-long debate around transparency and accountability when it comes to development and gentrification in Pilsen. PLUC is in fact the third iteration of a fight started nearly two decades ago by the Pilsen Alliance and its allies over open community meetings around zoning, development, and what a “successful” community looks like.

In the early 2000s, Pilsen was ripe for development at the height of the real estate boom. Single family homes were being demolished in favor of upscale condominiums, warehouses were becoming lofts, and long-term residents were being pushed out due to rent and tax increases. Solis, a political insider who in 1996 was appointed alderman by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley even though he didn’t live in the ward, was at the forefront of this trend. He pushed for construction of large-scale development projects such as a 130 one- and two-bedroom condominium building, and designating much of the neighborhood as a tax increment financing district (TIF) for large projects involving industrial buildings. His intentions, according to many activists and housing organizers, were very clearly to transform Pilsen from the perceived “blighted” community some saw it as to a bustling neighborhood akin to glitzy Wicker Park.

In March 2004, after years of conflict with Solis over his decision-making, a coalition of over twenty neighborhood groups and hundreds of Pilsen residents passed a sweeping yet non-binding referendum, requiring public input before any large developments or changes could be approved for construction. The referendum, called “Pilsen Is Not For Sale,” passed with over ninety-five percent of the community voting in favor, demonstrating the escalating tensions between the community and Solis.

When asked about the substantial win for the community, and his take on the referendum, Solis told the Tribune, “The referendum is almost like, ‘should mothers take care of their children?’ The answer to that is yes.” A response like this assumes two things from Solis: that he had already been functioning in a transparent way with the community, and that going forward he would be in compliance with the new policy. Both of these assumptions, according to residents and activists, have proven false. Solis, for his part, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Resulting from the successful referendum, community members and local nonprofits established a nineteen-member Pilsen Community Zoning Board (PCZB) to field development proposals. The board was comprised of members from the Pilsen Alliance; Alivio Medical Center, a free neighborhood clinic; The Resurrection Project (TRP), a developer of affordable housing; the longstanding Pilsen Neighbors Community Council (PNCC); the Eighteenth Street Development Corporation (ESDC); social services nonprofit Mujeres Latinas en Acción; community art studio Pros Arts (now known as EleVarte); environmental justice nonprofit the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO); and a handful of individual community members.

“We originally wanted this to be a board that would actually be somewhat binding, that we would review these proposals and that we would actually be able to veto them if we needed to,” said longtime PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero, who worked on the referendum campaign and served as a member of the original short-lived board. “That was of course a non-starter [with Solis], and so what we ended up with was this advisory board, but at least it was a step forward—we thought at least, if we made it clear to the alderman that there was going to be a big community fight behind one of these proposals, that would be something worthwhile, and at least we’d have the information about what was happening so that we could organize around it.”

However, the Zoning Board started unraveling almost immediately. The first case the group was presented with was a conflict happening over what was to be known as the “Chantico Lofts,” one of the largest condominium proposals at the time in Pilsen. Those in opposition feared that, if approved, Chantico Lofts would “open the floodgates to more high-priced housing,” the Tribune reported at the time. According to a 2010 article written by DePaul University geography professors Euan Hague and Carrie Breitbach—who were involved in the “Pilsen is Not for Sale” campaign—the PCZB was divided, with real estate groups such as ESDC and TRP speaking in favor of the development, and more grassroots groups such as the Pilsen Alliance and PERRO condemning the projects as a force of gentrification and displacement in the community.

The disagreement between the activist groups and the developer came to a head at a public meeting held to discuss the proposal. At this meeting, PCZB members in opposition to the development publicly called out the developer for failing to consider affordability and greenspace in its plan, two issues that had been discussed at length in prior meetings and demands.

“We had all these tough questions for him,” said Victoria Romero, a former board member of the Pilsen Alliance and a member of the Community Zoning Board. “When we started opposing the development, the alderman stated publicly at the meeting that he would no longer support us…he said we had made a mockery of the developer.”

Shortly after, Solis approved Chantico Lofts without community support and officially disbanded the PCZB. In place of the group, Solis created the Pilsen Planning Committee (PPC), which consisted of all members from PCZB who were in favor of Chantico Lofts—PNCC, ESDC, TRP, and the Alivio Medical Center. Ousted members “received letters stating the new group was to be more ‘objective’ and ‘professional’ than its predecessor,” according to Hague and Breitbach, leaving no opportunity for former members to join PPC and further contribute to the conversation around development. “The alderman went in and kind of just changed it over to people that were friendly to him,” Mead-Lucero said. “As far as I’m concerned, that was basically the end of the effort. From that point on, it was just a rubber stamp for the alderman, and it wasn’t really going to make much of a difference.”

Maria Balderas, a longtime Pilsen resident and unaffiliated “concerned community member” who was part of the referendum campaign and a member of the PCZB, said that, after the PCZB advocated for what Solis thought was excessive oversight, “those of us who advocated for this body and for this advisory board, we were literally kicked out.”

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Following the disbanding of PCZB, a series of high-profile public disagreements between community leaders, Solis, and the PPC regarding large developments in the community played out in Pilsen. The most significant battle was fought over a proposed 387-condominium building sitting at the corner of 18th and Peoria—a lot many will recognize still stands vacant today—then called Centro18. Much like the Chantico Lofts, Centro18 was thought to be a catalyst for gentrification in the community, as even the units deemed ”affordable” were well outside the price range or size most Pilsen residents could afford or needed, and the “greenspace” was better suited to singles looking to jog rather than for families to play on. Worse still, Solis’s office and the city had extended the boundaries of the TIF district to include the lot so as to capture the property taxes from the development, the Reader reported in 2005.

After a series of protests led by the Pilsen Alliance and other community members calling for more consideration into how this development would affecting the existing community, “the Alderman’s office, and…the organizations that had founded the PPC following the PCZB split spoke out in favor of the proposals,” DePaul geographers Hague and Breitbach wrote, all but flat-out ignoring the pleas of the community to reconsider the consequences the development may have on the longevity of the existing community. The development was approved, but it was soon revealed that the developer of Centro18 had made about $19,000 in donations to Solis’s ward organization between 2006 and 2007.

After the approval of Centro18, and the demolition of a massive wholesale fruit distribution factory and several single-family homes on the site, the economy tanked. The project was never realized—leaving the two-block vacant lot still visible today.

What is meaningful about the Centro18 as it pertains to PPC is that it was the first large-scale development project proposed after the disbanding of PCZB, and PPC’s first opportunity to weigh in as the “community voice” and prove their autonomy from Solis. Acknowledging that Solis likely approved this development largely because of the campaign contributions—or potential for them—and that PPC did seemingly nothing to persuade him otherwise, activists believe the decision was made entirely by Solis, with PPC serving as a mere show of approval rather than a legitimate advisor. According to former PCZB members, PPC made no public statements during this time regarding why they decided in favor of Centro18—just that they were in agreement with Solis.

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In 2006, the PPC elevated their role in the decision making process by designating its members as the governing body for a new affordable housing policy in Pilsen. Two new guidelines were established for housing development in Pilsen in the 2006 Quality of Life Plan, a joint effort by the PPC and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Going forward, all new developments of a certain size were required to have twenty-one percent of units set aside for families earning sixty to eighty-five percent of the Chicago-area median income, and a new group known as the Pilsen Land Use Committee (PLUC) was to oversee it.

The document says that “some of the members of the Pilsen Planning Committee have formed the Pilsen Land Use Committee, which is working with Solis to incorporate affordable housing into new developments.” However, the PPC and PLUC have identical membership.

Much like its predecessor, PLUC has been consistently secretive about how closely it aligns with Solis, what projects it consults on, and how it determines its final decisions. Based on projects approved and completed since its creation, it would appear there is a great deal of discussion happening behind the scenes. After several requests for an interview, a spokesperson for PLUC and the Resurrection Project told the Weekly that PLUC members had “informed [him] they are working on compiling a report of their findings and what they have been working on for the last year set to be released the first week in January. Until then, they are unable to give any interviews to the public or the media.” PLUC has not published any reports in 2018—or ever.

In 2016, PLUC made what is likely its most controversial decision to date: the approval of the development of a new ninety-nine-unit condominium building at 1414 W. 21st St. While the size of this building certainly falls within the mandate for twenty-one percent affordable housing, PLUC agreed to the standard citywide ten percent requirement for this project. Their rationale for agreeing to halve the neighborhood’s affordable housing requirement was that the developer provided a “substantial and comparable community benefit…[to] the neighborhood,” in the form of a one-acre addition to the field at Benito Juarez High School.

However, according to emails requested by the Pilsen Alliance from the city and later obtained by the Weekly, at the time their approval of PLUC members seemed to be unaware of what the pricing would be for the units in the building. They asked the developer to let them know what rents it would set—a full five months after the zoning change for the property had been approved by City Council. It is unlikely PLUC would have been able to conduct a substantial analysis to determine what could be an “equivalent” community benefit, if the pricing and how that would impact the community had yet to be released. This small insight into PLUC’s decision-making process highlights their lack of commitment to the decree put in place by members themselves and the uncertainty behind their motivations.

The secrecy behind PLUC approving this project leaves many in the community feeling uneasy as to what new development will come to their community and how this will impact their lives. Following the critiques of their decision, PLUC released a statement in January 2017 saying they would “soon be opening up the process to more residents and organizations in order to have a completely transparent and inclusive process that will allow us to have a successful project after years of proposals that did not satisfy the community’s needs.” No “opening” of “the process” has occurred since, even though PLUC chairman Raul Raymundo asserted the necessity of transparency in a 2016 blog post defending the PLUC.

“The misinformation by groups pretending to represent community interest when it’s politically expedient and incomplete reporting by news outlets can leave the public with a distorted view and misunderstanding about the true nature of PLUC’s work to preserve balanced development in the community,” he wrote. “What’s more dangerous than gentrification is the dissemination of incomplete or even inaccurate information that benefits particular agendas but not the community as a whole. It’s the responsibility of everyone in the community to engage in the conversation with nothing less than all the facts and leave the formation of opinions and conclusions to its informed citizenry.”

The 18th and Peoria vacant lot has remained a flashpoint for gentrification in the neighborhood since Centro18 fell through, and it exemplifies  PLUC’s lack of transparency. After Centro18 fell through, the land was bought in 2013 by the Midwest Jesuits, an order that runs Loyola University Chicago. The order originally planned to build housing for clergy on the site; by 2015, however, it had agreed to lease the land to a luxury developer, Property Markets Group (PMG), which intended to build a 500-unit development that was swiftly shot down by Solis and PLUC members.

After PMG came back with a second, slightly smaller proposal, called “ParkWorks,” which did not have all of its required affordable housing on-site, Solis—the head of City Council’s Zoning Committee with wide power over approving zoning changes—shifted the zoning of the site back to manufacturing to prevent anything residential from being built. PLUC members were vocal about their opposition to the project, giving PMG’s lead developer on the site, Noah Gottlieb, a timely nickname: “Trump Jr.”

Undeterred, PMG bought the land from the Midwest Jesuits in 2016 and began holding community meetings to build support, which were protested by the Pilsen Alliance. Last October, members of the Pilsen Alliance crashed a meeting of PLUC at the Alivio Medical Center and found Gottlieb discussing the development with PLUC before being kicked out by security. The Pilsen Alliance viewed this as a betrayal, writing on its website a week later that it was “one of the most shameful and authoritarian acts this appointed committee has made in its thirteen years of existence.”

Based on the available evidence, many activists and Pilsen residents believe—based on how the group was formed and its members’ close alliances with Solis—that much of its decision-making is a direct result of the wishes of Solis himself. “They are beholden to the alderman that has proved time and time again he is uninterested in working with the community,” Victoria Romero said. “All members of that group need aldermanic approval for their most important programs. The Resurrection Project needs Solis to approve any zoning changes for upcoming developments, Pilsen Neighbors needs permits for their largest festival of the year, Fiesta Del Sol. Without Solis’s grace, they are paralyzed.”

Mead-Lucero, the former PERRO organizer who now lives in Southern California, made similar points. “I don’t mean to coldly badmouth them, they do some really great work—TRP does tremendous work on providing affordable housing in the community, and so on—but they’re organizations that are tied to the alderman, ultimately, for funding streams and those kind of things, and they will only go so far to challenge the alderman,” he said.

Pilsen residents have proven their commitment time and time again to forcing the hand of Solis and whatever group he uses at the time as a facade for community opinion, though they have consistently come up against a wall. What will it take for Solis to back down and open the process for community involvement? In an interview with the Weekly, Dick Simpson, a political science professor at UIC and former progressive alderman of the 44th Ward—where he pioneered community-led zoning processes—summarized the struggle: “If decisions get made without community input or major disapproval, you are going to have continual conflict in the community. If the decision process is open and transparent and they feel they have been heard, they are normally satisfied. An open and participatory process in any major decisions affecting the community is critical to trust in a community.”

Mead-Lucero lamented the way that the original zoning group had allowed itself to be split. “I do like [PLUC chairman and TRP executive director] Raul Raymundo, I was very close with and love [Alivio Medical Center founder] Carmen Velásquez,” he said. “I respect all those organizations in many ways, but I’m always very honest about my appraisal, and I do feel that they let the alderman basically co-opt that zoning board, [and] it became pretty much useless after that. It’s a shame. If we had remained united around it, we could have made more of a difference.”

Sam Stecklow contributed reporting

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