CHICAGO - By January, workers will finish the homes and apartments in the first phase of a plan to redesign more than 30 blocks of public housing and re-knit the urban fabric between four neighborhoods on Chicago’s Near West Side.

Roosevelt Square will eventually total more than 2,400 new units of housing, replacing Grace Abbott Homes, made up of a ring of seven khaki-colored towers and a swarm of low-rise apartments arranged around a desolate oval of grass; the Jane Addams Homes, one of the oldest public housing projects in Chicago, built in 1938; and the Brooks Extension.

Along with Loomis Courts and the Robert Brooks Homes, which are being renovated but not demolished, these five projects formed a cluster of public housing projects known collectively by the fantastically ugly acronym “ABLA,” shorthand for Abbott Brooks Loomis Addams, and totaling nearly 4,000 apartments.

ABLA is just one of 20 places now being torn down and rebuilt under the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA’s) Plan for Transformation, which aims to redevelop or rehabilitate 25,000 units of public housing by the end of 2009, though many projects will almost certainly take longer.

Roosevelt Square will replace Addams and Abbott with a traditional grid of streets lined with Chicago-style townhouses and apartment buildings. None of the new structures will rise higher than four stories, and many will include ground-floor retail, especially on the busier streets.

Retail rehabilitation

Like many successful public housing redevelopments from Boston to Atlanta, these new buildings mix public housing with low-income rental housing and luxury housing, though mixed-income projects like Roosevelt Square are still proving themselves to Chicagoans.

“We’re really changing the face of public housing in Chicago,” said Brad White, senior vice president of LR Development Co., the lead developer of Roosevelt Square.

ABLA was set on a busy intersection and surrounded by the bustling neighborhoods of Little Italy to the north, Pilsen to the south, a campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago to the east, and a growing district of hospitals and medical colleges to the west. So it might seem strange that so few shops and stores lined the streets of the projects.

“It’s very important to the neighborhood and to the city that we return commercial and retail to the street,” White said. New businesses like a Citibank branch, a doctor’s office, a pizzeria, and a specialty gift company have already claimed some of the retail spaces in Roosevelt Square.

They join a Jewel supermarket and Osco Drug Store that opened just across South Ashland Avenue from the property in January 2002, almost in the shadow of the seven 15-story towers of the Abbott Homes, then still standing.

Fending off naysayers

The development, like the projects it’s replacing, has engendered its fair share of controversy and skepticism.

Given that it’s taken a decade from the time of the initial funding commitment for the first units to be completed, many former residents have given up on returning to the area. Others are fighting to ensure the redeveloped project makes room for them.

In 1999 and again last May, a small group of ABLA residents sued the CHA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to block plans they claimed would segregate public housing residents, putting them into one area of the redevelopment.

The developers say that’s not the case, and that they’ve carefully planned their work to heal the divisions in the neighborhood, not build new ones. The first phase will evenly mix luxury townhomes with public housing apartments over five city blocks, beginning north of Taylor Street, the main drag of Little Italy, and stretching south of Roosevelt Road. For years, Roosevelt Road has been the dividing line between Little Italy and the ABLA projects, White said.

To quell dissent, the CHA has promised that everyone who was legally living in Chicago public housing on Oct. 1, 1999, will eventually have the right to return to a public housing apartment, though perhaps not in the same place. In the interim, many are living in private housing subsidized by Sec. 8 vouchers.

At ABLA, the rehabilitation will ultimately reduce the number of public housing units from nearly 4,000 units to less than 1,300, with another nearly 400 new units at another location.

White believes that the public housing left at Roosevelt Square should be safer and easier to maintain than what came before. The mix of incomes should support new retail to serve the community. The bustle of people drawn to this retail should bring new energy to the sidewalks. Also, more than half of the new housing will be sold to homeowners, creating a large base of people very interested in maintaining their property values.

Putting it all together

The new units in the first phase include 125 apartments reserved for public housing residents and subsidized with project-based Sec. 8 rental subsidy; they are managed by LR’s property management company instead of the CHA. Another 56 rental apartments are reserved for families earning up to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), with rents ranging from $725 for a one-bedroom apartment to $985 for a three-bedroom.

More than half of the units in the first phase are condominiums and for-sale townhomes. All 233 have sold, including 74 units reserved for home buyers earning up to 100 percent of AMI.

Also, more than 800 luxury condominiums are now selling just east of the site, where the historic South Water Market is being turned into University Commons by a private developer.

The financing for the $43.2 million first phase began with $15.4 million in HOPE VI funds, part of two grants totaling $59.4 million to redevelop the ABLA projects, the first in 1996 and another in 1998.

The first phase of Roosevelt Square also received $23.9 million in equity from the sale of 9 percent low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) syndicated by CharterMac Capital, and a $500,000 Affordable Housing Program loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, through member Bank of America (BofA). Additional sources of financing included a construction loan and a $2 million first mortgage from BofA, as well as a contribution from a retail partnership.

Crafting a deal with so many pieces is more than a little complicated: “It’s like herding cats—you can only imagine how much paper there was at closing,” White said.

In all, LR is planning five more phases of development at Roosevelt Square. Each phase will take an average of two years to complete, White said, including the time it takes to apply for all the LIHTC subsidy that the city can afford to hand out every year, in addition to endless design meetings and, as this is Chicago, lawsuits. With luck, the last phase should be complete in 2016.