Washington Park National Bank demolition plan upsets Woodlawn residents

on Apr1
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2019-03-31 20:44:04

A historic building in the heart of Woodlawn faces the wrecking ball, despite calls from some residents to save it.

The Washington Park National Bank building at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue would be replaced by a three-story building featuring retail and office space under a plan approved by the Cook County Land Bank Authority.

The sale of the building was announced March 15. The buyer is Revive 6300, a joint venture of DL3 Realty, a commercial real estate company headed by Leon Walker, and Greenlining Realty USA, a real estate firm founded by Lamell McMorris.

Some neighbors aren’t happy.

“I’m upset that our history is being erased,” said Gloria Williams, a longtime Woodlawn resident and librarian at the Chicago Public Library branch steps from the bank building.

Deborah Burns said she’s disappointed the building won’t be saved for future generations to appreciate.

“I like old architecture. It gives a sense of what a neighborhood used to look like. If you go to Europe, you get to see old buildings. You don’t get that on the South Side,” she said. “Everybody deserves to know their history.”

Also unhappy: the two candidates in Tuesday’s runoff election for 20th Ward alderman.

Jeanette Taylor and Nicole Johnson, hoping to succeed former Ald. Willie Cochran, both oppose tearing the building down.

“It’s unfair that communities on the South Side do not get to preserve historic buildings like they do on the North Side,” Taylor said.

Johnson called the decision to tear down the building “another bait-and-switch maneuver to push something down our throats.”

MITCHELL: Planned demolition of deteriorated South Side landmark sparks outcry

Historical photo of Washington Park National Bank Building in Woodlawn

The Washington Park National Bank Building in Woodlawn will be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development project. | Preservation Chicago

Rob Rose, executive director of the Land Bank, said demolishing the building will benefit residents in the long run.

“We worked through several rounds of meetings and considered the best interest of the community in making this decision,” he said in a statement. “The plan to build a new structure was not made lightly.”

There is no word on when demolition will begin.

The five-story limestone bank was built in 1924 to serve the growing middle-class community in Woodlawn.

It was most recently owned by the Metropolitan Apostolic Church, headed by the Rev. Leon Finney Jr. The church bought the property in 2001.

By 2017, the building’s facade was crumbling, the basement kept flooding, and there was a tree growing out of the roof. The church also was $3.7 million behind on property taxes.

The Land Bank took control of the building in January 2018. The authority was created in 2013 to acquire tax-delinquent properties, clear the debts and sell the properties to qualified real estate developers.

The Land Bank held three public meetings in early 2018 in Woodlawn to gather input from residents on what they would like to see at the site. Reports from those meetings show residents favored saving the building.

In April 2018, a structural assessment report on the building by Probe Consulting concluded the building was structurally sound. “We believe that the building is salvageable and can be repaired to restore its full structural integrity,” the report said.

In October, the Land Bank requested proposals from developers interested in buying the building. In the request, the Land Bank said it considered preserving the building a “very important” part of the evaluation process.

Two proposals made it into the final round. Revive 6300 called for demolishing the building. The proposal submitted by a group known as Woodlawn Works sought to rehabilitate it.

Land Bank officials endorsed Revive 6300’s proposal based on the group’s financial security and expertise, Rose said.

According to Rose, Woodlawn Works proposed a budget of $6.5 million to rehabilitate the building — well below the in-house estimate of $10 million to $15 million needed to bring the building back to life.

“Woodlawn Works’ proposal was not enough, in our opinion, to fully rehab this building,” he said.

The bank building is not on any registries of historic buildings at the city, state or federal levels. Still, many residents consider the building to be a Woodlawn cornerstone, emblematic of the neighborhood’s high-time in the early 20th century.

Preservationist groups argue buildings like the Washington Park National Bank are pivotal to understand Woodlawn’s identity and its place in Chicago’s history.

“There are only a few buildings left in Woodlawn that embody the power and vitality the neighborhood’s history stands for. Tearing down another one is an unnecessary injury to Woodlawn’s history and to its current residents,” Michal Safar, president of the Hyde Park Historical Society, wrote in a letter to Rose dated Friday, March 29 and shared with the Sun-Times.

Stacey McDaniel, who’s lived in the neighborhood since he was a kid, isn’t excited to see the building go but is relieved the site will at least be redeveloped.

“At the end of the day, change is good — especially if it’s for the better,” he said.

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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