Live/Work/Walk Community Study: Oakwood Shores, Chicago, IL

Nestled between the bustle of Chicago's Loop and the stately enclave of Hyde Park - home to the University of Chicago and President Obama - lies the historic neighborhood of Bronzeville. The entry point for many African-Americans into Chicago during the Great Migration, Bronzeville has been a neighborhood "on the make"  since the early 2000s, slowly reviving itself after a decline in the late 1960s. With its proud mansions lining King Drive, cultural centers along 43rd and 47th Streets, and proximity to Chicago's lakefront and central business district, Bronzeville has been attracting interest in redevelopment since before, and even throughout, the financial crisis. 

Joe Williams, co-founder of commercial real estate company The Granite Companies, is a developer heavily invested in the community. Williams is one of the more successful African-American developers in Chicago and has been involved with the Community Builders, Inc. (of Boston) in transforming the former Ida B. Wells housing project in the heart of Bronzeville into the mixed-income Oakwood Shores development. An architecturally-attuned neighborhood of townhouses, apartments, sales and rentals, the community contains two city parks, an elementary school, a senior citizens facility, transit accessibility, and an attractive, newly manicured boulevard that serves as the neighborhood's communal center and green space. Oakwood Shores is, in the words of Williams, a "full-life community."

When complete, Oakwood Shores will have 3,000 residential units, of which 858 are built and 110 are under construction. What's missing from the community - in which 98% of all rentals are occupied - are the basic amenities, retail services and jobs that anchor neighborhoods. In order to attract commercial tenants into the neighborhood however, the space for such enterprises to occupy must first be established. Unfortunately, current regulations in place via federal housing finance programs that restrict the mixing of commercial and residential uses act as impediments to the development of available commercial properties in the area. In turn, an affordable, stable neighborhood emerging from previously underutilized urban land is prevented from growing and becoming self-sustaining. 

Rendering of Grove Place

In the middle of the development bound by 35th St to the north, 39th St to the south, King Drive to the west and the lakefront to the east is the footprint of Grove Place, a to-be-constructed mid-rise seven-story building of 83 one- to three-bedroom condos and townhouse units situated above approximately 12,500 sq. ft of ground floor commercial space. Initially, 20 percent of the Grove Place units were to be sold at a reduced rate for affordable housing, with the remaining being sold market-rate, which, as of early 2008, ranged from a $179,900 one-bedroom to $329,900 three-bedroom. Speaking to Chicago Magazine at the time, Williams said, "This is a very important piece for us. It's a big part of the plan to have a multi-generational community," noting that the low entry prices, affordable housing units, and still-planned early childhood center on the ground floor of Grove Place would provide enough options for a diverse mix of lifestyles and a full community.

However, as The Granite Companies was moving ahead with financing for the building on 37th and Cottage Grove, it became apparent that current FHA/HUD lending standards would prevent Grove Place from being completed under HUD's 221d4 and 220 programs, both of which dictate caps on the commercial space the developer was poised to deliver. Williams and company continue to pursue FHA/HUD programs which contain the flexibility to permit commercial space, but in the interim, potential buyers for Grove Place were effectively pushed out of the market with the financing constraints, unable to complete purchase of a product they were eager to acquire and that the developer was more than willing to deliver. 

Grove Place lot at far left

Oakwood Shores Townhomes and Rentals

Williams is realistic about the current conditions of the market. Whereas six years ago, redevelopment plans may have been the catalyst for gentrification, today, affordability is the key to community development. "We have a workforce development plan for the community, to build a jobs center - perhaps a recycling facility - to anchor the community," he says. The idea is to foster local businesses that will attract not only workers, but also the amenities that commercial and residential homeowners need. By stabilizing the neighborhood with assets that allow residents to live, work and walk all within reach of their homes, a resurgent interest in homeownership based upon convenience, affordability and access can emerge, as "the old days of homeownership are over," says Williams. But before Oakwood Shores can acheive its goal, the financing rules need to change. 

 "The rules prevent developers like me from delivering market goods and amenities," Williams says now. "We went into a community that needs density and jobs with the intent to provide that. We followed the characteristics from HUD to design a full-life community that fits into the HUD/USDOT/EPA Sustainability standards. The market wants this type of mixed residential-commercial development. Certain federal programs want this type of development. But the financing regulations which discriminate against form do not allow it."



Developer Joe Williams in front of the Oakwood Shores Terrace & Medical Center site