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Homan Square is the community development on the site of the original Sears, Roebuck and Co. world headquarters in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. Starting in the late 1980's, the former Sears properties have been renovated in partnership with the City of Chicago and neighborhood residents to serve new purposes including housing and a community center.
New Homes for North Lawndale
No one had pursued building new homes in North Lawndale since the riots following Dr. King’s assassination. With declining job markets and limited housing options, the neighborhood lost many of its middle-class families. New housing was needed; both to provide quality housing for lower income residents, and to attract middle-income families back to the neighborhood. Long-term economic stability required a mixed-income housing market. In 1993, with the support of subsidies from the City of Chicago’s “New Homes for Chicago” program, the Shaw Company began constructing new single-family homes accessible to families with annual incomes as low as $35,000. Homes constructed in Phase I sold quickly. Phase II began immediately with a lower level of subsidy and slightly higher sales prices. Sales were also swift. The next phase of housing completed in 1999 was constructed without any subsidy.
These units sold at market rates up to $185,000. All were quickly sold. To accommodate those needing quality rental housing, the Shaw Company constructed 150 brand new rental units. Once completed, they were also quickly occupied. Because of the ongoing demand for quality rental housing, in 2011 the Shaw Company completed 42 additional units of affordable rental units. Homan Square had achieved its goal of a 50/50 mix of rental and owner-occupied mixed-income housing. More importantly, 350 families now called Homan Square home. Many of the original owners still live at Homan Square and manage the development through the Homan Square Homeowners Association.
A Climate for Commerce
Long-term success for a community depends on more than new housing alone. Everyone knew that attracting new businesses and creating a positive climate for commerce was essential. The former Sears administration building was converted to office and commercial space for non-profits and small businesses and attracted a number of businesses and organizations, including Congressman Danny K. Davis. (NOTE: Now under different private ownership, the building was recently shuttered.) The success of new housing at Homan Square helped convince private developers of the viability of the neighborhood. A grocery store and other merchants opened south of Homan Square in the 16-acre Lawndale Plaza. The City of Chicago renovated another building in the complex to house 1,200 police officers and staff. Their presence in the new Homan Square Police Facility has increased safety, and offers a boost to local merchants. These developments have also given local political leaders and community development organizations something to point to when courting additional investment in the neighborhood.
Families and Children
Another piece of the original Homan Square vision was to address a decades-long desire of community leaders for a comprehensive recreation, health and family center. With numerous efforts promised and hopes dashed, it was essential that this component be done, done right, and done in close partnership with community residents. An advisory committee of local residents, the Community Center Advisory Council, was formed and a small group of potential service providers recruited to begin making plans. Once an initial plan was developed a fund raising committee was formed from the top-tier of Chicago civic leaders. These individuals joined neighborhood leaders in launching what became a $28.7 million fund raising effort. At the same time, great pains were taken to recruit the finest providers of recreation, health and social services in Chicago. Family Focus, Lawndale and the North Lawndale YMCA were in from the start. Lawndale Christian Health Center came on board with a perfect match of primary medical care services and a commitment to treating everyone, even the uninsured. Ties between neighborhood schools and service providers led to discussions with the Hinsdale-based Robert Crown Center for Health Education and an eventual agreement to join the team. Finally, the Chicago Park District and City of Chicago anchored the entire endeavor when Mayor Daley committed to a $15 million facility and full Park District programming. When the Park District declared its intention to construct an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium, the deal was sealed. More important than the enormous skills and experience of each individual provider is their desire to collaborate with one another to offer residents unparalleled access to the best health, family, education, and recreation services in Chicago. Construction began in fall of 1999 and was completed in December of 2001. The long-delayed dream was finally a vital reality. Now more than 6000 visitors come to the Center for recreation or programs each week. Homan Square Campus service providers have created partnerships and an interlocking network of services that provided comprehensive care, from general dentistry to parenting classes. An expecting mother can get prenatal care at Lawndale Christian Health Center and enroll in parenting classes at Family Focus. As each provider has grown their services, they have also extended their collaboration out into the community to serve more residents.
Education at Homan Square
The next wave of development centered on education, a component not included in the original vision. Holy Family Lutheran School broke ground at the foot of the original Sears Tower in the spring of 2007 on a 45,000 square foot, Pre-K through 8th grade school to serve low-income students. In the fall of 2009, the Henry Ford Academy: Power House High School opened to 250 9th and 10th grade students in the newly restored power house. Named the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, the $45 million restoration of the Sears power house blends historic preservation and cutting-edge sustainable technologies. Original building features were retained to preserve a connection to the building’s past. A geothermal heating and cooling system and other energy efficiency measures make the building a candidate for the highest green building certification.
The restoration received the “Project of the Year” award from the Landmarks Illinois Driehaus Preservation Awards and is poised to receive further recognition for sustainable design, historic preservation, and community redevelopment. Both Holy Family Ministries and Power House High further the Homan Square tradition of excellence and help to meet a vital community need for high-quality education. They represent the latest step in the long journey from vacancy to vibrancy in North Lawndale.