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Landmarks Commission OK’s push to preserve Pilsen’s historic buildings

The landmark district would be one of the largest in Chicago and the first to include murals

The city took a significant step towards establishing a landmark district in Pilsen despite a lukewarm reception from the alderman-elect and the objections of a small-but-vocal group of residents.

On Thursday, the nine-member Chicago Landmarks Commission unanimously voted to recommend the proposal, which would protect approximately 850 buildings in the gentrifying near south side neighborhood—most of them located on a mile-and-a-half stretch of 18th Street, a 13-block residential area south of 18th, and a commercial portion of Blue Island Avenue.

As proposed, Pilsen’s would qualify as one of the city’s largest landmark districts and the first to include murals. It’s also unique in its aim to maintain structures tied to two different cultures and periods of development: First a wave of Eastern European immigrants that built Baroque-inspired brick and stone structures over the late 19th and early 20th century and Mexican immigrants’ public art from 1978 to the present day.

What those two disparate groups have in common is they’re both working-class immigrant populations. The Bohemian and Mexican architecture and culture are worth celebrating and preserving at a time when a wave of developers are increasingly bulldozing historic structures in favor of bland luxury condos and lofts, says the landmark district’s proponents.

“This is more than a Czechoslovakian and European collection of historic buildings or Mexican. It’s America’s story, it’s my story, it’s my mother’s story. I think we have to remember that this is much bigger than us,” said Commissioner Mary Ann Smith before voting yes. “In my past community experience in bringing back crime-ridden and redlined communities, one of the best tools that we have is landmarking.”

Some commissioners acknowledged that the process was being expedited to protect three buildings on 18th St deemed historically significant from being demolished by a developer.

“We do not want to see the very buildings we’re seeking to protect to be demolished by virtue of procedural issues,” said David Reifman, in his final meeting as the city’s outgoing Planning and Development Commissioner. “We want to put in place protection which gives us the ability to evaluate the demolition permit while giving the community more time to understand the [proposal].”

The plan now goes to the revamped City Council’s Zoning Committee, where new mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot is preparing to appoint 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell as chair. But it may not be smooth sailing considering the landmark district doesn’t have the explicit support of Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who takes office as 25th Ward Alderman next week (the district as proposed lies fully within Sigcho-Lopez’s ward).

Sigcho-Lopez didn’t attend Thursday’s meeting—he was out of the country on his honeymoon—but he wrote an editorial for the Chicago Sun-Times calling for more public input before a decision could be made. “A one-off public meeting that garnered little-to-no consensus from the people affected most by such a permanent designation does not cut it,” he wrote.

In his stead, Zoe Chan, a Sigcho-Lopez staffer, told the Landmarks Commission that “we’re not taking a side for or against” the landmark district proposal but “there are a lot of questions around this we want answered.” Chan later told Curbed that Sigcho-Lopez was planning a May 30 community meeting in Pilsen where he would “advance a more specific proposal.”

Some Pilsen residents have been more explicit in their opposition to the landmark district. Kyle Frayn, who owns a three-flat building in the neighborhood noted that 90 percent of homeowners wrote letters to the Landmarks Commission against it. “This is not being done with community approval,” said Frayn. “Take the feedback and come back and talk to us.”

That figure is deceiving because of the low response rate—only 10 percent of affected homeowners answered the survey, a commissioner noted.

Pilsen resident and community organizer Andrew Herrera says he doesn’t buy the narrative that the city is unnecessarily rushing the proposal. “I’ve been to meetings for years—this has been talked about in some form since 2006,” said Herrara, citing the year the national Pilsen landmark district was approved by the National Park Service.

Herrera says he’s tired of driving on Cermak Road and seeing “horrible, cheap” condos and new development replace old buildings.

“At the end of the day, this [historic district] necessarily preserves Pilsen’s cultural and architectural legacy and creates new hurdles to developers’ blind pursuit of profit,” he said. “I suspect there are ways to improve this proposal. But there has to be a decision on this soon because a no-decision just accelerates gentrification.”