Chinatown's New Billion(s) Dollar Neighbor

 /  Oct. 2, 2019, 2:16 p.m.

Chicago's Chinatown

As the developers Related Midwest begin construction for a new Chicago neighborhood christened “The 78,” residents in the neighboring Chinatown are uncertain their community will survive.

The 78

The 78 megaproject was initially approved by the City Plan Commission in November 2018, then unanimously passed by City Council in April 2019, prior to disgraced Alderman Danny Solis’s ignominious departure from office. Previous to Related Midwest’s acquisition, the former rail yard has sat vacant for fifty years, languishing as a brownfield site. The sixty-two-acre, river-front site, located southwest of Clark and Roosevelt and bordered by 16th Street and the Chicago River, is the largest underdeveloped spread of land in downtown Chicago. Promoted as the city’s “78th community area,” the new development will sit next to the Loop, Bronzeville, Pilsen, and Chinatown. 

The development has since accumulated a $700 million subsidy, in the form of a tax increment financing (TIF) district, and additional millions for new infrastructure (a new Red Line stop, relocation of Metra tracks, and improvements to various streets). As a TIF district, the revenue generated above a base amount of property tax revenue goes back into the district for further projects, or to the TIF fund. Some critics have described this TIF fund as a mayoral slush fund.

Prior to TIF approval, the megadevelopment was met with resistance by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez. Their concerns matched those of the critics of another megadevelopment set to be built in Chicago’s Lincoln Yards. State law designed TIF districts to be established only in areas where development is not expected to occur without government incentive. The rationale is that these development projects should not use public money—especially limited TIF money intended by law to aid “blighted” areas. Rather than blight, both the Lincoln Yards and The 78 projects are notably surrounded by some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, hence the criticism from Chicago lawmakers. 

Sigcho-Lopez sought to delay the approval of the TIF for The 78 so the project might be discussed by the 25th Ward community at-large. “Unfortunately, it was rushed in the eleventh hour,” Sigcho-Lopez told The Gate, “and now it’s approved. Now we’re in a much different conversation.” 

Chicago’s Chinatown

While Chinatowns throughout the United States find themselves overrun by gentrification, Chicago’s Chinatown has managed to endure and even grow, despite being flanked by urban revitalization projects on all sides. Its survival is credited mostly to its insular culture of prioritizing the community first. Housing is primarily sold and rented among Chinese immigrants through community networks and newspapers, and businesses are largely Chinese or Asian. Due to these internal structures, the community has traditionally been a port of entry for new immigrants—particularly low-income Chinese families and seniors.

Under the Wells-Wentworth Connector project, part of The 78 construction, the first direct roadway from downtown Chicago to Chinatown will be built. This would ostensibly increase Chinatown’s accessibility and bring more economic opportunity to the community. Emma Yu, the executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview with The Gate that she supports the development because “Chicago Chinatown is home to many family-owned or small-scale businesses. With the connector, we will be able to open up these companies to visitor access from areas outside Chinatown.” 

However, there are fears that in the face of a $7 billion dollar megadevelopment, the Chinatown community will not have the means necessary to mitigate the ramifications of such a large-scale project. 

Though there are still low-income Chinese people moving into the community, many immigrants from Asia are increasingly more affluent and educated, Debbie Liu, a Chinatown organizer and staffer with the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council, told The Gate in an interview. For these new immigrants, Chinatown may no longer be the first neighborhood of choice for settlement. There are also the developments east of Chinatown, for McCormick Place, Mortar Row, and One Central, which makes Chinatown-land prime real estate. 

Without community engagement and equitable planning, Debbie Liu foresees the radical displacement of Chinatown residents as property values rise (and taxes with them). Liu shared anecdotes of families moving west into Bridgeport, McKinley Park, or to the suburbs. 

“The 78 has proposed a twelve-acre park, inclusive of a river trail that connects Chinatown to downtown, which is the current river walk. Okay, so you have great schools, great parks, great libraries. That’s going to draw a lot of attention to anybody. What is stopping that from happening?” Liu is not against the amenities of the megadevelopment, but she questions just how accessible The 78 will be to non-residents. For her, “that means that the people who have more access to wealth will displace the people who don’t have access to wealth,” says Liu. “Is that fair? These are questions that a community really needs to address.” In particular, the question that haunts Liu in the face of unchecked gentrification is, “What happens if there are no more Chinatowns?”

Even Emma Yu, though she views the developments positively, has some qualms. “I am a little concerned that the local residents from this community will gradually [be unable to] afford the prices,” says Yu. “I have concerns they will leave and, gradually, there will no longer be a Chinatown.” 

A Need for Greater Community Engagement

Since this past spring, Related Midwest has held two community meetings to present their goals and plans for The 78. According to their promotional materials, Related Midwest lists Chicago’s “melting pot” as a guiding principle: “The best of Chicago is its diversity and proud immigrant foundation. Let’s create the future together—integrated and connected. Bring together different communities, ethnicities, ages and faiths. Make sure everyone feels they belong. The 78 is for all Chicagoans.” 

Debbie Liu has some skepticism about the developer’s devotion to these principles. “Any development, regardless of size, should be vetted from a community standpoint. Related Midwest held community meetings that were not widely notified,” she told The Gate. Related Midwest also held question and answer sessions at the meetings, but Liu found the scope of concerns too narrow. “What’s missing is the conversation of ‘What happens after? What impact will it have on the residents, on the community, on these already-existing assets?’” 

Liu wants grassroots collaboration and hard plans. “We can actually selectively plan for [these developments]. This is not like, ‘if we have a housing crisis in twenty years, we’ll figure out a housing solution twenty years from now.’ We should be crafting that because we know housing is going to be an issue.” Liu pressed, “We need to be thinking more actively about housing, we need to be thinking about our senior population, our kids, millennials who have access to more things but maybe are also saddled with student debt…How are we impacting these unique populations so that we are able to help them live lives that actually benefit the communities where they grew up?” 

Chinatown is already experiencing strains in affordable housing. While discussing the large senior population in Chinatown, Sigcho-Lopez remarked that “The waiting period for anybody looking for an affordable housing unit in Chinatown can be up to fourteen years.” As Sigcho-Lopez looks for resources and resolutions for Chinatown, he wants to ensure that The 78 will not exacerbate the issue. 

Related Midwest has stated that out of the potential ten thousand residential units in The 78, up to two thousand of them may be deemed “affordable housing units.” Sigcho-Lopez wants the community to be able to oversee this process for affordable housing, in addition to concerns regarding commercial spaces and local hiring. He asks, “How does the local community benefit from this project that is receiving public subsidy?” 

Alderman Sigcho-Lopez’s Inclusive Process

This past summer, Sigcho-Lopez created an advisory zoning board composed of representatives from the 25th Ward, including the neighborhoods of Pilsen, West Loop, South Loop, Little Italy, and Chinatown. These civic leaders will represent their respective communities in meetings alongside the alderman’s office. “We have someone from real estate, someone who is an organizer, homeowners, tenants. We have a very diverse set of residents who will be there asking questions and helping us engage in community processes,” Sigcho-Lopez told The Gate. In addition to these residents, Sigcho-Lopez aims to also provide technical support and expertise through a zoning lawyer, or research institutions. 

He hopes that these community leaders will be able to engage with developers, and then educate residents, to help shape projects throughout the ward. “What we want is oversight. We want transparency. We need people to ask tough questions, so that we can get the best deal for the taxpayer, the best deal for the people who will be affected by this,” says Sigcho-Lopez. “My office is limited in capacity to oversee a whole new neighborhood. I need more help, and I think the residents are going to be of great help in getting more people who can go and organize even more people.”

Representing Chinatown in the advisory zoning board is Robert Hoy, a member of the United Chinatown Organization (UCO)—a coalition of small business owners and the aforementioned Debbie Liu. Sigcho-Lopez hopes for a collaborative process with the developers, which would eventually involve larger, authentic community engagement. Liu has some ideas on how to keep Chinatown for and by the community. To protect Chinatown, “there are things like community agreements that could be created to hold people accountable for their actions—which is still a stop-gap measure. Opportunities for communities to work on a land trust, or have housing that is community-based and owned. Historical designations, cultural designations,” says Liu. “It has to be combinations of stuff. It has to be based on the community. The residents should influence what is ultimately decided.” 

In the midst of the conversation, Sigcho-Lopez conceded, “Yes, change is a part of life.” Yet, he was quick to add, “But when people want to stay in their community, we have a responsibility with them to find a way to make it happen.” Speaking on Chinatown’s current state, Sigcho-Lopez emphasized, “Many people refer to the Chinatown community as a very resilient community. It’s a neighborhood where people love to walk, grab a newspaper, get their buns and tea from the local bakery. That’s the community. We need to honor that.” 

For the 25th Ward, Alderman Sigcho-Lopez wants to make development without displacement possible. He asserts, “We have a community that is organized. We need to make sure that we continue to help them, so they can continue to stay.”

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. The original was taken by pulaw and can be found here.

Josephine Wang


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