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‘Very ambitious plan’ proposed to redevelop Atrium Village

Atrium Village 300 W. Hill opened late ’70s offering renters atrium mid-rise garden low-rise residences. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Atrium Village, 300 W. Hill, opened in the late ’70s, offering renters atrium mid-rise and garden low-rise residences. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

When Atrium Village at Division and Wells opened to renters in the late 1970s, residents could gaze upon the towers of Cabrini-Green. And that was supposed to be an attraction.

Atrium Village was for people who didn’t mind a little social experimentation where they live. It was an attempt to mix people from different incomes and, openly at one time, races.

But the Cabrini towers of public housing are gone now. While Atrium Village was a bridge between blight on the west and glitter on the east 30 years ago, it’s clear that glitter won.

Its neighbors used to be tenements and empty lots. High-rises for professionals, busy stores and the elite Walter Payton College Prep have replaced them.

The neighborhood has changed, and the owners of Atrium Village, a group that includes four local churches, say it’s time the property changes with it. The owners-turned-developers want to replace the 307-unit complex with a phased development of 1,673 homes, including four high-rises. The tallest would be 44 stories.

They said they could do it while remaining true to the property’s social mission. Twenty percent of the homes would be deemed “affordable” and rented to people who earn no more than 80 percent of the region’s median income.

The 320 affordable units the project would create would serve more families than the site can today, said Jeffrey Crane, president of Crane Construction Co. LLC and one of the project’s partners.

“While it served its purpose to everybody, today it’s not really a part of any neighborhood,” Crane said. “It needs to be redeveloped, consistent with the original mission.”

The proposal Crane and another partner, Seattle-based Security Properties, has started showing calls for replacing everything on the seven-acre parcel. It currently has a nine-story building plus many six-flats.

“The property is aging. It requires a lot of capital improvements just to keep operating,” Crane said.

The earliest phase, which could be finished in a couple of years, would place a 28-story building at Division and Wells. Crane said it would cause minimal displacement of current residents.

He also said developers would absorb the moving costs for anyone who wants to stay on the property.

“We want it developed in what we consider to be bite-sized chunks,” said John Marasco, chief development officer of Security Properties.

For the market-rate housing, the project foresees substantial rent increases. One example the developers offered, based on a market survey of the area, showed that monthly rents for a two-bedroom apartment might rise to $1,890 a month from the current $1,303.

The renters got their first look at the plans at a private meeting last night. It’s the first of several community meetings that developers often have before they ask for a zoning change.

The meetings will be sounding boards for Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), who must decide whether to back the project’s zoning. Burnett said the developers need to meet with Old Town merchants and other groups.

“We’ll see how it’s going to do. It’s a very ambitious plan,” he said.

Ownership of the property has changed little over the years. Four churches that bought into the original income-mixing mission still have equity interest, Crane said.

They are Fourth Presbyterian Church, Holy Family Lutheran Church, La Salle Street Church and St. Matthew’s Methodist Church.

“They see this as improving the community. They also see it as helping the church base,” said Patrick FitzGerald, chairman of FitzGerald Associates Architects.

With the Seattle-based architectural firm Baumgardner, FitzGerald drew up plans that represent a smaller version of the successful Lakeshore East project downtown. It calls for high-rises on the property perimeter, rows of townhouses and a public park in the center.

All the parking would be underground, in contrast to the open parking lots that now cover much of the site.

In 1987, the Reagan administration sued Atrium Village for its explicit use of racial quotas, using a plan the Ford administration ordered a decade earlier. Crane said the quotas were dropped under a settlement that foreshadowed the income-mixing rules that applied to later federally backed projects for affordable housing.

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