Neighbors on the south side unite to restore a huge vacant apartment building, hoping to revitalize 71st Street and beyond

SOUTH SHORE – More than two dozen South Shore neighbors have pooled their funds to buy and renovate a run-down apartment building over the past year, providing a model for the growth of the neighborhood that they say , can benefit existing residents.

The 7051 LLC Co-operative Company purchased 7051 S. Bennett Ave. for $ 600,000 in November 2020. The company has since invested nearly $ 300,000 in renovating the property and its apartments became available for rent this month.

The 97-year-old building is “built like a tank” with 16 apartments, five storefronts and terra cotta inside and out – “one of those” they don’t build them like before “, its owners mentioned.

With access to public facilities like the lakefront, the South Shore Cultural Center, and Jackson Park nearby, “there’s no reason it can’t be a stellar place” for successful community ownership. , said investor Stephen Stern.

Stern, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 30 years, sees it as an opportunity to “bring 71st Street back”. The project may complement a proposal from developer Alisa Starks – also a Highland resident – to build an entertainment complex at 71st and Jeffery Boulevard, he said.

Credit: Bennett Square
The interiors of some apartments at 7051 S. Bennett Ave. before renovations, in May 2020.
Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
A kitchen inside 7051 S. Bennett Ave., a once devastated apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated in hopes of revitalizing the community, pictured November 15, 2021.

The 27 neighbors who pooled $ 282,000 in advance for the purchase of the building represent a representative sample of the Jackson Park Highlands, the emblematic district of the South Shore estates built on massive land. All of them live a few blocks from the Bennett Avenue project.

De facto project leader Michael Kelley moved to the “united” community three years ago, and he said the project was a step towards achieving “the South Shore we should have”, with walking opportunities, amenities and less vacant business space.

Geralyn and Art Thompson fell in love with the Highlands as a high school student, making “a lot of money” clearing snow from the big houses in the neighborhood. Husband and wife moved to their current Lake Terrace Tower home in 1985, realizing years of dreams in the making.

Tyriece Kennedy will celebrate her sixth birthday in the community next month. When he learned of the project proposal last year, amid the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, he jumped at the chance to leave a positive “footprint” on 71st Street.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
7051 S. Bennett Ave., a formerly dilapidated apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated in hopes of revitalizing the community, on November 15, 2021.

The neighbors’ immediate priority is to rent the 15 available apartments – a family is already living in the building’s only two-bedroom unit. Rents start at $ 825 per month for a studio with an old kitchen, up to $ 975 per month for a one bedroom with a remodeled kitchen.

If all the apartments are rented, the costs of the project will be covered, Kelley said. This allows owners to be selective about which businesses to fill the first floor, prioritizing the needs of the community over profit. CHACHA Gyro is the only existing commercial tenant.

“We’ll have the flexibility to offer really attractive terms, to lean on partners who want to come in and take that space, open this restaurant, start this business,” Kelley said. “Whether it’s rent discounts or contributing to construction costs, our motivation is first to find the right type of business and then to make sure they are successful so that we can collectively be successful with them. them. “

If the leases are not signed, the owners will discuss making further improvements to the building. Worst case scenario – the building turns into a money pit and they can’t recruit tenants – they will sell the property, which they bought below market value in a receivership auction .

But eight investors told Block Club they were in a good position to cover their costs. The investment plan has been thoroughly researched, the building is attractive to tenants, and businesses will feel comfortable working with a diverse and local group of owners, they said.

The core group of five people who have overseen day-to-day tasks since last year – Kelley, Kennedy, Hubert Thompson, Byron Gray and Sachin Parikh – produced a plan that was “no brainer” to invest in, said Geralyn Thompson.

“You can’t get close to the [Bryn Mawr Metra Electric stop], you can walk to the beach in four to six blocks, it’s perfect for getting on Lake Shore Drive if you’re driving, ”said Geralyn Thompson. “It’s a great place for young people to start living in a strong and vibrant community. The chance of this failure is tiny, in our minds.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
The Bryn Mawr Metra Electric stop as seen from an apartment window at 7051 S. Bennett Ave., a run-down old apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated in hopes of revitalizing the community on November 15, 2021.

Even if the cooperative housing faces many challenges to survive on the South Shore, the model maintains a presence in the dense neighborhood.

“Good intentions aside, you need the resources” to invest in a property while keeping rental prices manageable for existing residents, Kelley said.

Beyond finances, the Bennett Avenue project has benefited from the vast knowledge base of its investors. Among the neighbors are professional architects, building engineers, lawyers, real estate investors, IT specialists and traders.

“You go back and forth between the idealism of wanting to change [and] the pragmatism of making an investment, ”Kelley said. “You have to balance those two things to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, but covering your bases so that it can be sustainable.”

For projects like theirs to be successful, the owners said city grant programs like Invest South / West and the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund should set aside funds specifically for community initiatives. Politicians also need to keep the pressure on absentee landlords to sell their decaying properties to community-conscious developers, they said.

“More investment and more inclusion in projects like [Invest South/West] would go a long way to moving forward, ”Kennedy said.

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With residents due to move into the apartments next month, neighbors in the Highlands are bracing for the future. They will look to recruit companies for the Bennett Avenue project and discuss the possibility of future projects on the road, while integrating sustainability into their plans.

Community-led projects require “a lot of heavy work” on the part of everyone involved, Kelley said, but the redevelopment proves it is possible for South Shore residents to purchase and rehabilitate a home. building for the benefit of the neighborhood.

“It’s a real testament to the power of the community, and our community in particular,” Kelley said.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
7051 S. Bennett Ave., a run down old apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated in hopes of revitalizing the community, pictured on November 15, 2021.

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