The Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) will soon begin a community-led redevelopment process of the Washington Park National Bank Building, executive director Rob Rose announced at a Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce meeting this past Friday evening.
Rose’s organization acquired the building, which sits on 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, in the first week of December. The nonprofit group Preservation Chicago had put the building on its annual list of the city’s most endangered buildings at the end of 2016. In an accompanying blurb, the group wrote: “This once prominent intersection has experienced great decline and this amazing banking structure has fallen into disrepair,” adding that they hoped its inclusion on their list would “encourage a reuse of the building and a restoration of its façade.”
Now, the empty building has moved a small step closer toward a resurrection, though it remains to be seen how faithful that will be to preservationists’ wishes.
“As we went through this process, I did not want to sit down with a small group of developers, and come up with a plan,” said Rose on Friday. “What we want to do is initiate a community-led process. For me, this just makes sense. Woodlawn has a certain history, and this corner is a very important corner. We’ve got to get this right, and it takes all of us to make that happen.”
The CCLBA—which was created in 2013 as part of the Cook County Government—obtains, refurbishes, and sells off vacant, abandoned, or tax-delinquent properties across the city.
The redevelopment process will consist of three separate meetings in early 2018, each of them open to the entire Woodlawn community. The input from those meetings will then structure the subsequent Request for Proposals (RFP) from developers, said Rose. Basically, this means that any developer who submits a plan for the bank building in response to the RFP will, in all likelihood, have to abide by planning guidelines agreed upon by Woodlawn residents. The RFP itself will be released by the city in April and awarded at some point during the summer, according to Rose.
The planning process that the CCLBA is using originates from the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC)’s Corridor Development Initiative (CDI). The MPC, which will operate as a partner on the project, describes the CDI on its website as a process that “helps residents understand issues such as density, affordable housing and the true cost of development, while creating a set of priorities to guide community leaders as they plan for future development in their neighborhoods.” It’s not the first time the agency has facilitated a CDI in the area: starting in 2008, the agency used the process during the early stages of planning the Harper Court development in Hyde Park.
“In Woodlawn, we want to look at what’s been done, what’s been said. We recognize that there’s a lot of work that’s been done here,” said Kendra Freeman, a manager at the MPC.
Before it was taken over by the CCLBA, the Washington Park Bank Building was owned by the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church and the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, according to public records. Rose said that the CCLBA acquired the property in a tax sale, an auction in which bidders can buy stakes in properties that have fallen behind on their taxes. According to records from the Cook County Clerk’s Office, the property has accumulated more than $500,000 in unpaid taxes since 1996.
The Community Development Corporation and the church (until recently known as the Christ Apostolic Church) are both affiliated with Reverend Leon Finney, who is the pastor of the church and the Community Development Corporation’s chairman. Finney is perhaps best-known as one of the original leaders of The Woodlawn Organization, the activist group created in the mid-twentieth century with the help of Saul Alinsky. In 1964, TWO crafted an agreement with the University of Chicago that it would not build south of 61st Street. (Last year, the University announced that, in the wake of discussions with Woodlawn community organizations it did not name, the agreement was no longer in place.)
In recent years, however, Finney has come under scrutiny for his practices as a landlord. In 2010, a group of Finney’s tenants protested living conditions at his buildings at City Hall. In 2011, he was briefly added to the city’s list of scofflaw landlords (landlords barred from doing business with the city because of code violations on their properties).
But while Finney, or an organization he’s affiliated with, has owned the bank building for decades, the structure’s history stretches further back, to the beginning of the twentieth century. As the Weekly reported last year, it was erected in 1924 as part of a localized building boom that saw five other structures around 63rd and Cottage Grove go up around the same time. The architect behind it, Albert A. Schwartz, appears to have had an affinity for South Side bank buildings—he also designed the South Side Trust and Savings Bank in Bronzeville. Though the Washington Park National Bank was never particularly stable, the building itself, with a fondly remembered Walgreens on the ground floor, recalls Woodlawn’s more prosperous past.
But the building has not been declared a federal, state, or municipal landmark; it’s not listed on the National Register of Historic Places or the Chicago Landmarks list. That means that it’s not subject to certain protective regulations governing its redevelopment, and that a demolition, or an otherwise radical restructuring of the building, remains an option. Rose also noted that the city has begun a feasibility study of the building in order to determine exactly what limitations there will have to be on any new development, and that results from that study will be shared at the first community meeting.
In the meantime, one model that the community may look to is the site of the former Strand Hotel, across the street and a few steps south. Long vacant, it opened in late 2015 as a forty-four–unit apartment building, with a strip of retail and an art gallery at street level. The renovation won an award from preservation nonprofit Landmarks Illinois, which praised it as “an inspiring example of how historical preservation can spark positive redevelopment and reuse.”
Rose announced at the meeting that the CCLBA also owns a significant number of other properties in West Woodlawn, each of which it intends to sell off gradually to individual developers. Online records show that in the part of West Woodlawn bounded by 63rd and 67th Street, and King Drive and Cottage Grove, the organization owns seventy-nine parcels, all but one of them currently vacant land. Although this sale process will presumably take place less publicly, the cumulative fate of these parcels, and the organization’s other properties in the neighborhood, will end up having an far greater impact on Woodlawn’s future than the redevelopment of any single building, however prominent.
Still, Rose argues that the redevelopment of the bank building is significant, an important example of leaving decision-making in the hands of a community that, historically, has had change imposed on it from outside. “The single greatest change we can make is in how we build up assets,” Rose told the Weekly. “We always ask permission, except for in Black communities. But this is how it should be done.”
The Metropolitan Planning Council plans to release more information, including meeting times and locations, in the following weeks. Visit metroplanning.org/woodlawn for more information.