Maybe, as an engaged Chicagoan, you have wondered about all the vacant land on residential blocks in the city but mostly on the South and West sides.
Maybe you have asked yourself why, with all the architectural brainpower for which Chicago is acclaimed, more designers aren’t clamoring to build on those sites. Architects compete for the business of building the next Fulton Market high-rise or the next mansion on the North Shore. What about the opportunity to build homes for people of modest means in neighborhoods that could use the attention?
High-rises and mansions pay better, of course. “But architects want to do good, too,” said Eleanor Esser Gorski, CEO of the Chicago Architecture Center. It’s just that they could use a little nudge.
So Gorski’s nonprofit has just the ticket: a competition that will endow some firms with exposure.
The CAC is in the midst of its Come Home Initiative, a competition to get architects to think about new designs for lower-density housing that are functional, attractive and relatively cheap to execute. The goal is to encourage home ownership and bring people back to six communities that have suffered from an exodus of people and businesses. The communities are Auburn Gresham, Bronzeville, East Garfield Park, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Woodlawn.
Supported by The Chicago Community Trust, Come Home is offered in league with the city’s planning and housing departments, so it’s being called part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West push.
Gorski said the departmental support for Come Home should persist regardless of what happens in the upcoming mayoral election. The Sun-Times also receives funding from The Chicago Community Trust.
The CAC invited architectural firms to submit qualifications for the competition by early January. Gorski said interest was intense and worldwide. Out of the replies, the CAC whittled a very long “short list” of 42 firms or teams, 26 of them locally based, and invited them to submit detailed designs by late this month.
The proposals will cover homes in any of the following categories: single-family; two-, three- and six-flats; and rowhouses. The architects are being challenged to come up with something serviceable but also decent looking alongside Chicago’s generally sturdy housing stock.
“You know my background,” said Gorski, an architect and a former top planning official. “They better fit in.”
She said there are no price targets for any eventual homes, but affordability is a key goal.
Gorski said all proposals will be shown to the public starting March 3 at the CAC’s exhibition space, 111 E. Wacker Drive. She said everything will be put online, and plans are being made to bring the proposals directly to the South and West sides.
“We want everyone’s input on this. It’s important we hear from people in the neighborhoods about how they want to live and how they want their blocks to look,” Gorski said.
The CAC wants the housing ideas to address the “missing middle,” a term that can have a double meaning. Gorski said it means the vacant lot gaps that are like missing teeth within residential blocks, but it also could refer to the middle class, which has been squeezed out of some parts of the city.
Entries deemed the best by an expert jury will be included in a publication this summer that city agencies can use as a resource for emerging developers interested in building on the South and West sides. The approach is similar to the “pattern books” for American housing that were common early in the 20th century.
City officials have committed to authorizing construction of 30 to 100 units starting later this year using the best designs. Gorski said while the city will donate the lots for the rollout, there will be no other subsidy. It’s a small start the CAC hopes will lead to bigger things.
The jury has five members, none with entries in the competition. They are Reed Kroloff, dean of the architectural school at the Illinois Institute of Technology; Catherine Baker, founder of architecture firm Nowhere Collaborative; architect Jackie Koo of Koo Architecture; architect Brian Lee of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and developer Leon Walker of DL3 Realty.
“The CAC will be working with the banks to ensure they know about this program. We want to help emerging developers get the financing to build these homes,” Gorski said. “Financing traditionally has been the missing link in this process.”
Architects responded to the nudge. Now it’s the bankers’ turn.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the name of the architecture firm Nowhere Collaborative.