Chicago, Illinois: Historic Green Rehabilitation at Harvest Commons
The historic preservation of the Union Park Hotel in Chicago is providing 89 single-room occupancy (SRO) units for vulnerable, low-income residents. The Art Deco structure was carefully restored and reimagined as Harvest Commons, a model for affordable, sustainable housing. Opened in spring 2013, the project features a supportive service program that includes case management and counseling services combined with a teaching kitchen, a social enterprise café, and an ambitious urban agriculture program.
Background and Context
To accommodate immigrants moving into Chicago in the early twentieth century, many of the residential buildings in the Near West Side were converted to multifamily buildings and SRO dwellings. Built two miles west of Chicago’s downtown in 1929, the 175-room Union Park Hotel served singles and young couples who could not afford to purchase homes but sought amenities not offered in older rooming houses. The apartment hotel’s Art Deco façade of multicolored terra-cotta tiles was considered an inspired and modern design in a neighborhood of older architectural styles.1
Following World War II, the hotel changed ownership and in the 1960s began a steady decline that would continue into the twenty-first century. In 2006, the city acquired what was then known as the Viceroy Hotel, a hotbed of drug use and other illegal activities, to stem the building’s corrosive effect on the neighborhood and preserve the historic structure.2 Approximately three years later, the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development selected Heartland Housing of Chicago, in partnership with the First Baptist Congregational Church, to rehabilitate the hotel as supportive housing for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, including the formerly homeless, those at risk of homelessness, and recently incarcerated women.3 After documenting its historic value for designation as a Chicago Landmark building and placement in the National Register of Historic Places, the development partners, along with Chicago-based Landon Bone Baker Architects, began an ambitious green rehabilitation.
In rehabilitating the hotel, the development team took a holistic approach to sustainability that respects the integrity of the structure and integrates the project’s environmental, social, and economic dimensions.4 Preserving the building’s historic features involved repairs to the terra-cotta and brick façades and extensive restoration of original plaster architectural details in the first floor lobby.
Harvest Commons includes 89 SRO units and a comprehensive services program. The first floor consists of administrative and service offices, and the remaining five floors are dedicated to housing. The development team preserved and restored the original corridors, including the barrel vaulted ceilings, and reconfigured the original floor plan for the units to accommodate larger living spaces. The furnished units range in size from approximately 320 to 450 square feet; each includes a kitchen, private bathroom, and multiple windows that maximize natural lighting. The 17 units on the second floor are leased to women recently released from prison through St. Leonard’s Ministries, a Chicago faith-based organization that provides comprehensive assistance to help formerly incarcerated individuals transition to independent living. Eighty units are available to those earning less than 60 percent of area median income (AMI), and the remaining units are reserved for those earning less than 30 percent AMI.
An extensive support infrastructure helps residents remain stably housed and provides life-skills training, workforce development programs, and other activities. The building’s first floor was adapted for Heartland Human Care Services and Heartland Health Care, affiliates of Heartland Housing, to provide case management services, along with mental health and substance abuse counseling. A commercial-grade teaching kitchen staffed by a dietician is used for cooking classes and other programs to promote resident wellness and healthy living. The dietician provides residents with both group classes and one-on-one nutritional counseling.
As part of its program for recently incarcerated women, St. Leonard’s Ministries operates a social enterprise café that is open to the public on the building’s ground floor. After completing St. Leonard’s workforce development program, residents work in the café to gain practical experience that will help them secure employment in the food services industry.
The project’s integrated approach to sustainability and resident development extends outside the building. Adjacent to the building, in the former parking lot, is an urban agriculture program staffed by a farm coordinator and maintained with the help of residents. The program features raised beds for vegetables, a composting system, fruit trees, and a chicken coop for laying hens. When fully operational, the 3,500-square-foot microfarm will provide fresh produce for the café and could one day host a neighborhood farmers market in an outdoor pavilion.
Six stories above the farm, the building’s roof has been retrofitted with succulent plants to reduce stormwater runoff. In addition, solar thermal panels have been installed to provide energy for approximately 50 percent of the building’s hot water supply. Thirteen geothermal wells, tapping into a consistent temperature of approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit 450 feet below the surface, reduce energy use for heating and cooling. Each living unit is equipped with a heat pump, and monitors allow residents to track their energy consumption. Based on calculations by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, these investments in renewable energy systems are expected to generate utility costs that are approximately 21 percent less than those of a comparable building. These technologies have also helped the project meet Enterprise Green Communities Certification requirements and receive certification through the city’s Green Permit program.
Financing for the $22 million rehabilitation came from various local, state, and federal sources, including $11.8 million in federal low-income housing tax credit equity and $2.7 million in federal historic tax credit equity. The city provided $3.9 million in tax increment financing, along with $1.1 million in equity from its share of the Illinois Affordable Housing Tax Credit program. The Chicago Housing Authority is providing project-based vouchers for all of the units.
At Harvest Commons, Heartland Housing and First Baptist Congregational Church are taking an approach to sustainability that prioritizes resident health and development. Through the onsite teaching kitchen, urban farm, social enterprise café, and supportive services, some of the city’s most vulnerable residents can gain work experience and develop life skills. Through its comprehensive housing and service program, the project demonstrates the value of collaboration as a tool to help affordable housing providers reach underserved populations. By partnering with Heartland Housing, St. Leonard’s Ministries was able to expand its residential program for formerly incarcerated women without assuming the responsibility of developing and operating a new facility.
The project represents progress in the city’s efforts to combat homelessness by expanding the supply of permanent supportive housing opportunities for at-risk populations. In 2012, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness placed the need for permanent supportive housing for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness at approximately 2,000 units.5
City of Chicago. 2010. Landmark Designation Report: Union Park Hotel. Accessed 7 November 2013.
Ibid; interview with Hume An, director of real estate development, Heartland Housing, 15 November 2013.
City of Chicago, Department of housing and Economic Development. 12 July 2011. “Staff Report to the Community Development Commission Requesting Authority to Approve the Sale of Land to a CDC-Designated Successful RFP Respondent and Designation of the Successful Respondent as Developer.” 12 July 2011. Accessed 7 November 2013.
Interview with Hume An.
City of Chicago and Chicago Alliance. 2012. Chicago’s Plan 2.0: A Home for Everyone. Accessed 18 December 2013.