Woodlawn Neighbors Could Lose Community Garden As Apartment Developer Takes Over Space

WOODLAWN — East Woodlawn residents have spent more than a decade turning a vacant lot into a community garden that has created a pandemic oasis for longtime neighbors and attracted newcomers to their block.

But the future of the 65th & Blackstone Community Garden is in limbo as developers plan to build apartments on the land. Neighbors say they want to work with the developer and the city to save the garden, but they also want to use the experience to better organize the community to get input on what projects come to the area.

The West Side developer DOM Properties offers a 14-unit, four-story building at 6521 S. Blackstone Ave. All apartments have two bedrooms and two bathrooms and will be 820-910 square meters, depending on the designs. The Chicago Planning Commission approved the plans on October 19, sending the project for review by the City Council.

A rendering of the 6521 S. Blackstone Ave. development, which passed the City Planning Commission last month. Credit: Hanna Architects/Chicago Department of Planning and Development

The land is home to garden beds, fruit and shade trees, a meeting platform and a picnic area for the garden. DOM bought the property from the city in 2021.

“When I was looking for a condo to buy, the community garden was one of the reasons I decided” to move, said Nikiya Pruitt, who has lived near the garden since 2017. “It’s just a place where we can all go . on our block to have space and community with others.”

Neighbors welcomed the development in their community, they said. But with plenty of vacant land nearby – there is no corner building at 65th Place and Blackstone – they don’t understand why the company chose to develop the longhouse in their garden, they said.

“There are good places to put buildings so that there is more housing in this neighborhood – and more equitable housing — but the only block in the area that has a garden is the one that’s developed,” said Thomas Gaulkin, who lives just north of the garden on 65th Street.

The developer has several other projects in the area, including those on the block at 1405 and 1414 E. 65th Place, according to Chicago Cityscape. A representative of DOM Properties asked Block Club to email questions about the development, but DOM did not respond.

The community garden extends into four lots. One is the development site, two are owned by garden co-founder Candace Vogler, while a city plot divides Vogler’s properties.

Vogler could not be reached for comment. She and her husband started the garden to revitalize vacant land and create more green space for neighbors, which became a necessity during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Pruitt said.

“During the pandemic, it was a really key, instrumental place for a lot of us, because we didn’t have a lot of places to go,” Pruitt said. “It was good for mental health purposes as the neighbors struggled with anxiety and depression. … This was one of the few places within walking distance that was not vacant, where we could use the space for the meeting of the community.”

Kids play soccer at the 65th & Blackstone Community Garden in September. Credit: Thomas Gaulkin / Provided

Neighbors voiced their frustrations at the October Planning Commission meeting. They blasted the developer and the city for characterizing the land as “vacant,” ignoring the constant activity in the garden, they said.

Commissioners approved the project after saying their only role was to make sure they followed those of the city lake protection requirements. The plans do not require a zoning change, and DOM, as a private landowner, would otherwise have the rights to build on the property, officials said.

“Those rights that come from the purchase that was approved by the City Council have to replace someone else’s use of city land at some point in the past,” said Planning Commissioner Patrick Murphey.

With the project seemingly a go, some neighbors agreed that big changes are in line for the 65th & Blackstone Community Garden.

Far from giving up, they say they are motivated ​​​​to find a way forward – whether in collaboration with DOM on the existing space, moving the garden next door or some other solution.

They also want city officials to better communicate with residents about developments in the works, even those with direct paths to approval as DOM.

“We’ve already lost something. Now, it’s just like, how do we work together to prevent other things from happening? Pruitt said.

The garden issue highlights residents’ need for “a better process to engage with the city and developers” around new projects, Gaulkin said. “I don’t think it’s a new concern or anything, but hopefully we can make some progress on it with our current representatives.”

A panoramic view of the 65th Blackstone Community Garden. Credit: Thomas Gaulkin / Provided

Neighbors east of the Metra Electric tracks on 65th Street and 65th Place and residents of the Apartments on the terrace of the island they organized the Woodlawn Corner Block Club Alliance. The alliance unites residents around local concerns as the Obama Presidential Center is built.

In the midst of a hot housing market, displacement issues and transit problemsThe garden issue was a final straw in the creation of the block club, said member Gabriel Piemonte, a former Candidate for alderman of the 5th district.

“This development came up, and we just realized that there are too many things for us to try to put out the fires one at a time,” Piemonte said. “… We will definitely use the organizational skills of the block club to make sure we are that squeaky wheel.”

Neighbors felt a sense of “good will” in discussing with city officials how the garden could be relocated to nearby vacant lots, but sustained pressure is needed to “make sure it translates into action,” Piemonte said. .

Form Ald. Leslie Hairston the plans praised last year for its ability to enhance community housing. The estate of Hairston, Ald. Desmon Yancy (5th), he told the Hyde Park Herald has little power over the project, but plans to create an advisory board on public safety, economic development and housing in Woodlawn.

“The whole community deserves to have some say in how development happens in the neighborhood,” Yancy told the Herald.

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