On formerly desolate stretch of Armitage, condos flourish

  • By Melissa Schmitt
  • Medill News Service
  • November 02, 2007 @ 6:55 AM

When Hope Alexander bought a house just south of Armitage Avenue on Humboldt Boulevard in 1997, prostitution was common, there were few restaurants or stores, and burglary was common.

"I would not even walk around the neighborhood," she said.

Now Alexander's home has quadrupled in value, friends don't hesitate to visit and, best of all, she can walk to restaurants and shops along Armitage.

In other words, gentrification has finally arrived in southern Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

How it arrived - whether it was renegade business owners, developers or city TIF programs - is not an easy question to answer. Whether the development is a good thing for residents is heatedly debated. Everyone seems to have a different opinion.

Armitage Avenue, between California Avenue on the east and Kedzie Avenue on the west, used to be a forlorn place with few retail services, rundown two flats and three flats, and an air of danger after sundown.

The road sits on the border between southern Logan Square and northern Humboldt Park and has suffered from rampant gang problems and other crime. For years, few people outside the neighborhood ever came in, unless it was for the wrong reasons.

Then, in the late 1990s, people started trickling into the neighborhood. Developers began to rehab old buildings and turn them into condominiums, but Armitage itself, the main retail sector of the area, retained a desolate, lonely air. Most residents had to leave the area for many services.

"I like neighborhoods," Alexander said. "I seek those out. I would get in my car and leave."

Armitage is now sprinkled with construction scaffolding and signs for condos promising kitchens outfitted with granite countertops. A few independentl businesses have staked their claim. A strip mall at the corner of Armitage and California stands as the ultimate sign of progress, with its requisite cell phone store, convenience mart, bank and Chinese takeout restaurant.

Despite the development, residents say they want even more retail, but businesses say that won't come without more customers. Developers are building condos, but some residents say they are being run out of the neighborhood.

Small-business owner Stacie Dumas was one of the first people to see potential on Armitage. She opened the Hot Spot, a breakfast and lunch place on the strip, in November 2004.

Dumas was already a resident when she started looking for a location for her restaurant. "I started looking around, and I was like, I love my area, my area needs it," she said. "What better way to say, 'I'm invested in this area. I have my home here, I have my business here, I don't want to go anywhere else."

Dumas said she had a warm welcome from the neighborhood and now knows most of her clients by name. She estimates that most of her weekend customers walk to the restaurant rather than drive, something that was practically non-existent in the past.

Some business owners say the increased foot traffic is good, but they need more. Kurt Chenier and Shin Thompson opened Bon Soiree Café and Delicacies, the first upscale restaurant on Armitage, about a year ago.

"I would say a majority of the customers drive here from somewhere else," Chenier said. "I do have some really good regulars who walk over."

Chenier is hopeful that the new 50-unit condominium development next door will increase business.

"I don't think we need any more condos in the area right now," said Elena Hernandez of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Hernandez said that many families in the area around Armitage cannot keep up with their property taxes and are questioning whether they can afford to stay in the area.

Hernandez points to a drop in school enrollment in the area as evidence that many people are leaving. Salmon P. Chase School, at the corner of Armitage and Point Street, lost more than 100 students between the end of the 2005 school year and the current school year.

To combat the problem, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association is planning two affordable housing units along Armitage, set to begin construction in 2008.

Despite the concerns that new housing stock will chase off existing residents, some developers say that it is possible to develop the area responsibly.

"We really do try and get something that's needed," said Nikki Dumas of Dumas and Associates Realty. Dumas, who is the sister of Stacie Dumas, the owner of the Hot Spot, has developed several properties for residential and commercial use in the neighborhood.

Dumas said her company tries to put an emphasis on low-rise projects with a first-level space for commercial use.

"For the most part, a lot of the change here is good," she said. "A lot of people with businesses are doing better. The Mom and Pops can compete because it's convenient."

Dumas said the retail development is good for residents. "Having places to go to with families or at night is a good thing," she said.

One person who is delighted with the changes he sees on Armitage is native Tony Zarcone, whose iconic Tastee Freeze is within shouting distance of the Hot Spot, Bon Soiree and the new strip mall.

Zarcone has lived in the neighborhood since 1964 and remembers it as "good families, good neighbors, safe. Almost like the Brady Bunch, you know."

Zarcone has seen the neighborhood go from good to bad to almost good again. A Chicago firefighter, he bought the Tastee Freez on Armitage in 1998 because he enjoyed going there as a boy.

He said he gets business from the people who work at the new strip mall and that he hasn't noticed too many people leaving the area. He has invested in real estate himself, and works with his neighbors to help improve their properties.

"This neighborhood is becoming functional again," he said. "I love what's happening. I feel like a kid again, riding my tricycle. It's all coming back to 1964.