Controversy builds over Avondale's Sachs building

A plan to turn a landmark building in Avondale into an urban arts colony is meeting opposition from some neighborhood groups and residents, who had hoped the space would be transformed into a new social service hub and affordable housing complex.

The Sachs Building. Photo by Lindsey Meyers.

Officials with the city's Department of Planning and Development recently granted approval to a suburban developer seeking to build an exhibition space and other arts-related facilities in the Morris B. Sachs building on the corner of Kimball, Diversey and Milwaukee Avenues.

The project would include some affordable housing. But the city's decision effectively scuttled another proposal by two non-profit organizations, Humboldt Park Social Services and Heartland Housing, to transform the building into a social services complex offering twice the number of housing units.

Supporters of the Heartland project say they were encouraged to apply by Alderman Rey Colon (D-35), after the city bought the building with Milwaukee-Fullerton TIF funds in late 2006.

After city's decision went public, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association denounced the move and organized a protest at Colon's office.

Ellen Ray was among the LSNA organizers who planned the demonstration, which drew approximately 100 supporters.

"The need for affordable housing in this community is a long-term structural issue that needs a big solution," she says. "The Sachs building is ... an important part of that."

The Heartland proposal also included first-floor retail space. The second floor was to house a medical clinic, and space for addictions counseling and other social services. The group planned apartments on the top four floors and in a massive addition to the rear of the building.

Dr. Theodore Siegel, whose dentist office sits across the street, says he sees the need for more rental units in the neighborhood, but wouldn't put forty-seven affordable units in one building.

"I mean, that's why they started breaking up Cabrini Green and spreading out, so to me it doesn't make sense to go back in that direction."

He's looking forward to having an arts center in the Sachs building, which he says has been largely vacant since he moved into the neighborhood, 24 years ago.

The arts proposal, submitted by Brinshore Development of Northbrook, offers retail space on the building's first floor, a gallery and performance space on the second, and a darkroom, music practice rooms and a bike workshop in the basement. The top four floors would provide 28 units of affordable housing.

The proposal must be approved by the Community Development Commission, a citizen advisory board made up of real estate agents, architects and other experts, and also by the City Council.

Pete Scales, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development, says that may happen by the end of this summer.

Lourdes Arencibia, whose mother owns the Crown Tap Room, directly across the street from the Sachs building, says she's relieved that the Brinshore plan is getting the city's stamp of approval.

"If we were going to have supportive housing across the street, my mom wasn't going to pour any more money into this place," she said. Now, with the news that Brinshore will be moving in, they are talking about sidewalk seating and renovations.

She says she's hoping the project will help gentrify the neighborhood, and do for Logan Square what the Flat Iron Building did for Wicker Park.

That's a prospect some critics fear.

Logan Square resident Abdi Maya, who came to the demonstration outside of Colon's office, is among them. She says she would prefer a project that helps her community's most vulnerable members over one that bolsters property values.

"I don't think anyone has a problem with beautifying the city, making it more attractive, but if it's going to push other residents out then there's a couple of us -- and a good majority of us -- who will not stand for that kind of development," she says.

Colon says he's supporting the Brinshore proposal because it will use significantly less taxpayer money than the supportive housing project. Brinshore is requesting $10 million in city funds to develop the building. Heartland requested $19 million.

Colon says he supports affordable housing, but that he agrees with the planning department that the arts center would be better for his ward.

"I'm a little insulted that I have a bunch of people protesting," he says.

Scales says the city is working on other plans to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood.

"Both proposals were outstanding, and we just had to choose one over the other, frankly, and the one we didn't chose, we've made a commitment to work with them to find another site for them to develop," he says.