Church plan preaches high hopes for betterment of Woodlawn

At Woodlawn, you can’t blame people for being alternately impatient and wary of change. The South Side neighborhood next to Jackson Park has been waiting for good things to happen for a long time.

In 1997, CTA finished demolishing its unused Green Line tracks that ran over East 63rd Street, a remnant of a spur originally built to take runners to the 1893 World’s Fair. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration promised that getting rid of the rusting structure would end a plague and bring commercial development to the street.

But little has happened for years. Today, one can still find an argument as to whether it was wise to remove rather than renovate some of the transit infrastructure.

As construction of the Obama Presidential Center continues in Jackson Park, residents fear the attention it is garnering will cause developers to scour Woodlawn for places to build high-end housing. Some fear a game of dominoes of gentrification that will drive out longtime residents.

But there’s another issue at play – simply bringing people back to a neighborhood that many have abandoned. The predominantly black community has shrunk to less than 25,000 from 80,000 in the 1960s.

Whatever impact the Obama Center will have, it should be noted that the biggest development plan to date for Woodlawn has come from within the neighborhood. The Apostolic Church of God at 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., with some 20,000 members, has about eight acres around its sanctuary. He uses the land for parking.

But the church is moving slowly on a massive plan whose estimated costs have risen with inflation. J. Byron Brazier, lead developer of so-called Woodlawn Central, pegged the overall investment at $800 million, down from $600 million when details were first finalized in early 2022.

Brazier said the higher costs haven’t deterred interested partners from inquiring about the project.

“We’re looking at who we can have the best working relationship with,” Brazier said, pointing to the church’s long-term interest in controlling development. “As developers, we’re looking at how we can build people while building buildings.”

Brazier is the son of Apostolic Church pastor Reverend Byron Brazier and has a background in real estate marketing. The son said he hopes to announce key partnerships in a few weeks, such as a general contractor and architectural firm for the overall design. Its goal is to send a first zoning proposal to the city in early 2023 and start construction a few months later. “We need to make progress in 2023,” he said.

Actual work on the site would show the neighborhood and potential co-investors that the plan is real. Details will likely change, but the vision for Woodlawn Central is currently requesting 870 housing units, a hotel, a theater, up to 215,000 square feet of retail space and parking for the church.

Brazier said the church is committed to providing housing for a range of incomes, believing it is the most sustainable way to improve the community.

The proposal covers land on both sides of 63rd Street, along a Metra stop and within walking distance of the University of Chicago and Jackson Park. These location details will form a large part of the project’s sales pitch. But another advantage over other urban projects is that there are no multiple landowners with tax arrears to sort out.

With Woodlawn Central, Brazier said the church would retain land ownership while allowing structures to be built on land leases.

“You don’t have a lot of institutions in the city that own that much property without a lot of debt,” he said. “Site control is half the battle.”

Bill Eager, who works for a non-profit property developer that has invested heavily in Woodlawn, said the church’s proposal had merit and was not taking place in a vacuum. Several projects have taken root there, including a University of Chicago charter school, a health clinic, and mixed-income residences by Preservation of Affordable Housing, where Eager serves as senior vice president of development for the Midwest. At 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue, developer Leon Walker is planning new offices behind a dignified old bank facade.

“Once the Obama Center gets visitors, you want to have things that draw people to Woodlawn, so it’s important to focus on 63rd Street,” Eager said.

In addition, the town planning department has guest developer proposals for two large vacant sites on the south side of 63rd, from Ingleside Avenues to Greenwood. The plots are owned by the city. Developer responses are expected by September 14.

As owner of 27% of vacant land in Woodlawn, the city must be a partner in any improvement.

Maybe a little more patience will eventually pay dividends for Woodlawn.

Jerry B. Hatch