Sunday, November 11, 2007

Development Hyde Park Style: The St. Stephen's Fiasco

posted by Peter Rossi

One of the prettiest blocks in Hyde Park is the 5600 block of South Blackstone Ave. A mix of apartments, large frame houses, quaint rowhouses, and even the some of the nicer I. M. Pei urban renewal specials, this block represents the best of Hyde Park. There is one problem, though. On the west side of the street near 57th is an abandoned and vandalized church. This church is referred to in the neighborhood by the name of its last congregation -- the St. Stephen's Church. It was built at the turn of the 20th century as a Christian Science Church.

Vandalized Entrance to St. Stephen's

In the late 1990s, the St. Stephen's congregation had difficulty paying its bills and sold the church to Konstantinos D. Antoniou who was interested in developing the property. Shrieks of concern were heard from local activists who worried that the church would be torn down. Not to worry, said Mr. Antoniou, I will keep the facade and build condos behind it.

No one asked if the church was in character with the rest of the block that grew up around it (it predates the condos to the south and the row houses directly to the North). Today, this church sits like a fat toad, overwhelming the buildings to the North and South

Quadrangle Condos and St. Stephen's

The hulking facade, the Dome, and row houses

The developer's proposal to keep the facade mollified some but, then, the immediate neighbors got concerned. How high was this building going to be? How can we be assured that it will be built properly so that our buildings will not be damaged during construction? How about parking and street access (there is no alley access)? Some of the neighbors got to work and met with the developer to come to terms.

Why should the developer talk turkey with some of the building's neighbors? It turns out that, according to current zoning law, the developer would have to get a zoning variance to build anything more than 4 stories high. He decided that he wanted to build a luxury condo building that would rise to the height of the current structure (the dome is about 76 ft high). This is more like an 8 story building not a 4 story building. The need for a zoning variance gave the neighbors some bargaining power. They thought - we don't really mind a tall building, we just want it done right and with tons of parking.

After consulting various real estate attorneys, these legal eagle neighbors drew up an agreement and persuaded the developer to sign. This is a fascinating document that purports to be a perpetual "convenant" that would be "binding on the Owners and Antoniou and their respective successors, assigns, heirs... " (this document is available from the Cook County Recorder of Deeds ). This agreement forces the developer to build only exactly what he had proposed (complete with drawings) or get approval from two parties to change the plans. The two parties are the Quadrangle Condo Association (the condos immediately to the South) and Jonathan and Elaine Smith (owners of the row house immediately to the North).

Well, the developer, as developers will, changed his plans and asked for approval to proceed. One of these two parties balked and has withheld approval for at least two years. In the meantime, the developer has shown some signs of losing interest in this sordid affair. In 2005, it appears that the developer transferred the control of the property from his land trust to the land trust of an associate, one Julie Georgiadis of Niles. A 300K+ mortgage was taken out from Western Springs National Bank and Trust. The bank filed to foreclose on this mortgage in June of 2007.

Today we have a situation in which one intransigent party is allowed to block progress. The agreement blew up in the faces of those who crafted it so carefully.

But, we should ask why any small group of residents, neighbors or not, should have complete control over the St. Stephen's affair? What about the dozens of other residents of this block? What about other residents of Hyde Park who might benefit by improvements in our housing stock? The church is regularly broken into by local teenagers. When one of them falls to his/her death, we may regret that the church is left standing.

Even if the bottleneck were removed, there is considerable doubt that Mr. Antoniou will develop this property. A search of public documents reveals that he and his many businesses (Mickshea builders, Pantheon Builders, G&D Excavating ...) have had dozens of suits filed against them. Tax authorities, suppliers, the trustees of the Cement Masons Pension fund, and many others would like to get their hands on Mr. Antoniou and his assets. They may fail but this certainly clouds the future.

If you remove the church, a very nice development of three row houses or a four story condo of some 6-8 large units is possible on the 100' by 150' lot. Some contend that expense of demolition of the church makes developments of this sort un-economic. I am not an expert in demolition, so I can't say.

We are left with a property that has been vacant since 1999 (at least) and with no prospects for construction at any time in the forseeable future. At this point, we need some leadership to break the deadlock and recognize the interests of those other than the immediate neighbors. One logical source of this leadership would be the alderman, Leslie Hairston. We note that Alderman Hairston was elected after the agreement was signed and was left with a mess to clean up.

As I snapped pictures for this blog entry, I was stopped by a lady walking her dog. "Are you documenting graffiti?," she asked. "There is a whole mural on the back of the dome." I told her it was a shame that the buildng wasn't torn down. "Oh, you know a developer wants to put up something much worse -- a high rise." I told her she was mis-informed -- the developer proposes a building the same height as the current structure. "Oh, I didn't know that. Have a nice day." I wonder if she will remember or, perhaps, she thinks 8 stories is a high rise.


UChicagoDomer said...

i've got an idea: let's buy the building, obtain a federal grant from the NEA to renovate it, and open a community theater. that would create a cultural entity in the heart of hyde park to which current residents couldn't object, and which, after a hefty population influx into Hyde Park over the next few years, might even generate enough profit (if subsidies and private donations kept coming) to compete with the Court Theater... just a thought. not really a likely option.

chicago pop said...

Great story on a building I walk past several times a week -- I've always wondered what was going on there.

If I were a neighbor my biggest fear would be the fire hazard this building presents. Old, abandoned churches in Chicago have a way of going up in smoke. That could destroy the entire block.

Jonathan said...

Honestly, tearing down the church would be pretty disgusting. Unlike the Doctor's hospital, it is really an impressive building and seriously still one of the high points of Hyde Park architecturally.

Honestly, we probably lucked out that the NIMBY's stopped this project from happening.

Famac said...

You would think you could find some rich guy to buy the place and move in without changing a thing.

That property has to be pretty appealing price-wise compared to a lot of the wood frame houses going for millions in the neighborhood.

Changing the building is what's stopping development, but maybe it could be converted into a family compound or something like that with no outward changes.

Think about spending the weekend around a fountain in the middle, dressed in togas.

chicago pop said...

That place would make a great dance club. You could throw some real ragers in there. We could get J.Z. Smith to Dj.

SR said...

My husband has always wanted to buy that building as to use as his secret supervillain headquarters. He's been slacking off on putting together his vast supervillain private fortune, though, so there the building still sits.

A couple of years ago he saw some kind of caretaker working there, and the guy told him this horrible story about the basement flooding once and hundreds of rats swarming up out of there.

chicago pop said...

SR's note about the rats makes me think it would be a great place to rally all the dead Co-Op members.

pc said...

Hey, it was a cult compound in the past, it can surely be one in the future.

Chicago is unfortunately littered with old churches, quite a few of which have been converted to condos. At least this one's in private hands; the archdiocese (which owns many of the lovelier ones) refuses to get go of any of its land. I'm not sure what they're holding onto it for, but surely it's for the best.

Oh, and seven stories (a realistic height for 76') is indeed a high-rise according to fire officials and structural engineers: it needs sprinklers (too tall for ladders), elevators, and a steel frame. An architect might call it a mid-rise, though.

Peter Rossi said...

to jonathan-

you might be interested to know that this building is a copy of a church in Boston.

Basically, religon is a declining market in US cities (even more so in Europe). This means a lot of churches are becoming abandoned. While we might preserve some particularly outstanding examples, this building doesn't seem outstanding in any way. It completely overwhelms the block and I think is only representative rather an exemplar of a style of architecture.

Could you explain why you feel it is a high point?

How would you like to live next to an abandoned building covered with graffiti and broken windows?

to famac-

well, there is absolutely nothing to stop a "rich guy" from buying it. This structure (take a look at it) features a giant dome on a steel frame with huge freestanding space. Rich guys (witness the luxury houses going up on the nhside) love bathrooms, kitchens, etc. Perhaps, I am not creative enough, but I don't think this would make an attractive residence for anyone, no matter how affluent.

Peter Rossi said...

sr's comment is perfect. It looks like an ideal place for Lex Luthor

chicago pop said...

What I'd like to see for once is the local preservationist/antiquarian lobby actively courting developers who would be interested in working around the existing structure instead of waiting to react to the next proposal.

Otherwise, it should be clear that the clock is ticking. Old buildings can't sit around forever waiting for just the right developer. Every year this thing undoubtedly deteriorates further (flooded basements? rats? broken windows letting in rain and snow? what of the wiring?), becoming more of a public health and safety hazard, and meaning it will cost even more to preserve whatever is left at the end of the day.

If anyone is interested in preserving this from the wrecking ball they should be on it sooner rather than later. At some point, you have to bury your dead.

Peter Rossi said...

I would add one response to chicago pop.

this building is stone/masonry on a steel frame. I don't think there is a huge fire hazard hear but if someone where to fly a boeing 757 into it fully loaded with fuel then maybe we would get some action.

oth, I am not a fire hazard expert.

chicago pop said...

re the fire hazard, I'll take your word for it.

The public health hazards are then reduced to the rats and taggers falling from the roof.

Jonathan said...

Response to Peter Rossi,

Hyde Park outside the U of C campus area itself, doesn't have much of anything pleasing to the eye.

The area which the former church is in, is no exception. The church however is noteworthy and actually one of the few buildings in Hyde park outside of the U of C campus, Hyde Park can be proud of.

Even it is a copy, (like large portions of the U of C campus) it is still more interesting than the rest of Hyde park.

Anyway, I think there are far far more buildings worthy of being torn down in HP. Not to mention, the fact I don't see condos as really being that necessary in Hyde Park. Retail and Entertainment opportunities seem far more of a priority anyway.

Otto said...

Tenth Church of Christ, Scientist, just for the record. Coolidge & Hodgdon, 1917, through the scion of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.

Catalan rather than Basque in this case. J. Soc. Arch. Hist., 27, 176 (1968) is a pretty engaging read on the general subject.

Peter Rossi said...


thanks for your response. I very much appreciate your taking the time to make it. Fair comment re UofC buildings. I love them so much I forget that they are loosely (but not exactly) modelled after Oxford and Cambridge. This church, however, is a copy.

here is the problem as I see it: there are no developers who want to keep that church. there are no congregations that want to use it. So what now?

The property is unheated and deteriorating rapidly. Note: if you dont' heat a masonry structure, it can greatly accelerate decline of the masonry mortar. Note: the church appears to be made of stone but it is actually a stone veneer over masonry walls.

I know people don't like condos (although many of my friends RENT condos). But without more people, there will not be more retail!

chicago pop said...

Peter's right in his response to Jonathan that if you want retail and entertainment opportunities, you should be focused on new housing for reasons that we've gone over in many places on this blog. Condos are a part of that. You can't separate the two, at least not in this neighborhood.


RE the quality of Hyde Park architecture outside of campus (modeled on Magdalen College, Oxford,to be precise), there's in fact a lot of noteworthy stuff in the neighborhood: a Mies van der Rohe high-rise, several others designed by him, a few Frank Lloyd Wrights, and one of the earliest International Style residential buildings in the United States (the Keck Gottschalk Keck building). I'm sure I'm missing something.

The point is, which I don't think anyone has disputed yet, that the church architecture itself, while handsome in its own standard neoclassical way, is not itself distinctive or original. In fact, it represents the kind of preoccupation with historical decoration that was anathema to the modernist architecture that is most associated with Chicago.

SR said...

I think most of the old church buildings in Hyde Park are pretty nice, but St. Thomas the Apostle is probably the most interesting architecturally. You can read all about it here.

Elizabeth Fama said...

The entertaining (and may I say, spot-on) new Maroon editorial on the Co-Op crisis is preoccupied with the tendency for some Hyde Parkers to never want things to change.

This trait is key to understanding many of the issues this blog discusses, including the St. Stephen's church, and the desire not to increase the population in Hyde Park (not to mention my pet topic, Promontory Point).

The church is a good example of how much people are willing to tolerate abandoned projects to preserve the status quo.

Raymond said...

Wow, that Maroon editorial actually makes sense. Maybe the Herald could learn something from the kids.

Peter Rossi said...

thanks to beth for pointing out the Maroon editorial. It is a masterpiece and very well written too!

However, you really can't expect the Herald to beat U of C undergrads -- these people are really smart!

Jonathan said...

My point was that, while condos are fine, and do contribute residential space. We need non-residential buildings to be the glue that binds the neighborhood together.

There are great buildings in Hyde Park (mostly clustered in the S/W quarter of the neighborhood), but keeping the aesthetically better buildings in our neighborhood cant hurt. Also, I dont know if the originality of the building is that important, unless something better honestly aesthetically better or more original would replace it.

I guess my point of view is that redevelopment has to be balanced, and try to create a space that really has something for everyone.

When I go to Lincoln Park, I do see good things and certainly a lot of nightlife. However, there are pitfalls as well, especially the cookie cutter brick condos. Wicker Park on the other hand seems more able to balance development, and its own character.

HP has things going for it, and a lot against it as well. I just think we need to embrace the diamonds in this neighborhood while we still can.

Peter Rossi said...

to jonathan- there are many great buildings in Kenwood includign a number of excellent prairie school houses.

to beth- your pet issue (the POINT) is EXACTLY like St. Stephen's church. Folks in the neighborhood are willing to let the Point crumble into the lake rather that change one engineering component (the revetment). Sounds like an abandoned church to me

Peter Rossi said...

jonathan has an interesting point about the difference between Wicker Park and Lincoln Park. Land is a bit cheaper in WP which means that you can do smaller developments. So I think central HP is more like WP and east HP is more like LP.

it is a great shame whenever a new building is not a great building given that good design is dirt cheap. However, I'm not willing to mortgage all progress for fear of a few bad buildings. Chicago (the greatest city in the world for architecture) would never have been built if this were the dominant philosophy

Peter Rossi said...

I note that when I moved to HP (the second time) in 1986, Wicker Park was a dangerous slum. Wicker Park is now one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. The entire housing stock has been rehabbed and there is retail everywhere.

In the meantime, Hyde Park has improved only marginally with a decline in retail.

Jonathan said...

I agree that progress cant stop, and they are a lot of good projects at least on the drawing board (Solstice on the Green is my favorite).

However, the weird zoning pattern in HP and the racial tension really has taken a toll on the neighborhood.

Ultimately, I have to admit that HP really is two different neighborhoods in a single space. One African-American and one mostly dominated by college students from the U of C. I would say the most clear divide where this is apparent is in entertainment venues and bars in Hyde Park.

Ultimately, I hope any future projects could help bridge this gap some more. I think the new Hyde Park produce and the opening of Chant, are a good sign that things are changing.

Ultimately, I hope new development will allow the residents to come together more.

Btw, I dont think development in HP has a racial agenda period, simply that there is just a deep racial history in the neighborhood that has to be acknowledged.

Urban said...

Interior Pictures from 2003.

dankables said...

hyde park should support more urban exploration. Buildings like St. Stephens church and Doctors Hospital should be left alone, and allowed to be enjoyed by the community. Instead, people turn these buildings it into a point of conflict. Hyde Parker's need to lose their misconceptions about urban exploration, and the art created in these settings. Don't take these things away from the community!