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"Yard" Work Rewarded in Uptown

Doing mixed-use redevelopment in a less-than-affluent city neighborhood is never easy. Most often it’s downright difficult. And then there’s Uptown’s Wilson Yard.

The Wilson Yard development required 12 years of negotiations and 18 layers of financing.

Wally Rozak, Uptown United

“This is a win-win situation, but it took over 12 years,” said a seemingly relieved Mayor Richard M. Daley at a July 20 grand opening of a sparkling Target store that anchors the ambitious Wilson Yard project in the North Side neighborhood.

As redevelopment projects go, this one was the Battle of the Marne. The much-delayed project had to overcome entrenched opposition and changing economic conditions. It required creative new development strategies … and forged an unlikely but effective new political alliance.

Ultimately Wilson Yard got done because its key players – the mayor and the alderman, the developer and an array of committed funders and lenders – knew the project was right for the neighborhood and never gave up. Not even when the final version of the project, a version that emerged after dozens of tweaks and several major changes, required one of the more complex financing packages in memory. 

The development features both a Target and an Aldi.

WALLY ROZAK, UPTOWN UNITED

“We have 18 different layers of financing,” declared master developer Peter Holsten, president of Holsten Real Estate Development Corp.Crucial to keeping the project alive early-on, he said, was predevelopment funding from LISC and, down the home stretch, federal New Markets tax credits (NMTCs) arranged by LISC and Maryland-based Enterprise Community Investment Inc.

Altogether the $151 million project spans two blocks along 4400-4500 N. Broadway, including land once occupied by a huge Chicago Transit Authority rail maintenance shed destroyed by fire in 1996.

Besides the new 200,000-square-foot Target store, Wilson Yard features an Aldi grocery, smaller storefront retail spaces, and two mid-rise affordable-rent apartment buildings. One is a 98-unit, single-bedroom setup for seniors over 55; the other an 80-unit, pro-family structure (e.g.: a second-story indoor playground next to the laundry room) where apartments have two and three bedrooms.

Fight over TIF

It was this inclusion of so many subsidized apartments that sparked much of the opposition to the project, including a lawsuit, since dismissed, that attacked the way the project was financed. That’s not surprising. In recent years Uptown has been divided, politically and economically, between wealthy professionals attracted by the neighborhood’s lakefront condos and renovated 19th century greystones, and less-affluent minorities and Appalachians drawn by easy access to transit and the area’s many affordable, if unglamorous, walk-up apartments.

Since her election in 1987 the latter faction’s leading advocate has been 46th Ward Alderman Helen Shiller, who early on sparred with Mayor Daley over the need to slow gentrification and preserve affordability.

The $151 million project spans two blocks along 4400-4500 N. Broadway.

In recent years, however, the two have begun to work together on several development issues, thanks in large measure to their mutual support and defense of the Wilson Yard project.

“We’ve shown other communities what can take place in community development,” the mayor said at the grand opening, nodding to Shiller. “Nothing is done overnight. But now other aldermen and community groups will come here and say: 'It was a 12-year struggle but look what they’ve done. They have affordable housing, they have retail, including smaller businesses; they have everyone working together.' ”

Opponents did not attack directly the idea of subsidized housing but instead filed suit to block the city’s use of tax increment financing, or TIF, as a way to raise the bulk of the city’s $54 million contribution to the project.

Led by a group called Fix Wilson Yard, opponents argued the derelict CTA property would have been developed by private investors without city aid, and that TIF financing prevents new revenues from flowing to schools, parks and other governments that depend on the property tax.

Similar criticism of TIF has been made repeatedly in a periodic series on TIF published by the Chicago Reader, a progressive weekly that frequently takes an anti-gentrification, anti-Daley stance.

Ald. Shiller’s coalition

But Ald. Shiller was careful to build her own broad coalition of community groups in support of TIF and of the Target-Aldi-affordable housing mix. 

Andrew Mooney of LISC/Chicago and Ald. Helen Shiller (46th) listen to Uptown resident and Target employee Kristy Butler. "Like a lot of people who live around here," she said, "I used to have to travel to the suburbs for work."

JOHN MCCARRON

“We came up with what we wanted in the request for qualifications,” she said of the many meetings and hearings she helped organize dating back to 1998.Shiller saved her highest praise for developer Peter Holsten, who “bent over backwards” to accommodate changes sought by the community, including a never-realized attempt to feature a multi-screen cinema. She added that Target proved “remarkably flexible” in working with the community, eventually including a “green” roof shaded by decorative plantings, and a training program through which scores of local residents will join the 350-person workforce of cashiers and stock clerks with the possibility of future advancement.

Besides enabling Wilson Yard, Shiller said, $14 million in project-generated TIF funds will subsidize off-site rehab of affordable housing, along with development of a student center and parking deck at nearby Truman College.

Besides LISC and Enterprise, Holsten credited a list of lenders and funders such as Uptown’s local Bridgeview Bank, Chicago Community Loan Fund, Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Alliant Capital, the Illinois Housing Development Authority, the Federal Home Loan Bank, the Chicago Housing Authority, and the City of Chicago, plus Target’s $33 million investment.

Target turnaround

Mayor Daley, flanked by several Target employees, several from the Uptown neighborhood, following the grand opening of the chain's new Wilson Yard store.

JOHN MCCARRON

Mayor Daley, who has debated those who seek to keep “big box” retailers out of the city, called Target “a great corporate citizen.” His aides cited several examples, such as a Target program to subsidize school field trips, and another that funds “school library makeovers” like one soon to be completed at Uptown’s Brennemann Elementary School.

The main benefit of the Uptown Target, the chain’s 10th store in the city, may be its squeaky-clean image and ability to draw shoppers back to what once was a preeminent neighborhood retail and entertainment district.

“We believe our businesses will prosper because of the people Target will attract,” affirmed Yolanda Holmes, who operates the “Nappy Heads” beauty salon two blocks to the south. She also told the grand opening audience that she and her children “now have a safe and stable home” in the family apartments of Wilson Yard.

“It’s been a struggle but it just shows if we all work together, everything is possible.

All of which sounded about right to LISC/Chicago Executive Director Andrew Mooney, who, with LISC finance specialist Barbara Beck, helped advise the project through its many twists and turns.

“It’s been a long road,” said Mooney, “but in the end, well worth the trip."

Posted in Economic Development, Housing, Uptown

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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