By Ava O’Malley
After months of planning, community meetings, and surveys, a proposal to turn one of Pilsen’s largest, longterm vacant lots into 432 housing units is heading to the City Council for review.
The 18th and Peoria Development Framework Plan, which contains four phases, aims to create apartments and townhouses, retail opportunities, and green community space. Unique to this latest plan, the City surveyed Pilsen residents for input.
Before the City purchased the six acre lot at 18th and Peoria Streets in 2022 as part of a $1 billion affordable housing investment, private developers made several attempts to build apartments there. Those actions put the lot at risk of becoming the site of luxury housing, something the Pilsen Alliance refers to as “the Trojan Horse of gentrification” in their community.
In the past, an industrial metal smelter and the Roman Catholic Jesuit order owned the now vacant area. Various developers proposed plans for the property in the last five years but none offered enough affordable housing, and local elected officials and community organizations opposed them.
For example, former 25th Ward Alderman Danny Solis opposed Property Markets Group’s 2018 plan for 500 new apartments; Solis advocated for at least 21% affordable housing at the site. Property Markets Group sued the City in 2018 after Solis rezoned the vacant lot, blocking the developer’s plans.
According to Moises Moreno, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, his organization favors the most recent plan, which the Chicago Plan Commission approved in May. The Pilsen Alliance advocates for social justice in Pilsen and on the Lower West Side of Chicago. Moreno joined the Pilsen Alliance eighteen years ago and became executive director of the organization in 2018; current 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez preceded Moreno in that role.
Affordable housing demands
The Pilsen Alliance, along with the community residents for whom they advocate, is pushing for 100% of this development’s housing to be affordable.
“I remember the previous alderman was talking about 21% [affordable housing] set aside,” Moreno said. “We want 100%.”
Moreno noted the Pilsen Alliance participated in the development framework planning process “from the very beginning.” Its support and advocacy took the form of a stakeholders group composed of Pilsen Alliance members, Pilsen residents, housing justice activists, and researchers from University of Illinois Chicago and DePaul University, and backed by Sigcho-Lopez.
Already, the Pilsen Alliance has several “little victories” to celebrate, according to Moreno. First, in a Qualified Allocation Plan delivered by the Chicago Department of Housing in spring 2023, the City included the option of 100% affordable. Second was an increase in housing density from 280 to 432 units. Third, and what Moreno considers the biggest win, the Department of Housing committed to designating the land in a community land trust, which would prevent rent hikes and preserve affordability.
Pilsen Alliance gathered community consensus about the development framework plan through surveys and canvassing. The organization pushed the conversation on affordable housing through a series of informational community meetings beginning in June 2022. Among responses, housing density proved a high priority for Pilsen residents. In the series of informational meetings, the Pilsen Alliance introduced neighbors to several housing concepts that promote higher housing density.
“This has been a very robust community process,” Sigcho-Lopez said.
He noted that seven years ago, the community asked for potential uses to be discussed but the Rahm Emanuel administration “failed to do that. Now seven years later we have the opportunity, after this was settled in court, the opportunity to have 432 units of affordable housing, green space, and a well-coordinated effort to make sure that the density does not affect the quality of life of neighbors nearby.”
The alliance talked about “co-op housing, and we even introduced social housing,” Moreno explained. “This is a concept that we’re working on with housing justice advocates throughout the city. It’s kind of a non-market based approach to housing, making sure folks that really need it the most get the housing,” said Moreno.
Co-op housing offers shares in a corporation that allows the purchaser to live in the residence. In social housing, the units are owned and managed by a public entity or non-profit.
Housing density matters to the Pilsen community for several reasons. It combats gentrification and promotes affordability. Also, it would help repopulate Pilsen’s schools, an issue Ald. Sigcho-Lopez’s election platform emphasized, after Pilsen and nearby La Villita/Little Village saw a sharp decline in Chicago Public Schools students. By providing affordable housing for area families, officials and residents hope students will return to the local schools.
“We saw that the community wanted to push for not only family size units but diverse housing stock,” said Rubén Franco, director of the Committee on Housing and Real Estate for the Chicago City Council. “So, in addition to large apartment complexes, or large buildings with apartments with large bedroom counts,” the City is considering “also the idea of building townhomes or different types of housing technologies that would attract families.”
“Our community has lost 14,000 residents, primarily of Mexican-American heritage, who left because of a lack of affordable housing,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We want to prioritize housing for families with kids who will be going to Chicago Public Schools, as well as seniors and other vulnerable communities.”
In a meeting on May 18, the Chicago Plan Commission examined the 18th and Peoria Development Framework Plan. The City Department of Planning and Development (DPD) described the plan as seeking “to create a comprehensive vision of the site to meet the residential and commercial needs of the community.”
James Harris, city supervising planner, stated the DPD created the plan with the consultants AECOM (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Operations, and Management), UrbanWorks, and Koo in close collaboration with the Department of Housing and 25th Ward. Harris added the planning process involved five steps: analyzing existing conditions, community engagement, development scenarios, reviewing open space opportunities, and a financial analysis to maximize the site’s affordability.
Franco, formerly director of legislative affairs for Sigcho-Lopez during the 18th and Peoria framework’s development process, participated in the 25th Ward stakeholders group before AECOM and UrbanWorks got involved in August 2022. According to Franco, these contracted consultants “helped coordinate the community outreach for information gathering and developed a report that was submitted to the Department of Planning and Development.”
Not everyone was excited about AECOM’s involvement. Moreno said Pilsen Alliance members researched the firm and learned AECOM was involved in contracts for work on Rikers Island Prison as well as the controversial Chicago police and fire training academy, the Joint Public Safety Training Center, in 2019.
“We were skeptical,” said Moreno. “We should be able to bring in contractors that actually have roots in the community.”
According to Moreno, the stakeholders group invited AECOM to attend a webinar, but no representatives showed up. Moreno also said communication with the Dallas-based consulting firm was “awkward” and that the stakeholders group felt misled.
Now that the framework plan has won Chicago Plan Commission approval, it will move into a review of phase one. The Department of Housing “is going to announce, sometime around early fall, who they selected to be the developer with the concrete plan,” said Franco.
“There was a lot of hullabaloo about there not being transparency in the building plan,” said Evelyn Figueroa, founder and director of the Pilsen Food Pantry. “But I do think a lot of folks expect things a lot more quickly in a giant bureaucratic City of Chicago.”
She said she wished the City “was more swift, but also I just hope that we believe in our local elected officials and that we hold them accountable of course, but that we do it within reason and with understanding of how local politics work, about how City Council works, what the goals are of the aldermen, what belongs in the mayor’s office, with streets and sanitation,” said Figueroa, in response to impatience she witnessed from some community members. “Because there’s a lot of confusion over who’s responsible for what.”
Figueroa, a family physician who has provided medical service to the Pilsen community since the 1990s, hopes the 18th and Peoria development “is as public-health centered as possible.”
With more than 2.5 acres of planned green space at the site, the framework plan will help support health and wellness. Also, the development will offer a connection to the highly anticipated El Paseo Trail, giving 25th Ward residents 4.2 miles of additional green space.
The City has proposed 337 parking spaces in the development.
Sigcho-Lopez noted that “this will be the largest affordable housing development in the City of Chicago.”
For the City’s 2023 Qualified Allocation Plan, log on to www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/doh/supp_info/2023-qualified-allocation-plan.html. For the Department of Housing, log on to www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/doh.html. Contact the DPD at (312) 744-4190.
For the Pilsen Alliance, log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org or call (312) 243-5440. For the Pilsen 18th and Peoria Development Framework Plan, log on to www.chicago.gov/city/en/sites/18th-and-peoria-development-framework-plan/home.html.
For the Pilsen Food Pantry, log on to www.pilsenfoodpantry.com or call (773) 812-3150.