Community stakeholders tell us what makes the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn so great

The People's Guide is a series examining Chicago's many, many neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and local community leaders. Have a piece to say? We'll be happy to hand over the megaphone.

This time around, we spoke with Bill Eager of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), Dr. Leon Finney of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, and Jake Sapstein, owner of the Robust Coffee Lounge to discuss the Woodlawn community, the 2016 Curbed Cup winning neighborhood.

 

Why was 2016 an important year for Woodlawn?

Dr. Leon Finney: There are two big reasons. The Obama Library became a real game changer for Woodlawn. It has become a major catalyst that will inspire development in the immediate Woodlawn area and probably over into Washington Park. This means that new mixed income homes will be built and listed for sale. Over the next four years, I believe we will see the development of around 500 to 600 for-sale homes in the immediate Woodlawn area.

The other major game changer is the new Tiger Woods-led redesign of the Jackson Park golf course that is being planned. That will be another major economic stimulus. It’ll not only help us in Woodlawn and Washington Park, but it’ll be pushing more towards the South Shore, so you’ve got three neighborhoods that will be impacted by the Obama Library and the new Tiger Woods golf course. We’re looking at new homes, jobs, retail, and commercial activity. I would predict that Woodlawn is set to take off like Lincoln Park did 40 years ago.

What are some things that folks may not already know about the Woodlawn area?

Bill Eager: There are a lot of things that people don’t realize about Woodlawn. If you look at all of the amenities and all of the potential that exists in Woodlawn, it is astonishing. It’s a lakefront community, it is surrounded by two of the most beautiful parks in the Chicago Park District system, it has wonderful transportation access—both public transit with the CTA and Metra but also vehicular access with Lake Shore Drive and the expressway. We have the largest employer in the South Side [the University of Chicago] at our doorstep and we have really nice, accessible architecture.

The neighborhood has a large inventory of historic housing stock. Has this been a major attraction for new investment?

Bill Eager: There’s a wonderful housing stock—a lot of really nice brick two-flats and nice architecture. However, over several decades in the twentieth century, there was a significant population loss in Woodlawn. It’s quite unfortunate, but the one thing is has done is created a lot of room for Woodlawn to grow without the displacement of the lower income folks who live there now. In 1960, there were about 80,000 people living in Woodlawn and today it’s around 25,000. So it was an unfortunate trend, but it creates an opportunity to do community development really well over the next several years.

 A stretch of new homes POAH

Population growth is on the rise while crime is down. Why do you think Woodlawn is bucking these trends that affect other South Side communities?

Dr. Leon Finney: Woodlawn has always had major assets that contributed to its potential well-being. It has the one of the greatest universities [the University of Chicago] in the United States of America—and that’s a major asset. It is also a community that is located within close proximity to Lake Michigan and there are wonderful runs of beach going from 47th Street all the way to 71st Street. And of course, it has excellent transportation. Woodlawn has a Metra line that runs right through the neighborhood, and of course, it has good east-west arterial streets.

We’ve got some great architecture and wonderful old buildings, but the other thing is that we’ve got plenty of vacant land available to build on without displacement. And another thing that’s important is that we’ve got stable leadership in Woodlawn. Some of us have been around for four or five decades and we’re still there, and we can offer our developed wisdom, our understanding, and relationships. Woodlawn is a very well organized neighborhood—we know each other and we’ve been working together for decades. So, my sense is that when you add the Obama Library and Jackson Park to those assets, it bodes well for the future of Woodlawn.

What are some of the most noticeable changes you’ve witnessed over the last several years in Woodlawn?

Jake Sapstein: The most obvious change is that the land has been filling in. In most neighborhoods, you have to go in and rehab existing buildings, but Woodlawn is kind of the exception where there was more empty space and open lots and less density. So in the last seven years, we’ve seen an incredible number of new buildings go up or proposals for new buildings on empty lots. The neighborhood is filling in right now at an incredibly rapid pace.

 Robust Coffee Lounge

What are some places you’d recommend for people to check out if they were just in the neighborhood for an afternoon?

Jake Sapstein: If people were coming in to visit for a day, I would say that there’s definitely the attraction of Hyde Park and downtown Hyde Park and the museums. The university [University of Chicago] is such a big part of Hyde Park but for Woodlawn as well. The Shrine of Christ the King had a fire recently, but it was an opportunity for the neighborhood to come together to save the church.

I feel like a lot of people probably don’t know about Jackson Park golf course. It’s one of only two public golf courses in the city and there’s a major $30 million redevelopment and redesign going into it. There’s also a new installation and art piece being done by Yoko Ono going into the park space near 63rd and Cornell.

 The Statue of the Republic in Jackson Park Flickr Creative Commons/vxla

For a neighborhood with a relatively low population, it’s a very park rich area. Is this a major attraction for investors?

Bill Eager: It’s unbelievable. In addition to all of the parks, there are four swimming pools in Woodlawn, there’s a golf course, there are four gymnasiums, there’s a squash facility. If Woodlawn was located on the North Side, none of us would be able to afford to live there because it would be so desirable that it would be out of reach for most people.

If someone was interested in opening a small business, where should they look?

Jake Sapstein: 63rd Street was an incredible shopping district in the past and had an incredible amount of retail and properties that lined the street. But through the years, there has been a lot of empty space left behind. For anybody looking to build a business from the ground-up, I’d say this is a great place to be because there is a lot of potential here.

For those who are interested in learning more about the community or maybe even buying a home in the neighborhood, where is a good place for them to start?

Bill Eager: I would start with the folks at 1Woodlawn, and for those interested in housing, I would look into a program called Renew Woodlawn, which is helping people locate and purchase homes in the neighborhood. There’s also the Network of Woodlawn, which is kind of an umbrella group of planning agencies out there. And there’s the Woodlawn Public Safety Alliance which has done tremendous work.