Written by John McCarron
Originally Published on LISC-Chicago.org on March 26, 2015

Plans issued from on-high have shaped, and mis-shaped, Chicago’s Near North neighborhood for over a half century.  But now there’s a new plan, one guided by folks who actually live there, a plan that aims to make this close-in and remarkably diverse place a true community of mutually supportive neighbors.

The Near North Quality-of-Life Plan and Design Guidelines is being released this May following two years of research, community engagement and strategy development by members of the Near North Unity Program (NNUP), a group supported by LISC Chicago.

The plan channels the grassroots quality-of-life plans drawn up a decade ago by residents of the original 16 neighborhoods in LISC Chicago’s New Communities Network. Like those, it begins with a vision of what the neighborhood ought to be, recounts its history and assets, then specifies goals and projects along with a work plan and timeline.

But Near North’s document boasts a major first for a quality-of-life plan – a detailed set of physical design guidelines to advise prospective developers on what the community seeks before they approach the city – and the alderman – for zoning approvals and permits.

Reverend Randall Blakey

Rev. Randall Blakey, executive director of NNUP and executive pastor of LaSalle Street Church introducing the new Quality of Life plan to membership at their Feb. 23 meeting.

“These aren’t rules with force of law,” explained Randall Blakey, executive director of NNUP, “but they articulate a framework for the developer to follow if they want the support of the community.”

Development blitz

More than any neighborhood in the New Communities fold, Near North has been besieged of late by development proposals. From Chicago Avenue on the south to North Avenue, from LaSalle Street on the east to the Chicago River, developers have been snapping up choice parcels now that the economy is on the mend and Cabrini-Green’s public housing high-rises are no more.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who five years ago enlisted the help of LISC Chicago and the MacArthur Foundation in setting up NNUP, has been asking the group to review development plans and advise him on what changes might be needed.

NNUP’s Land Use & Development Committee had been doing just that … but without giving developers advance notice on how their projects will be evaluated.

Now developers have specific guidelines — a list of preferences that reflect the neighborhood’s impatience with overly narrow sidewalks, convenience malls fronted by unsightly parking lots and featureless condo towers rising from blockish concrete parking decks.

“What emerged from our meetings is that the community wants wider sidewalks and more people-friendly spaces where folks can gather and get to know one another,” said Scott Goldstein, a veteran planner with Teska Associates, Inc. who assisted Near North’s in writing the quality-of-life plan.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) helped explain zoning to the community and advised on guidelines.

Project designers are forewarned, for instance, that “parking should not be located between the building front and the (street); front yards of townhouses should be at least 15 ft. wide or 12% of lot depth; and, new construction along arterial streets should be set back far enough, from 6 to 15 feet, so that sidewalk cafes and/or sale racks don’t force pedestrians into the gutter.”

“Bring folks together”

Not that Near North’s new plan is some kind of zoning cookbook. Most of its 74 pages are devoted to community-building. And that’s no slam dunk, given the socio-economic gulf between public housing tenants and condo owners who live side-by-side in the mixed-income developments that replaced Cabrini-Green.

The plan’s strategy throughout is to build from, and multiply, successful projects already run by NNUP. The overriding goal, reminds Ald. Burnett “is to bring folks together, break down those differences and bring out how much more we have in common.”

The plan is organized around discreet chapters devoted to Community Engagement, Youth and Families, Safety, and Employment. A series of summer outdoor jazz concerts, for instance, have engaged diverse factions in NNUP’s bring-folk-together mission. Stronger community support of both Jenner and Manierre elementary schools is urged to lift student achievement. Summer basketball tournaments and activities like last summer’s “Chalk the Walk” draw goal-minded kids onto the streets and parks, making everyone safer. And, new linkages with local corporate heavies such as Groupon and non-profits like Holsten Human Capital will improve job prospects for public housing tenants.

Challenges ahead

Many agree that NNUP’s biggest challenge, going forward, will be maintaining a united front as both the city and the private sector proceed to fill the empty and/or underdeveloped spaces left in the wake of Cabrini-Green demolitions.

There’s no shortage of divisive issues: whether and where to locate a new magnet-type high school … and who gets to attend; whether to rehab dozens of long-vacant Cabrini row houses … their fate now tied-up in federal court; whether to let developers of new condos and market-rent apartments pay into a city trust fund … or insist they include city-mandated affordable units in their luxury towers.

All are wedge-type issues in a community whose main east-west thoroughfare is named, aptly, Division Street. Only now the folks of Near North have a plan.  Not a plan decreed from on-high, like the one that over a half century ago cleared away what was the city’s oldest tenement district, replacing it near the lake with upscale Sandburg Village … and to the west, near the river, with the towers of Cabrini-Green.

That kind of planning is history.

“The residents and stakeholders of this extremely diverse neighborhood have found the common element that binds them and the neighborhood they call home,” said Keri Blackwell, deputy director of LISC Chicago who has supported NNUP from its beginning. “And, together, they are defining what home will look like in the future.”

Charles Smith

Charles Smith, longtime Near North resident, NNUP charter member and an architect who helped draw up the design guidelines contained in the Near North Quality of Life Plan.

“I’ve lived here a long time,” summed up Charles Smith, an African-American architect and NNUP charter member who worked on the plan’s design guidelines. “Finally we have something to go on, something to plan around.”

NNUP plans a community release and celebration of the plan at Benchmark at 1510 N. Wells on May 20th, 6:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.

More information: Sharon Wheeler, NNUP program manager, 312-573-8890; swheeler@NNUP.org and www.coNNectnearnorth.org