Fixed Wilson Yard

Uptown's new housing development isn't the slum that neighborhood activists feared.
TOWER OF TERROR? Fix Wilson Yard likened the development to Cabrini-Green, though the interior (below) is more House Beautiful.
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In December 2008, a small but very vocal group of Uptown residents filed a landmark lawsuit against the city. The suit cited abuse of the tax-increment financing plan funding the redevelopment of Wilson Yard, the tract bordered by Broadway, Montrose Avenue and the CTA Red Line tracks south of Wilson Station. Comprising mostly white condo owners, the group called itself Fix Wilson Yard. It wasn’t against the plan’s Target store (opening Sunday 25) or the (as-yet-unoccupied) retail shops along Broadway. What tripped its litigious trigger were the proposed multistory affordable-housing structures (80 units for families, 98 for seniors) that Fix Wilson Yard supporters likened to Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and other Chicago public-housing failures.

“This type of housing model—high-rise, high-density, low-income housing—doesn’t work,” Fix Wilson Yard spokeswoman and real-estate attorney Molly Phelan said at the group’s first meeting in August ’08. Phelan asserted that, as proposed, Wilson Yard would become a hotbed of violent crime and drugs—things for which she said Uptown was already notorious.

A judge dismissed Fix Wilson Yard’s lawsuit, and in February the first residents moved into the Wilson Yard Apartments. Last week, we dropped by the new rental building unannounced to talk to residents; we also took an impromptu tour of the low-income development. What we found were cheerful working-class families (annual income levels range from $15,000 to $25,000) and senior citizens residing in quarters that more closely resemble an IKEA showroom than a Cabrini-esque ghetto.

Outside the brick building, which rises several floors, a 51-year-old certified nurse’s assistant named Lillian was taking her grandkids for a stroll. “So far, I have no complaints here,” she said. “[Wilson Yard] is just working people wanting to live a better life, families trying to get a decent apartment.”

Resident Joyce Johnson Smith, a 61-year-old former Cook County Hospital ward clerk, had been homeless for the past eight years. She lived periodically in housing offered by Uptown homeless service provider REST. “This is a very professional operation,” she said of Wilson Yard. “I’m so happy to not be living in the park and living in the shelter anymore.”

Esmerelda Deleon, 20, was arriving home from her shift at Food 4 Less discount grocery. Comparing Wilson Yard to crumbling housing projects, she said, is “crap.” “[The critics] were totally wrong. The neighborhood is a lot better because of the apartments. There used to be people loitering outside over here. It’s not like that anymore.”

Some of the credit surely goes to property manager Darrell Dautrieve, a 15-year veteran of privately owned Holsten Management Corporation. Dautrieve, who lives in the building and works out of the ground-floor Holsten office, is running a very tight ship. Prospective residents had to pass a comprehensive screening process: credit and criminal background checks, employment history, a drug test, even a home inspection. “We checked for bugs, rodents, we flipped the mattresses back for bedbugs—anything we didn’t want in the building,” Dautrieve said. “We’re also connected to Target, so if they see a fly, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘It’s that damn Wilson Yard.’”

While showing us the pristine apartments—brightly colored and spacious, some with skyline views—Dautrieve chatted up smiling residents, who greeted him as “Mr. Darrell.” He told us Fix Wilson Yard’s criticism steeled him. “They said it was going to be a project, a slum, and it isn’t. My goal is to make it look like something on Michigan Avenue, and it’s heading in that direction.”

We told the defunct Fix Wilson Yard’s Phelan, now a candidate for 46th Ward alderman, about our experience and asked if she and the group misjudged the project. “There are several factors which can lead to instances of drug and gang violence in high-density developments, such as poor building management and poor community support,” she responded via e-mail. “These shortfalls don’t result in difficulties overnight—the neglect may not result in identifiable issues until years later.” But, she added, “I want it to succeed.”

“This is a very professional operation. I’m so happy to not be living in the park and living in the shelter anymore.”—Joyce Johnson Smith, 61

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