After years of public meetings, design review and a dismissed lawsuit aimed at blocking the project, a 100-unit, 100 percent affordable housing development has broken ground on what was formerly a surface parking lot in Logan Square. But like all the land in Chicago, it had a previous life. Prior to the creation of the surface parking lot, that land housed people, via one of of Chicago’s most important forms of vernacular architecture: the workers cottage.
A home for $100. So read an advertisement for workers cottages sold by developer Samuel E. Gross in 1883, offering them in neighborhoods across Chicago for $1,500 with $100 down. Balance on payments were the same as rent, which according to the advertisement was between nine and 11 dollars monthly. Low land costs and a gridded infrastructure system allowed both developers and individuals the ability to build workers cottages at a low cost—and quickly— from Bridgeport to Logan Square. Gross’s cottages were marketed and sold in English and German to Chicago’s rapidly increasing immigrant population, to the workers who would make Chicago the hog butcher to the world, who would lay track for railroads that would fan out toward the American west and would build our skyscrapers.
Seventy years later, the nature of the businesses along Milwaukee Avenue, the commercial corridor that the parking lot served, had changed, along with the methods with which customers chose to travel to those businesses. In a one-story storefront, a HVAC supply and repair store had closed, replaced by a café and a flower shop. A report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) found that the blocks surrounding the parking lot had some of the lowest car ownership rates in the ward, with only 34 percent of residents owning a vehicle. Situated just feet from a CTA station and at less than a quarter of its full capacity at peak, the Emmett Street parking lot had outlived its useful life. It represented outdated planning methods but also represented how mindlessly Chicago once worked to demolish 19th century buildings in bulk during the mid-20th century. As prices to rent and buy homes in Logan Square rose, its stock of vernacular architecture— Chicago’s naturally occurring affordable housing— continued to be demolished for new luxury units that were unaffordable for long-time residents and also not marketed towards them. The City-owned Emmett Street parking lot was eyed for development, with the City ultimately selling the land to Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation.
Bickerdike has just broken ground on the all-affordable transit-oriented development on the site designed by Landon Bone Baker Architects. The project delivers 33 one-bedrooms, 49 two-bedrooms and 18 three-bedroom units and was motivated by the results of MPC data and the desires of the community to see the land be redeveloped for public good.
While it isn’t known whether Samuel Gross was motivated to develop worker’s cottages for a profit, the developers of today are clear in their motivations. Inclusionary housing is not profitable. Large-scale developers are only beholden to ordinances like the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), and “in-lieu” fees and a low proportion of on-site affordable units give them the freedom to maximize rents and sales. Small-scale developers are not held accountable at all, with some buying up and demolishing viable worker’s cottages, two and three flats and constructing new buildings with housing units meant to appeal to those at a higher socio-economic scale.
The delivery of one hundred affordable places to live on Emmett Street brings the street back to its history of housing the workers that labor to make Chicago what it is, but they are no longer the immigrant butchers, steelworkers and builders that filled the dozen or so workers cottages at the turn of the 20th century. They are package handlers at UPS, gig workers with Amazon, Uber or Lyft, support staff for Chicago’s schools, airports and public transportation. These are Chicago’s workers, and in Logan Square and elsewhere, in a workers cottage or a modern apartment, they deserve to share the benefits of growth.