10 Years in the Making: Chicago's Notorious Housing Project Ending

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Cabrini Green Demolition and Change in Downtown ChicagoThe wrecking balls are demolishing the last of Chicago's Cabrini-Green tenement buildings. A couple weeks ago, there were four mid-rise buildings left in one of the nation's most notorious public housing projects. Now, there are three and soon all18 towers will be gone.

Almost 10 years after the City of Chicago announced its ambitious plan to transform Cabrini-Green and other citywide projects into mixed-income communities, real estate experts are lauding the drop in crime and improved appearance of the neighborhood -- a vital strip of prime real estate nestled close to Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast.


"Whenever you have an area close to downtown and the El that is being redeveloped, it tends to have a positive effect [on home values in the area]," said David Nimick, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty.

Newly-erected, lower-rise structures -- including some mimicking a townhouse style -- have replaced the high-rise projects that were infamous havens for violence and wretched living conditions for the poor. One third of the units are slotted for market-rate buyers and the remaining two-thirds are subsidized by the Chicago Housing Authority.

Announced in 2000, the city's 10-year transformation plan aimed to bring around 2,000 living units to the Cabrini-Green area. Only 288 public housing units have been built thus far at Cabrini, according an CHA official.

Chicago developer Barry Howard thinks the remaining buildings remind longtime Chicagoans of the dangerous, crime-ridden Cabrini and predicts that once they are gone, development in the area will accelerate. "The risk of [Cabrini] not coming down for another 20 years is gone," he said. "It's a blank slate."

But the area's surrounding the Cabrini-Green grid have flourished since the city began bulldozing. A new police station was built in the area at North Larabee Street in 2001 and the positive changes began to domino. Crime rates plummeted and more attractive buildings went up, and an influx of commercial and retail developments sprung up in the industrial lands to the north.

Compared to six to seven years ago, buyers are generally more confident about buying in the Cabrini-Green vicinity, says Mike Hulett, an agent for Jameson Real Estate, who is selling upscale properties for $600,000 nearby on Evergreen Street.

"People think that the redevelopment is generally moving in the right direction," he said. "That brings comfort to buyers and that directly correlates with values [by bringing through more people who want to buy]."

But with the tight credit markets, high unemployment and cash-strapped buyers, critics are uncertain about the area's future.

Last month, Crain's Business Chicago reported that the city bailed out one developer, Peter Holsten, by paying a $3.4-million public subsidy early and at one of the revitalization's buildings, Parkside of Old Town, about half of the market-rate units are unsold.

"The CHA plan has basically stalled because it relies too heavily on the for sale, market-rate units," said Rich Wheelock, a lawyer for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, who represents former Cabrini residents.

In August of 2009, the developer slashed rates on Parkside condos in ads in The Chicago Tribune. Now, one-bedrooms are selling for a market-rate of $190,000 and two-bedrooms are going for $260,000, slightly lower than last year's advertised price.

Even though the next phase of Parkside, a rental building, is underway, others think the plan is inherently flawed by only having a third of market-rate owners generating cash flow, a risky option that could squeeze the developer into financial ruin if market conditions don't recover.

"Commercial real estate is a disaster," said Rebel Cole, an associate professor of finance and real estate at DePaul University Chicago. "If the project goes into distress, you are going to have Cabrini-Green two."

But one Parkside resident is not listening to the naysayers.

Ryan Flynn, a 31-year-old graphic designer, invested in one of the market-rate condos in 2005 and ever since he moved in, he's been documenting the demolition of the Cabrini-Green projects and the evolution of the neighborhood on his Web site, The Cabrini-Green Projects.

"Initially people are surprised [that I live here], but I've become an evangelist for it," he said. "I do want to make people know I live there because I can change their perception... I've rationalized that no neighborhood has more opportunity than this one."

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