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Historic Rosenwald awaits new benefactor

The historic Rosenwald Apartments 4600 S. Michigan Avenue Tuesday October 18 2011. |  John H. White~Sun-Times.

The historic Rosenwald Apartments at 4600 S. Michigan Avenue, Tuesday, October 18, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: November 20, 2011 8:54AM

In 2000, conditions at the Rosenwald Apartments at 4600 S. Michigan got so bad that the city ordered the place closed and gave the families living there Section 8 vouchers to move. And so a part of Chicago’s history of social activism lapsed into disuse.

The Rosenwald has been vacant ever since. But it’s not just any vacant building in Bronzeville. Built in 1929, it covers a city block and once contained 451 apartments laid out in a way that reflected high-mindedness of creator Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Rosenwald wanted to test the concept of “work force housing” and he hired his nephew, architect Ernest Grunsfeld, for the job. Grunsfeld later did the Adler Planetarium.

Entrances were clustered so the residents might meet each other and feel like they were in a smaller building than the Rosenwald really was. The five-story brick building wraps around a private courtyard of about two acres. Today, private open-air space in multi-family housing is an amenity for the rich.

By most accounts, the building lived up to its mission of providing dignified, affordable living for several decades. The courtyard was compared to a campus quadrangle. But by the 1970s, decay in the building and the surrounding neighborhood chased out many blacks, who had more housing choices than before. The courtyard became a convenient place for drug deals.

But after many years, it’s possible that something positive is finally happening with the Rosenwald. A partnership run by Landwhite Developers LLC, with offices in Chicago and New York, has a contract to buy the property from its Skokie-based owners, AMA Realty Group LLC.

Landwhite specializes in renovations for affordable housing in the Midwest, but this would be its first project in Chicago. It’ll be a gut rehab and a gut check.

David Roos, executive vice president of Landwhite, said he wants to convert the building into 332 units of senior or family housing, all reserved for low-income families. The project might cost $170 million, he said.

The building is said to be secure, but upper floors are open to the elements. Asbestos and lead paint have to go, and Roos said he’s still tallying up structural damage.

It should qualify for a range of tax credits, as the Rosenwald is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not a Chicago landmark, but that could change.

Roos said he’s working on 14 sources of financing and hopes to close the sale by year-end. The City of Chicago is one potential source. The City Council has approved a first step toward a later issuance of federally tax-free housing revenue bonds totaling $58.6 million for Landwhite’s plans. City funds are not at risk, but tax-increment financing probably will figure in a final deal.

Roos, who owns the company with New York investor Jay Landesman, said demolishing the Rosenwald was not an option. It was well built, he said, and the 47th Street frontage has commercial space that the area needs. “This is an entire city block, and redeveloping it really could change that entire side of town,” he said.

The Rosenwald is within the 3rd Ward of Ald. Pat Dowell, who said she’s confident Landwhite has the skill to tackle the project. Many elements still need work, she said, such as finding land near the Rosenwald for tenant parking. There’s no way she’d want that courtyard taken up by cars.

GOING VERTICAL: Not to be outdone by the construction of other South Loop schools, East-West University has announced plans for a 17-story Student Life Center at 825 S. Wabash. Designed by Holabird & Root, the building will connect to the school’s Loftrium Building at 815 S. Wabash and include dorms for 220 students, plus an auditorium, gym and other functions.

Construction should start in December and completion is expected in time for the fall term of 2013.

GOING DOWNTOWN: Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary that has been in Hyde Park since 1926, is moving to the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies building at 610 S. Michigan, where it’s leasing a floor. The University of Chicago is buying Meadville Lombard’s building at 5701 S. Woodlawn as part of a campus redevelopment. Meadville Lombard said its first classes in the Loop will be in January.

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