Widening the Gateway

Development adds new breadth to gritty Rogers park

Howard St. Dominick's“Within two years this will be an entirely different street.”

Jennifer Long, then a business development director for DevCorp North, uttered the words about Howard Street, in Rogers Park, almost exactly two years ago. Whether she was guilty of hyperbole or hope, two years later, Howard might not seem much different than it did in 1999 to the casual observer. But change happens slowly in Rogers Park, especially on Howard, and if you look closely it is visible everywhere.

Evanston CommunicationsA $75 million mixed-use development is being built at Gateway Center, 1751 W. Howard, and a host of other improvements are planned or underway on the street. The commercial development is being complemented by a wave of condo conversions that has increased homeownership and turned around troubled buildings. Perhaps the most important change on Howard is invisible – a new attitude on the part of both Evanston and Chicago. Historically, both municipalities neglected the street, which straddles two jurisdictions and so was easy to forget. Now both sides say they are committed to cleaning up Howard as the “gateway” to Chicago.

“Howard Street has always been synonymous with Rogers Park,” says Ald. Joe Moore (49th). “It has seen rough times and now its rebirth reflects a renaissance in the entire community.”

Investing in Howard Street could have disproportionate benefits for Rogers Park. As the first commercial street in the neighborhood and city, Howard forms an important first impression for countless commuters. Around 55,000 public transit riders change trains and buses at Howard each day. Most look down from the el platform at vacant storefronts, shabby retail and people hanging out on corners, and see no reason ever to descend to street level.

But DevCorp North, a community development corporation and the chamber of commerce for Rogers Park, has been working to change the view from the el. The organization has labored since the ’80s in various incarnations to develop Gateway Center, hoping to revitalize the street and neighborhood, which is bounded by the lake, Devon, Ridge, and on the north, by Howard Street in some spots and Calvary Cemetery in others.

After a number of false starts and failed attempts stretching back 15 years, Gateway Center is finally underway, with Urban Investment Trust as lead developer. A massive Dominick’s Fresh Store opened as the anchor tenant in December of 1999, meeting the neighborhood’s desperate need for a good grocery store. A Payless Shoe Source and a couple of small clothes stores also have moved into the retail center, though many of the new stores are now vacant. Ken Govas, executive director of DevCorp North, says that’s about to change.

“They have commitments from Radio Shack and a couple of other national retailers,” Govas says. “There’s a general nutrition center coming in, so they have some very nice retailers signed on the dotted line for the spaces constructed.”

The project also calls for a new $20 million CTA transit station with a park-and-ride component and a pedestrian connection to the retail development. A large parking garage is nearly finished and the transit station is scheduled to be open by 2004. The next phase of retail, to be built on the current surface level parking lot after the garage opens, will be anchored by a Bally’s Total Fitness health club and Marshall’s.

Demetrius and Demarco Mundt walk down Howard StreetAn elevated walkway that will take people over a new Paulina street to an atrium in the center of the retail buildings should be done in mid-’02, according to Govas. And Hispanic Housing is ready to break ground on 120 units of affordable senior housing at the south end of the project.

Other improvements on Howard are complementing Gateway Center. They include:

A new streetscape plan, to include fresh sidewalks, curbs and kiosks, as well as new lighting, benches, planters and signs. Work on the street is scheduled to begin this summer, with Chicago and Evanston sharing the tab.

A new Gale School campus / park. The wide stretch of landscaped greenery at Howard and Ashland has already raised the profile of the street, and Ald. Moore has been working with Family Matters, the Rogers Park Community Council and others to build a community center with programs for children on the site.

Developer Jay Johnson saved the vintage façade of the old Howard Theater, converting the space into ground-floor retail and 40 affordable apartments, ranging from $525 for a studio to $800 for the largest two-bedroom.

A new police outpost to be staffed by police from both Evanston and Chicago will open within a couple of months on the Evanston side of the street, just west of Damen.

The old Wisdom Bridge Theater, in the 1500 block of Howard, was slated for demolition, but a new effort is underway to renovate the space. The grassroots Wisdom Bridge Task Force has proposed dividing the existing 225-seat theater into two smaller spaces of 112 and 128 seats.

East of Gateway Center most of Howard Street still looks a little seedy, but Ald. Moore says the development is boosting all of Rogers Park.

“It’s affecting not only the rest of the street, but the whole neighborhood in very positive ways,” Moore says. “I’ve talked to many developers as well as people buying homes who say that one of their motivations to come to Rogers Park was Gateway.”

If those homeowners and developers expected quick movement at Gateway, they must be a little frustrated. While Urban Investment Trust receives high marks from some, including the alderman, others say they are disappointed in the slow pace at a development that already has been delayed again and again over the years.

Critics also say Urban has done a poor job informing the neighborhood of its progress and changes in plans. Several big name tenants at Gateway, including a Loew’s 14-screen cinema, have been announced and then quietly dropped.

Moore says he understands the frustration that the development hasn’t happened faster, but that the expectation isn’t realistic.

The Chesterfield“I understand that people are impatient, but development takes a long time, particularly this one because it involves a lot of inter-government agencies and a complicated site plan,” Moore says. “All those things combined to make us go slower than we would have liked.”

Neighborhood boosters say Gateway and other efforts have increased safety in Rogers Park, though the most recent Chicago Police Department crime statistics available don’t seem to support such a trend. While crime dropped 8 percent citywide in the first quarter of 2000, it rose 4 percent in Rogers Park.

Crimes against property dropped 1 percent in the neighborhood but violent crime was up 24 percent from the first quarter of 1999 to the first quarter of 2000. Rogers Park still has the highest rate of violent crime on the North Side, and residents say gangs and drugs remain serious problems.

“With all the gang activity it’s not that safe,” says Simeon Bullock, a 17-year-old student at Sullivan High School. “The way I walk home from school is not the way I would choose to walk. It’s kind of hectic on certain blocks. You can’t walk down them because of the gangs.”

Certain notorious pockets, though, have improved dramatically. On side streets such as Jonquil and Juneway (once known as the Juneway Jungle) many of the worst buildings have been cleaned up. Concerned neighbors, some of whom have lived there for 20 years or more, have worked tirelessly to oust dealers and slumlords, boosting both the safety and appearance of streets once considered among the worst in the city.

A real estate boom throughout Chicago, especially on the north lakefront, has been an important factor for Rogers Park. As prices have risen sharply in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Andersonville, Rogers Park has gained a reputation the last affordable North Side neighborhood on the lake. The stock of cheap buildings with large vintage apartments was a natural for condo converters increasingly looking to fringe areas to turn a profit. And buyers feeling the squeeze of ballooning city real estate prices have been more and more willing to overlook Rogers Park’s reputation.

“People are coming here because we’re still the best deal in town,” says Connie Abels, of RE/MAX NorthCoast Realty. “I’m selling conversions to people coming in from Lakeview and Lincoln Park because you can’t get the same square foot for the dollar down there. They don’t have the spacious units down there that people can afford.”

The median condo price in Rogers Park last year was $129,900, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors. Compare that with a median of $310,000 in Lincoln Park, $254,000 in Lakeview, and $159,800 in Uptown.

Carribean CuisineThere long has been a market for condos along the lake in Rogers Park, especially east of Sheridan Road, but the citywide real estate boom has pushed pioneers into places north of Howard that once would have been considered impossible to convert. And neighbors have capitalized on a hot market to make improvements.

A couple of years ago attorney John O’Leary and several of his neighbors banded together to rehab a drug house at 1522 W. Jonquil into the six-unit Bayberry Pointe condos. Encouraged by O’Leary’s project, developer Tom Drake converted a couple of nearby buildings on Jonquil into condominiums. All of the projects sold out, with bargain basement prices ranging from the $90s to the $150s for large vintage units that had been gutted.

More recent conversions north of Howard reflect how far the neighborhood has traveled. Prices at the Chesterfield, a six-unit vintage conversion at 7641 N. Bosworth, range from about $210,000 to $240,000. The rehabbed units have hardwood floors, big bay windows and up to 2,600 square feet.

“This is a new price range for the location, but go to Lincoln Park and see what you get for $230,000,” says developer Gene McCarron.

The Chesterfield is McCarron’s first conversion in Rogers Park, though he’s done work in Edgewater, immediately south.

“I was up here in ’76 doing a building at Clark and Devon but I left because it was too bad,” McCarron says, giving a tour of his Chesterfield units. “Now the neighborhood’s coming back.

“The cops are doing a good job. There’s one bad building here and one on the other side,” he says, pointing down the street. “But people are trying to get them out. There’s a good neighborhood group that’s out sweeping the street every Sunday.”

McCarron says that he would like to do more conversions in Rogers Park, but that he can’t afford to pay the rising prices for apartment buildings. Abels says that many unrehabbed vintage apartment buildings suitable for conversion are now selling for $100,000 per unit.

“Buyers in Rogers Park can expect to pay anywhere from $175 to $200 a square foot (for a condo), which is still below anywhere else,” Abels says. “And developers need to provide a stellar product for that price.”

Abels is selling two-bedroom two-bath units of 1,500 square feet for around $215,000, and currently, a couple of duplexes for $310,000. Such prices would have been unheard of in Rogers Park a couple of years ago, but as developer David Wallach points out, money still goes much further in the neighborhood than it does to the south.

“Rogers Park may not be as sexy as Bucktown or the West Loop, but there’s certainly a need for this housing in the neighborhood, and other developers will tell you it’s definitely an area that’s now on the radar screen,” says Wallach, of Turnberry Properties.

Turnberry has developed housing everywhere from the West Loop to Bucktown and is entering the Rogers Park market for the first time with its Sheridan Shore Courts. The two courtyard buildings at 7021-35 N. Sheridan are being converted into a 65-unit condo complex. Prices on the condos range from a little under $100,000 to a little over $200,000.

“You have a great housing stock with tremendous proximity to the lake and places where the dog can play, which you don’t have in the West Loop,” Wallach says. “And price points up there are phenomenal. There’s nowhere else in the city where you can buy a two-bedroom condo with those amenities for $150,000 to $200,000.”

Studying at Loyola UniversityAt last count, the housing stock in Rogers Park was about 85 percent rental, a high percentage for a Chicago neighborhood and one reason for the neighborhood’s problems, according to some. Govas estimates that the percentage of rental stock may have dropped to about 70 percent as apartments have been turned into condominiums. While the trend has increased investment in the community, it also has put upward pressure on rents and raised fears of displacement, especially north of Howard where incomes are low and unemployment is high.

“Average rental prices have been going up pretty steadily,” Govas says. “We have a diverse mix of lower, middle and upper middle income here. There’s been a lot of discussion and concern in the neighborhood about what the balance should be and the future of the housing market here. My guess is that Rogers Park will maintain a healthy balance rather than gentrify because close to 70 percent of the housing market is still rental.”

Some of that concern about displacement expressed itself recently when a Starbucks opened on Sheridan Road and was heavily vandalized. Some residents are angry that the city allowed substandard housing to flourish in Rogers Park for years, and now that money is finally being invested in the neighborhood, longtime low-income residents may be pushed out.

“Why couldn’t they improve the quality of apartments for black folks?” says Quentin Bullock, who grew up and still lives in Rogers Park. “They torn down the projects and started moving people anywhere. If they don’t care, why should we?”

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