Redevelopment brings opposition, charges in Pilsen

March 14, 2017

After several attempts to meet with the owners and developers of a controversial retail building at 917 W. 18th St., members of the Pilsen Alliance are moving ahead without them.

The group also expressed concern over campaign contributions that Alderman Danny Solis (25th) allegedly has received from developers. Owners of the existing building hope to redevelop it into loft and retail space.

Byron Sigcho, the community group’s co-chair, and Jose Requena, an urban planning graduate student, are sure the owners and developers will be coming to the table sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the grassroots group will be hammering out a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) based on the idea that both the neighbors and the developers should get something out of the deal.

A CBA is an enforceable contract between developers and the community, usually without government involvement.

Ideas floated at a special Jan. 24 meeting at the Rudy Lozano public library, 1805 S. Loomis St., ranged from requiring the developer to give preferential hiring to qualified local residents and paying them a still-to-be-determined “living wage,” to setting up a fund for residents displaced by gentrification.

Solis was invited to the meeting but did not attend. Sigcho said he expects to see a committee formed in the next few weeks that will draw up specific demands, then seek meetings with Solis, Villa Capital Properties developer John Pagone, and Realtor Nelson Hill, who is handling the building’s leasing.

If those efforts prove fruitless, the Pilsen Alliance might then exert added pressure with rallies and perhaps a march down 18th St., Sigcho said.

Their plans are not as radical as they sound, Requena and Sigcho told the 30 local residents who turned out for the meeting. Look no further than the South Side’s own Obama Library which will be built under a CBA, Requena said.

“The debate around gentrification is still just that – a debate that’s still going on,” Requena said, adding that developers tended to have the upper hand by approaching each community and group one-by-one.

When communities fight together and present City officials, urban planners, and the developers with their own list of demands, it can be a win/win situation for everyone, Requena said.

“People know there will be development in Pilsen,” Requena noted. “But unless the alderman wants an antagonistic group of community organizations, it’s in everyone’s interest to sit down and talk.”

Sigcho said the community already won its first battle by forcing Villa Capital Properties to back off its original plans to name the building “the Gentry” following a firestorm of protests from Pilsen residents already worried about being gentrified out of their neighborhood.

John Pagone, principal of Villa Capital Properties, said the name was dropped after he started hearing the “negative feedback.” Moving forward, he promised, “the building will be known only by its’ address.”

“While the name may have changed, the vision hasn’t changed,” Sigcho countered. Rents in the 40,000-square-foot building are pegged at $19 and $20 per square foot, with retail space listed as “negotiable,” according to an online promotional brochure.

Sigcho said a number of longtime small business owners are concerned about being priced out of the neighborhood if Villa Capital’s rental rates become “the new normal.”

Pagone does not see it that way, adding he expects most of the businesses in Pilsen to remain. Sigcho emphasized he had no problem with new development – only the pace and price of that development. “We’re not against change,” Sigcho said. “On the contrary. We’ve been advocating to uplift Pilsen for over 18 years. But we do oppose undemocratic practices and corruption that destroy communities,” he said.

Bryon Sigcho of the Pilsen Alliance advocated for a Community Benefits Agreement that would protect residents and business owners at a Jan. 24 meeting on development. (Photo by Troy Heinzeroth)

He noted that Solis – who serves as chair of the City Council’s Zoning Committee – has “raised thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from local developers and realtors who directly benefit from his decisions.”

Solis did not respond to Gazette attempts to contact him. Examination of Solis’s alderman’s 2015 campaign donors (the last year for which complete figures were available) showed Pagone contributed $1,000 in January and another $500 in early November.

Concerning gentrification, “It’s a shame that the very same artists who made Pilsen a thriving cultural mecca cannot afford to live here, let alone open a studio to exhibit their work or offer classes to the community,” said Pilsen artist Jade Niven.

“The prices being set by realtors are not intended to attract artists from Pilsen. They’re intended to further displace us and push us out,” Niven said.

Lifelong Pilsen resident Magda Ramirez-Castenada and president of the Pilsen Alliance board urged neighbors at the Jan. 24 meeting not to be afraid to make demands when the opportunity comes. “Let’s dream big. Let’s not be shy,” she said.

The building is located across the street from Pilsen’s largest vacant tract of land, various plans for which also have sparked gentrification concerns.

Original article from the Gazette: