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Now what? Buyers of $1 Large Lots Get Tips on the Art of “Placemaking”

By: John McCarron
Published: April 7, 2015

Makazin Alexander came looking for practical advice but left with something more – a notepad full of fresh ideas on what she and her husband could do with their newly-acquired triple lot on the 6900 block of South Perry Avenue.

“I was thinking combination vegetable and ornamental garden,” she said, “but maybe also an art installation, workout area, even space for neighborhood events.”

Makazin Alexander and her new lot.

Alexander was one of more than 30 South Side homeowners drawn to a Saturday morning workshop on March 28 in search of expert advice now that they’ve successfully bid on a vacant city-owned lot near their existing property.      

Sponsored by LISC Chicago and Teamwork Englewood, the session was aimed at folks who last year purchased more than 270 vacant lots in the initial phase of the city’s “Large Lots” program.

(Read about LISC’s involvement in last year’s Large Lots rollout here, )

Ugly as opportunity

To be sure, buying a vacant lot for a dollar is a good thing. But cleaning it up, fencing it off and coming up with a new use leads quickly to a raft of practical issues. What about water for a community-type garden? When is a zoning change required? What about building permits? Property tax breaks? And, how does one get the city to repair a broken sidewalk?

Making a slide presentation and answering lots of questions was Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal architect of Latent Design. Her firm has helped dozens of block clubs and community-minded non-profits create what they term “meaningful and joyful places that facilitate community engagement and growth.”

“Ugly is an opportunity,” Darnstadt told the gathering, explaining how neighborhood after neighborhood has laid claim to abandoned, trash-strewn  eyesores and turned them into welcoming public spaces. 

Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal architect of Latent Design.

Once ownership is secured, she explained, it’s also possible to build private structures, from a garden gazebo to a garage to a full-blown dwelling. But the more ambitious the plan, she cautioned, the more complex the procedural requirements.  Even a non-residential structure like a greenhouse requires a building permit, she said, but depending on its size it might not be necessary for a licensed architect to submit plans for the permit.

Latent Design developed and distributed sets of 4- x 11-inch cards summarizing the city’s rules governing various types of structures and equipage. The possibilities range from a simple concrete parking pad to a fixed-pole basketball backboard, from benches and statuary to a garage or tool shed. All of these potential possibilities will be posted on as a resource.

Lots you can do with lots.

Public or private?

A big decision upfront is whether a buyer wants their lot to be public or private, a decision Darnstadt said deserves a good deal of forethought. “Going forward you need to start a constant dialogue between your neighbors and yourselves about how you’re going to change these lots and what you’re going to do with them.”

That aspect is especially tricky with Large Lots in that, unlike the city’s earlier Adjacent Neighbors program, the purchased lot need not be contiguous with that of the buyer. Makazin Alexander’s lot on South Perry, for example,  is located several doors north of her restored three-story Queen Anne … although,  as a block club leader, she expects it won’t be hard to reach consensus as to best use.

One benefit of public use is that a truly charitable purpose that benefits the community may not be required to pay property tax, according to Roland Lara of the Cook County Board of (Tax) Review.  He spoke to the workshop on how to appeal property tax assessments and how to form a non-profit corporation eligible to hold tax-exempt real estate.

Roland Lara of the Cook County Board of (Tax) Review explains property tax rules.

Rallying points

Darnstadt said the true beauty of “placemaking” is the way it can draw together diverse members of a community to a common, tangible purpose. “It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to get started,” she said, “but it does takes a lot of effort. In the end it’s about stewardship. It’s about access. And it’s about a whole lot of leverage.”

She related how folks at first on the fringes of a project, including those with resources – from tools or pickup trucks, to artists, to those with special expertise in organic gardening or crowd-funding – get drawn into the enterprise.

Placemaking also can be the centerpiece of a youth program, witness the group Demoiselle 2 Femme (D2F). With help from Latent Design and local churches D2F recently built an ad hoc playground in the Roseland community. Adolescent girls did the planning, fundraising and hands-on construction.

Not only did they get practical experience that reinforced their S.T.E.M. studies – doing fractions, say, before cutting a 2x4 – but “the community got a safe place to play and everybody got involved,” Sherida Morrison, D2F’s founder and leader, told the workshop.      

In welcoming lot-owners to the event, Dionne Baux, LISC program officer, congratulated both Teamwork Englewood and R.A.G.E. (Resident Association of Greater Englewood) for stirring up so much interest last year that 276 lots have been conveyed so far to new owners. She cautioned, however, that the city owns thousands more lots in the area and much remains to be done.

New lot owners go over some possibilities.

Baux said the city’s subsequent, smaller offering of vacant lots in the West Side’s East Garfield Park neighborhood drew almost 200 accepted applications. The city is now reviewing applications from the Austin neighborhood.

In an effort to support the City of Chicago’s Large Lot Program and to make the process of purchasing City-owned land easier, LISC Chicago partnered with Teamwork Englewood and DataMade to create with support from the Boeing Corporation and the Knight Foundation.

Details of future offerings, and help with on-line research and applications, can be found at – The LISC-supported site sure to get heavy use as the city rolls Large Lots into more neighborhoods with “ugly opportunities.”

For more information:

Katherine Darnstadt, founder and principal architect of Latent Design,

Taryn Roch, director, program assessment of LISC Chicago,

Posted in Areas of Work, Neighborhoods

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