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Blight ‘Squashed’ on Cottage Grove by Woodlawn Park Partnership

The event was mainly about housing for seniors... but a squash-playing teenager stole the show.

Kareemah Bates, a Monmouth College sophomore and competitive squash player, hailed the construction of the Academic and Squash Center in her hometown neighborhood.

John McCarron

So while the mayor of Chicago and the new cabinet secretary from Washington did the ceremonial honors – breaking ground for affordable senior housing in Woodlawn and an adjacent athletic facility – it was a college sophomore who captured the spirit of a neighborhood on the rise.

“When I started playing in 5th grade I never heard of the game of squash,” said Kareemah Bates, now a sophomore at downstate Monmouth College. “But it taught me the important lessons of growing up – to be confident in yourself, to serve your community and to never give up.”

Squash? Isn’t that one of those upper-crust racquet sports invented by British swells and played at swank East Coast boarding schools?    

Well, yes and no. Squash is a top-rated cardio workout, and adult players do tend to be health-minded college graduates. (History records that there was, in fact, a squash court on the first-class deck of the Titanic.) But the game has transcended its Ivy League roots to become a global sport with 20 million players in 188 countries.

Then again, its rep as a sport played by executives is exactly what makes squash such an effective tool for youth and community development. And why MetroSquash, an inner-city study-and-play program with backing from Chicago’s squash-playing business community, is going to build a $5 million Academic and Squash Center.

Double groundbreaking

So it was officially a double-groundbreaking ceremony August 21 at 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, where a 64-apartment senior housing complex called The Burnham will rise next door to the athletic center.

The two projects are the latest phase of Woodlawn Park, one of the more ambitious and unusual community redevelopment efforts in the nation. The diverse, mixed-income community is the most visible of efforts that LISC Chicago has supported over the past few years in the wider Woodlawn neighborhood.

“LISC has helped us leverage more than $30 million in investments across my ward,” said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), who emceed the groundbreaking, attended by some 150 Woodlawn Park residents and civic leaders.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel escorted HUD Secretary Julian Castro to the event, and the secretary promptly announced it was his “first real field visit” since the former mayor of San Antonio took over the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development at the end of July.

“Chicago is known as the Windy City and the winds of change are blowing in a positive direction here in Woodlawn,” declared Sec. Castro. He pointed out that cities around the world are adding population and that “Chicago is in the vanguard of this new century of cities.” Millennials are going urban, he said, “for the same reason people always have chosen cities – because of opportunity.”

HUD Secretary Julian Castro was on hand to break ground on the Squash Center and The Burnham, a 64-unit senior building in Woodlawn.

John McCarron

Castro especially thanked POAH (stands for Preservation Of Affordable Housing), the Boston-based nonprofit that was summoned to Chicago in 2008 to oversee redevelopment of the run-down Grove Parc subsidized rental complex into Woodlawn Park. That transformation would become the centerpiece of a wider Choice Neighborhoods Initiative for Woodlawn awarded competitively by HUD in 2011, bringing $30.5 million of federal resources to bear on a strategy residents codified years earlier in their quality-of-life plan.

“In partnership with the City of Chicago and POAH,” said Castro, “we’ll have developed almost 1,000 homes for people of mixed incomes and ages, a diversity that will truly enhance the entire city of Chicago… all because you have strong leadership… and a vision.”

Early resources make ground-breakings possible

LISC Chicago’s consistent investments in Woodlawn’s revival helped make this specific day happen.  A $5 million LISC line of credit has given POAH invaluable early flexibility in financing property acquisition, tenant relocation, demolition and myriad pre-development expenses, from architect’s fees to utility hookups.

The new five-story brick seniors’ building used $1.7 million of that LISC credit line to put together a feasible deal, attracting JPMorgan Chase to provide both construction and permanent mortgage financing.

The Burnham will have a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, with monthly rents for income-eligible seniors ranging from $667 to $1,009. Plans by architects Landon Bone Baker call for a community room with kitchen, an exercise room, a library and a lounge big enough for visiting health care and social service providers.

POAH next intends to continue the Woodlawn Park redevelopment with an apartments-over-retail project on the east side of Cottage Grove. And there’s early-stage exploration of a hotel project at 60th Street to capture some of the jobs and economic activity radiating from the adjacent University of Chicago hospitals complex.

If all is realized, what once was a grimy and threatening three-block stretch of Cottage Grove – a strategically key stretch between the stately U. of C. campus and the 63rd Street Green Line terminal – will be utterly transformed.

Residents’ vision

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Mayor Emanuel closed the speechmaking by crediting residents who “never gave up on your community.” Indeed, several of those on hand were veterans of the 2005 New Communities Program quality-of-life planning process that anticipated much of what is now being realized.

A rendering of The Burnham, a new 64-unit senior apartment building.

“This is your day,” the mayor said. “These are your shovels. This is your dream. Woodlawn is back … and it is thriving.”

Bates, an honor roll graduate of Kenwood Academy more accustomed to hefting a racquet than a shovel, then joined the VIPs for the ceremonial dirt-toss.

Kareemah said she was leaving the next day for college. But not to worry… like Woodlawn, she’s coming back.

More information:  

Bill Eager, POAH Vice President, 312-283-0032

Lashunda Gonzalez, Choice Neighborhood Director, 312.283.0031

Jake Ament, LISC Chicago Program Officer, 312.422.9573

Posted in Housing, Woodlawn


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