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Rogers Park Could Be The Next Frontier For New Development, But Residents Want Their Say

North Side neighborhoods along the lake, such as Uptown, Lincoln Park and Edgewater, have largely gentrified, and neighborhoods once home to thousands of immigrants from Caribbean islands, Africa, the Middle East and Appalachia now teem with affluent families inhabiting everything from renovated architectural gems to sleek new apartment and condo buildings.

Developers are now casting glances at Rogers Park, the most northern of Chicago’s lakefront neighborhoods, and many in the community are leery of change. In many ways, Rogers Park is a throwback. The development boom largely missed it, and languages from around the world are still heard on its streets and in many shops.

Morse Avenue and the CTA Red Line

“It’s very, very diverse. It really contains everybody,” according to Ibrahim Shihadeh, president and owner of local development firm Creative Designs. “It always has, and it’s still true today.”

More than one-third of the neighborhood's roughly 54,000 residents spoke a language other than English at home in 2018, according to a study of the American Community Survey by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. In addition, 20.6% were Hispanic or Latino, 26.3% were Black, 5.4% were Asian and 43.9% were White.

Whether Rogers Park maintains that diversity for following generations is an open question. Shihadeh wants to launch a new multifamily project in Rogers Park, one of several large-scale apartment buildings now planned that could change the area’s character.

But Rogers Park, like the rest of Chicago, experienced a political earthquake in 2019, when progressive 49th Ward Alderman Maria Hadden swept into office along with many other progressive Chicago City Council allies and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

This new leadership wants developers to put more emphasis on affordable housing and give residents more of a voice in development decisions, an increasing focus around the country. Hadden’s push has already led one developer to scale back an ambitious multifamily proposal for the neighborhood, and other builders worry her approach could squelch potential development even after the economy overcomes the coronavirus pandemic challenge.

But Hadden’s office said developers in the past had too much power as they transformed the neighborhoods to the south. A different approach is needed, one that may push Rogers Park developers to surpass the city’s requirement that they reserve 10% of the units in many new buildings for affordable housing. It’s a tough ask for some builders, who say following existing requirements already forces them to back out of deals. 

“This is one of the most affordable places to live near the lake, and that’s what we want to preserve,” 49th Ward Director of Economic & Community Development Torrence Gardner said. “The fact of the matter is some property owners have been raising their rents, and we’re definitely facing more displacement pressure.”

Over time, the neighborhood has shifted to be higher-earning and less ethnically diverse. Though Rogers Park still contains a mostly minority population, the 43.9% of White residents today is an increase from 31.8% in 2000. It gained 883 households between 2010 and 2018, according to the ACS. Of those families, 650 earned more than $100K. The neighborhood lost 122 households that earned less than $25K. Rogers Park's median income was $40,591 in 2018, according to the ACS. 

“It’s not to the point where everyone is screaming about gentrification, but it’s important to watch these things,” said Kendra Freeman, director of community development and engagement for the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based nonprofit that promotes cooperative planning and development.

Ibrahim Shihadeh

A Rise In Development

Rogers Park may have been out of the limelight as building booms transformed other lakefront neighborhoods, but developers are now taking notice.

“The neighborhood really has changed a lot in, let’s say, the last decade,” Cornerstone Investment Group President Jay Johnson said.

One of the biggest factors was Loyola University’s decision to launch, just before the Great Recession, a massive expansion of its campus on the southern edge of Rogers Park. The school spent hundreds of millions on new research facilities, residence halls, classrooms and offices, attracting thousands of additional students, many of whom began filling up the many courtyard buildings in the neighborhood, according to Johnson, who began rehabbing housing in the area nearly 30 years ago.

More entertainment options began popping up all over Rogers Park, he added, including new bars and coffee shops. Sol Café near Howard Street and Ashland Avenue, R Public House, an upscale bar at 1508 West Jarvis St. on Jarvis Square, and Taste Food & Wine next door are just a few of the relatively new establishments.

“These types of destinations were not there 10 years ago,” Johnson said. 

Gardner said Hadden supports this type of development. She just wants to ensure the influx of new residents doesn’t alter the neighborhood’s character, which, after all, is what helps attract so many people in the first place.

“There are ways that new development can benefit a neighborhood,” he said. “But we need to do it in a smart way. Our goal is to balance everyone’s interests as best as possible.”

Shihadeh isn’t worried. He said he’s confident his proposed seven-story, 78-unit project at 1233 West Pratt Blvd., which would replace a parking lot, will eventually win community support.

The local developer bought his first Chicago building, a small Uptown flat, in 1975. He moved to the U.S. from a small Palestinian village in 1969 and earned an engineering degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Like many immigrants then new to Chicago, he settled in Uptown near Lake Michigan. He discovered a talent for rehabbing older buildings, and that blossomed into a career now stretching more than four decades.

He wants to help preserve Rogers Park, he said.  

“We’re not going to be jacking up the rents and scaring people. We will be attracting people to the neighborhood.”

Juneway Beach in Rogers Park

Gardner said Hadden could not hold a traditional community meeting on Shihadeh’s proposal due to COVID-19, but she did start the community engagement process with a virtual Zoom meeting on Dec. 9. More than 100 neighborhood residents attended, and Hadden’s office is now collecting survey results from other residents. It plans to soon meet with Shihadeh to go over the results and suggest possible tweaks to the plan.

Shihadeh bought the lot on Pratt, the former site of a synagogue, in 2018 and took out a $2.6M mortgage, according to Cook County property records. He said he doesn’t mind taking a financial hit if it means he can secure approval from the community and complete the project. He wants to include nine affordable units in the Pratt building, which should be a big plus for Hadden, as it is more than the 10% allotment required by the city.

“We’re barely going to break even with the Pratt building, and we may even lose a little bit, but we don’t mind because we are building for the future,” he said. “We have made a commitment in my family that we will never sell. We’re not building this just to flip it.”

The Affordable Housing Dilemma

An earlier attempt at community engagement between developer Sam Goldman, founder of Arbor Investment Management, and Hadden did not go well.

Goldman’s family bought the closed Heartland Café at 7000 North Glenwood Ave. in early 2019 for $1.3M, according to Cook County records. The historic restaurant, which for decades provided space for community meetings as well as political activist groups and events, sat on a 12K SF lot in East Rogers Park, right up against the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line.

It is the perfect place for a transit-oriented development, Goldman said. The neighborhood still has a relatively low density, lots of green space, picturesque beaches nearby and the Red Line offers quick commutes downtown.

“You have all the ingredients for a thriving, robust neighborhood,” he said.

7000 North Glenwood Ave., home of the now-demolished Heartland Cafe in Rogers Park

But the area has also seen decades of stagnation, with little new development, Goldman added. That’s partly because many developers spent those years building up projects along other CTA lines in lakefront neighborhoods closer to downtown, including Edgewater, Uptown and Lakeview. But now it’s Rogers Park’s turn.

“There is such a scarcity of available land with a short walk to transportation that it portends a bright future for Rogers Park along the Red Line, and COVID won’t change that,” he said. “You also have an ethnic, racial and economic diversity that is unmatched in our city. Rogers Park embodies Chicago’s cultural heritage at its best.”  

Goldman proposed a 60-unit multifamily building on the Heartland site, which would have included community meeting space and a rooftop garden. Because a building of that size needed a zoning change, it fell under the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance and would have to set aside 10% of its units as affordable housing. He was ready to create the six units and said a project on that scale would bring local businesses a flood of new customers.

“At the end of the day, that was not a priority of the current alderwoman,” Goldman said.

Gardner said Hadden pushed Goldman to include more affordable housing in the Glenwood project, saying it was the right thing to do.

“We wanted to see more affordable units in that community because it was such a historic site and played such an important role in so many lives,” Gardner said.

But Goldman balked.

“It was already a thin project with six affordable units,” he said.

Early last year, Goldman responded by remaking the original plan, cutting it to five stories and proposing half the number of units. That proposal doesn’t need a zoning change, so it relieves him of one challenge.

“There is no affordable housing requirement. Now it’s just going to be a market-rate project,” Goldman said.   

He has secured financing and necessary permits for the $9.5M project and could break ground as early as March.

The Common Cup at 1501 West Morse Ave.

“It’s not often you get a beautiful chunk of land like that,” Magellen Properties owner Michael Glasser said. He is also president of the Rogers Park Builders Group, an advocacy group that promotes neighborhood development.

“We could have had six more affordable housing units,” he added. “This means six more families will not be able to live in Rogers Park permanently.”

Other developers say pushing too hard on the affordable housing requirement could cause other potential deals to also get scaled back or even canceled.

Johnson’s Cornerstone put the finishing touches in March on Elevation Lofts, a 38-unit, Class-A multifamily development at 1531 West Howard St. near the Howard Red Line stop. The project was approved before Hadden ousted longtime 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore. Johnson could have expanded it 60 units, he said, but that would have required a zoning change and kicked in the 10% affordable requirement.

“It didn’t make economic sense to do that because almost one-third of the additional units would have been affordable housing, so it would have increased our costs and taken another six to nine months to get the zoning change,” Johnson said.    

The pandemic slowed leasing activity, he added, but the company has leased more than 30 of the units.

Glasser said he isn’t worried that luxury housing will start popping up all over Rogers Park, driving up rents and pricing longtime residents out of the market. Although he expects the many older courtyard apartment buildings will continue to trade hands and undergo some upgrades, there isn’t enough available land to transform the area with luxury housing.

“I have not lost any sleep over that,” he said. “Rogers Park got a reputation for being a welcoming community for folks new to our country, and it will always be what it is.”

Glasser also said he believes Hadden will help the community develop in an equitable way. 

“We’re still learning more about her, but she seems more development-oriented now and has an understanding of what’s needed to make development happen,” Glasser said.

Metropolitan Planning Council's Kendra Freeman

Glasser said Shihadeh’s willingness to include a strong affordable component makes it more likely Hadden will approve of his proposal. But the virtual community meeting held by Hadden to unveil Shihadeh’s proposal was not completely smooth. A survey of attendees showed a little more than half did not want more density on the block, which has many single-family houses. A similar number thought Shihadeh’s building would be too tall, according to a Dec. 11 report in Block Club Chicago, even though it wouldn’t reach the height of the nearly century-old Seville at 1263 West Pratt Blvd., an apartment tower Shihadeh owns and is rehabbing.

“Those buildings that are taller … predate modern zoning,” Rogers Park resident Robert Kokott said, according to Block Club Chicago. “I would like to see a height that is keeping in character with the neighborhood.”

Shihadeh counters that his project will bring two necessities: more affordable housing and new residents with disposable income.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to the needs of the neighbors and to look at it from their point of view, but you can’t stop adding housing, and this is going to bring additional tenants who will be beneficial for the neighborhood, and the groceries, the restaurants and the coffee shops,” he told Bisnow.  

Shihadeh added that it’s still very early in the approval process, and he’s open to changes if it helps secure Hadden’s OK.  

“Overall, she’s a great alderwoman who tries to understand both sides, the developers and the Rogers Park residents.”

'Building Equity Into The Process'

Hadden does have another golden opportunity to put her stamp on Rogers Park. A city-owned plot at the southeast corner of Howard Street and Ashland Avenue, one block east of the Howard Street CTA station, has begun attracting interest from developers. 

Before Hadden defeated Moore in 2019, she worked for the national nonprofit Participatory Budget Project, which encourages grassroots communities to help decide how public money is allocated.

“They were getting unsolicited proposals from developers for that site, so the alderwoman reached out to us early so they could get ahead of the influx of developers and do some practical planning,” MPC’s Freeman said. “She has a broader vision for community participation in the development process and thought this would be a good way to kick things off.”

Proposal for Howard Street and Ashland Avenue

MPC held a design charrette for the Howard site in October, livestreamed on Facebook, and also solicited opinions via online surveys and worked with volunteer architects who translated residents’ ideas into renderings.    

About 300 residents have participated in the effort so far, according to MPC’s Community Engagement Associate Debbie Liu. She said there was a consensus about keeping at least some of the site green space, currently used as a community garden, and fill the rest with a mix of uses, including retail and housing that contains large numbers of affordable, family-sized units.

But market-rate housing is also a possibility, Freeman added. The small neighborhood north of Howard Street already has a great deal of subsidized housing, she pointed out.

“I think people see this as an opportunity to have more economic diversity rather than 100% affordable housing,” she said.

Liu said developers should not feel their hands are tied by what the MPC process will produce. The group will do a final report this winter, and she hopes the recommendations are taken into consideration when Hadden and the city’s Department of Planning and Development put out an official RFP later this year.

“This process is just to suss out what the preferences are and give the developers a starting point that is rooted in residents’ voices,” Freeman said. “Residents know this is a give-and-take in which you won’t get 100% of what you want. It’s about building equity into the process.”