Washington Park's promise attracting money, faith
Chicago's push for the Olympics makes the community a prime candidate for redevelopment, but even if the 2016 Games don't happen here, some people think the neighborhood can make a profitable comeback.
Craig Huffman (right) and John Puntillo, co-founders and managing directors of Ascendance Partners LLC, tour a building they are developing on Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago. They are raising $25 million in private equity to develop real estate on the mid-South Side. (Tribune photo by Terrence Antonio James)
Now Huffman is ready to make some big money, and he is zeroing in on a real estate market that until recently was all but forgotten: Chicago's Washington Park neighborhood, one of the city's poorest and bleakest.
Along with business partner John Puntillo, they are raising $25 million in private equity to leverage into $100 million worth of real estate on the mid-South Side, including areas such as Woodlawn and Grand Boulevard. Already, they have convinced some of the city's best-known developers -- Michael Alter, Larry Freed and Stephen Quazzo -- to invest in their Ascendance Capital Partners I fund.
"A lot of investors have moved to the sidelines," he said. "We have demonstrated you can deliver outsized returns in these neighborhoods where, for years, there has been disinvestment."
Despite its long-standing problems, Washington Park has a certain cachet these days.
The neighborhood has an ample supply of vintage apartment buildings. It is 20 minutes from downtown. But most important, it would be home to an Olympic stadium should Chicago win the 2016 Summer Games, a decision due in October 2009. That possibility is attracting some speculators who believe the Games could spark rapid redevelopment.
"If Chicago gets the Olympics, I think you'll see a lot of guys running down to the best of this area," predicts Huffman, leaning back in a swivel chair in his no-frills office on Wacker Drive. "Our view is the Olympics can only help. But we still feel good about this market whether the Olympics happen or not."
Vacant lots that the city was unloading for $1 now sell at market rates. A few pioneering developers are building single-family homes and rehabbing apartments into condos. The city's Department of Planning and Development recently issued a call to developers to come up with plans for a 3.5-acre parcel at 60th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, at the southwest corner of the park. And Rev. Richard Tolliver, an activist Episcopalian minister who has led the way in development of affordable rentals, is planning a first foray into homes for purchase.
A revival was bound to happen, some say, because of the neighborhood's location next to sprawling Washington Park.
The 372-acre park, with its lagoons, walking paths and wide open playing fields, is a cornerstone of the historic South Side park system designed in 1871 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Via the Midway Plaisance, it links to Jackson Park on the south lakefront. Architect Daniel Burnham's firm designed several buildings in the park.
Still, some parts of Washington Park have so many vacant lots and boarded-up buildings that they resemble rural areas more than city streets. While acknowledging Washington Park has been tougher to kick-start than some other city neighborhoods, Arnold Randall Jr., the city's commissioner of planning and development, says its time has come. "This is one of the areas next in line to be redeveloped."
That could be wishful thinking, but a number of potential catalysts are in place, observers say.
The Near South Side real estate revival is moving steadily southward. Crime-plagued public housing towers have come down and are being replaced with mixed-income residential developments.
Washington Park takes in part of two city wards, and both of them elected new, development-minded aldermen last year: Urban development specialist Pat Dowell edged out Dorothy Tillman, a flamboyant and controversial fixture in the 3rd Ward, while retired Chicago police sergeant Willie Cochran beat embattled Arenda Troutman in the 20th Ward. Troutman, who has been indicted on bribery charges, has denied any wrongdoing.
But the near collapse of the mortgage lending market has hit Washington Park particularly hard. Even though real estate prices are relatively low, fewer buyers are showing up for open houses, and financing has become much harder to swing. Foreclosures rose more than 70 percent between 2005 and 2007.
"People are hanging in limbo, waiting to see where it is going," said Joyce Ellis-Johnson, who together with her husband has done small-scale redevelopment in the neighborhood. "You can lose your cuckoos if you're not careful."
Area long overlooked
Washington Park, which runs from 51st Street to 63rd Street between Cottage Grove Avenue and the Dan Ryan Expressway, has long been overshadowed by its highbrow neighbor to the east: Hyde Park.
Once a comfortable enclave in Chicago's "Black Belt," Washington Park was abandoned long ago by lenders, insurers, retailers and most of its middle class. Population has fallen to 13,484, from 90,000 in 1970, and the unemployment rate is 21 percent. Washington Park's median household income is $20,000, far below the city's median of $45,000.