Jazzing Up the South Side

by Chicago Agent

By K.K. Snyder
In 1998, Mayor Richard Daley’s plans to transform the Chicago Housing Authority by creating mixed-income developments prompted the issuance of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a mixed-income neighborhood on the city’s South Side to include a fixed number of replacement public housing units. Chicago development company Thrush Homes’ staff knew they could create what the city wanted. Besides, Thrush had been a pioneer in urban living for more than two decades, building new developments in emerging neighborhoods, and had previously completed four other projects in Bronzeville, considered a blighted neighborhood just 10 years earlier.

“When we started, nobody else was building new homes [in Bronzeville],” says David L. Chase, president and CEO. “Thrush built the first for-sale new construction homes south of the University of Chicago in over 40 years. We have a 15-year history in this community that goes back to the days when Barack Obama was an attorney representing a joint-venture between Thrush and the Chicago Urban League.”

In drafting the RFP, Thrush became dissatisfied with the scope of the project as set forth in the city’s requirements. Not willing to risk being excluded from consideration for the project altogether, Thrush submitted two responses to the RFP: one within the scope of requirements set forth by the city, and a second that was referred to as the “ideal plan.”

Thrush’s plan for the community, dubbed “Jazz on the Boulevard,” created such a stir that the city actually scrapped the original RFP and eventually implemented the ideal plan. The project would include 137 homes, 39 of which were rental units. Thirty of the rental units would be public housing and the other nine moderate income rentals. Of the remaining 98 units, 28 were to be priced below the market and sold as “for sale affordable,” at prices that would allow families earning 120 percent of the median income or less to be able to afford to purchase them. The final 70 homes were priced at market rates.

By 2002, Thrush had been awarded the contract, but that’s when the real challenges began. It was easy enough for Thrush to find financing for new urban infill housing, but how would the company secure and combine with it the public funding needed to finance the public housing units that would coexist with the market priced units? And, once built, how would they market such a mixed-income development?

Enter Century Place Development Corp. Executive Director Andy Gear and Granite Development’s Joe Williams and Larry Huggins, joint venture partners with Thrush, who were charged with identifying funding sources for the public housing units in the project. When all was said and done, Jazz consisted of eight layers of financing, including Chicago Housing Authority grant dollars, low-income housing tax credits, tax increment financing, Department of Housing’s Home Fund and the Chicago Community Loan Fund among other sources. In all, it took two solid years to put together the financing package and all the contracts that went along with it, says Chase.

Once the money was in place, the first homes were sold in March 2004 and construction followed in August. Then it was time to face the marketing challenge. Chase, concerned about how to market a $250,000 condo with a public housing unit right below or across the hall, needed a feel for how potential residents from each sector would react to the proposal that they all live together in harmony. He wanted to know from a professional, up-and-coming type whether they’d be embarrassed to live in an area that most people had considered the “wrong side of the tracks,” so to speak.

“Walking out to get your newspaper on Sunday morning, do you have any concern whatsoever about being mistaken as a public housing resident?” he questioned friends of various races. On the flip side, would someone who qualified for public housing want to be neighbors with someone whose lifestyle was likely a world apart from their own? The responses were mixed.

With its universal appeal of a music theme, Jazz on the Boulevard was so named in honor of the rich history of jazz music in Bronzeville, where all the big names used to come together to jam, says Chase, and the marketing was designed to resonate with all potential residents across the board. Thrush, with the success of previous projects in its back pocket, became even more active in the community, working with Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and community leader Shirley Newsome of the North Kenwood/Oakland Conservation Community Council.

Most beneficial was the teamwork with neighborhood real estate brokers and agents. “You have to remember, this was a blighted area,” Chase says. “They bring in people from other areas to buy our homes.” Great signage and a solid knowledge of marketing brought folks into the sales center. However, Chase credits some sales to the company’s “Make a Friend a Neighbor” referral program, and residents of other Thrush communities moving to Jazz.

The sales staff fully communicated all aspects of the project to potential buyers and the units have sold, albeit slowly. Soon after, word got out to local media about the mixed-income development. “I couldn’t very well say, ‘Don’t talk about the public housing component,’” he says, “but I knew it would take about a year longer to sell the homes than it normally would.”

He was right. By the time the last units sell next year, as Chase predicts, the project will be entering its fourth year of marketing. “The reason it took longer was the social stigma that still has not been erased from people’s minds about public housing,” he says. “What makes these unique among the 20,000 public units here is that the rental components of Jazz are indistinguishable and integrated into the for-sale product.”

Today, Jazz on the Boulevard includes townhomes, row houses, duplexes, flats and condominiums along 41st Street and Drexel Boulevard. Designed in masonry and featuring artistic elements such as stone detailing, bay windows, private balconies, arches and decorative iron fencing, all of the homes in Jazz reflect the Victorian style prominent along Drexel Boulevard as well as in Kenwood.

“It’s an interesting dynamic that, fortunately, we’ve been very successful with,” says Chase. Jazz is at 80 percent occupancy and is nearing completion on its final three buildings. And, Thrush Homes is already gearing up to announce in the next three to six months their plans for a new residential project about a block away, yet another project in the ongoing growth “explosion” Chase has witnessed in the Bronzeville community in the past few years.

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