November 11, 2008

University, community leaders discuss Washington Park plans

At a Washington Park community meeting on Saturday, moderator Leon Finney evoked local residents’ enthusiasm about Barack Obama’s victory to introduce local challenges that face the neighborhood.

“This is a time for us to stand together with people of like mind in order to get something done,” said Finney, the chairman of the Woodlawn Organization.

At the meeting, University of Chicago Associate Vice President of Civic Engagement Sonya Malunda attempted to alleviate neighborhood concerns about the University’s expansion west of South Cottage Grove Avenue into the Washington Park area, where the U of C has purchased 10 parcels of land this year and is in the midst of negotiating the purchase of five more parcels, totaling slightly less than four acres along West Garfield Boulevard between South King Drive and South Prairie Avenue.

Until recently, the University had not developed west into Washington Park, expanding both north and south instead.

The University has yet to create plans for the use of these properties but hopes to provide economic growth and jobs in the neighborhood. Development possibilities include outreach and career initiatives, increased involvement in local schools, after-school programs, and youth development.

“We don’t have a plan. We felt that if we came in with a plan, the community wouldn’t be happy with that,” Malunda said.

Malunda underscored the University’s hopes to facilitate a process that is engaged, transparent, and participatory to determine the best uses for the land.

“We realize we cannot simply invest in the community, acquire property in the community, without offering community benefits,” she said.

Community members’ concerns hearkened back to the University’s history of urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s, when it earned criticism as insular and racist, particularly for the way it pushed out many of the poor black residents of Woodlawn.

Malunda attempted to assuage fears that University development would make the neighborhood less affordable and force poor residents out of the area.

“It is not our intent to push anyone out of their homes,” she said. “It is not our intent to purchase the entire Washington Park area.” She added that the University does not have eminent domain status, which means that it does not share the powers of the government to take private property for public use.

However, some property owners welcomed University involvement, expressing hopes that development of vacant and dilapidated buildings would raise property values. Others said they hoped that the University would keep its promises and provide more resources to the community.

“This is our opportunity to work with you, to seek your help in prioritizing, in seeing how you would like to be involved,” Malunda said, adding that the University plans to work with 20th-Ward Alderman Willie Cochran and Third-Ward Alderman Pat Dowell.

The possibility of Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics, which will in part take place in Washington Park if Chicago wins the bid, has influenced plans for the future of the neighborhood, which currently has about 1,000 abandoned properties and has lost over three-quarters of its population in the last 50 years.

The increased development and economic success in Hyde Park and Woodlawn has not spread to the Washington Park area, Malunda said.

“The Olympics can be an impetus. It can be a catalyst for the community to come together,” Malunda said, adding that regardless of the impact of the Olympics, the focus will be on resources for the community.

“Really the question is, ‘What will the community be in 2017?’” she said.

Malunda publicized some of the University’s recent community development efforts, which have aimed to create safe, mixed-use communities, attract high-quality retail, expand mixed-income housing opportunities, improve educational opportunities, and create permanent jobs.

Some people attended the meeting to express a hope that the new development would provide construction jobs for residents of the area. They said that high crime rates in Washington Park were mainly due to a lack of job opportunities.

“The only reason [criminals] are doing what they did is because they’re not employed,” Washington Park resident Juan Montgomery said.

Malunda advertised the recently launched Career Pathways Initiative, which aims to help residents of Woodlawn, Washington Park, and the mid–South Side neighborhoods find quality employment at the University, the Medical center, and with other employers. So far, the program has assisted 100 residents in finding positions.