South Side neighbors are banding together to restore a huge vacant apartment building in hopes of revitalizing 71st Street and beyond

SOUTH SHORE – More than two dozen South Shore neighbors pooled their funds over the past year to buy and renovate a dilapidated home.

Co-op-owned 7051 LLC purchased 7051 S. Bennett Ave. in November 2020. for $ 600,000. The company has since invested nearly $ 300,000 in renovating the property, and its apartments went up for rent this month.

The 97-year-old building is “built like a tank” with 16 apartments, five shop window fronts and terracotta inside and out – “one of those buildings that you no longer build like in the past”, as its owners call it.

With access to public amenities such as the lakefront, South Shore Cultural Center and nearby Jackson Park, “there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a great place for successful community ownership,” said investor Stephen Stern.

Stern, who has lived in the area for around 30 years, sees this as an opportunity to promote the “71st Bring back the road ”. The project can complement a proposal by developer Alisa Starks – also a resident of the Highlands – to build an entertainment complex on 71st and Jeffery Boulevards, he said.

Credit: Bennett Place
The interiors of some of the apartments at 7051 S. Bennett Ave. before the renovation in May 2020.
Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
A kitchen at 7051 S. Bennett Ave., a formerly derelict apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated to revitalize the community, photographed November 15, 2021.

The 27 neighbors, who have pooled $ 282,000 upfront to purchase the building, represent a diverse cross-section of Jackson Park Highlands, South Shore’s landmarks of properties built on vast lots. All live within several blocks of the Bennett Avenue project.

De facto project leader Michael Kelley moved into the “close-knit” community three years ago and said the project was a step towards realizing “the South Shore we should have,” with pedestrian-friendliness, amenities and less commercial space.

Geralyn and Art Thompson fell in love with the Highlands as high school students when they made “big bucks” clearing the county’s big houses. The couple moved from the Lake Terrace skyscraper to their current home in 1985 and achieved a dream year.

Tyriece Kennedy will be celebrating six years in the ward next month. When he found out about the project proposal last year amid the riots following the assassination of George Floyd, he took the chance to leave a positive “footprint” on 71st Street.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
7051 S. Bennett Ave., a formerly derelict residential home that a group of South Shore residents renovated on November 15, 2021 to revitalize the community.

The immediate priority of the neighbors is renting the 15 available apartments – one family already lives in the only two-room apartment in the building. Rentals start at $ 825 per month for a studio with an older kitchen, up to $ 975 per month for a one-bedroom with a converted kitchen.

When all the apartments are rented out, the cost of the project will be covered, Kelley said. This allows owners to be selective in occupying the first floor and putting community needs above profit. CHACHA Gyro is the only existing commercial tenant.

“We will have the flexibility to offer really attractive terms, to work with partners who want to occupy this space, open this restaurant and start this business,” said Kelley. “Whether rent discounts or a contribution to the expansion costs, our motivation is first to find the right businesses and then, secondly, to ensure that they are successful so that we can be successful together with them.”

If leases are not signed, the owners discuss further improvements to the building. In the worst case – the building turns into a money pit and they can’t get tenants – they sell the property they bought in a foreclosure auction below market value.

But eight investors told Block Club they were in a good position to cover their costs. The investment plan has been thoroughly researched, the building is attractive to tenants and companies will feel comfortable working with a diverse and local group of owners, they said.

The five-person core group that has overseen day-to-day operations since last year – Kelley, Kennedy, Hubert Thompson, Byron Gray, and Sachin Parikh – came up with a plan that was “a breeze to invest,” said Geralyn Thompson.

“Closer to the [Bryn Mawr Metra Electric stop], You can walk to the beach in four to six blocks. If you’re driving, it’s perfect for getting onto Lake Shore Drive, ”said Geralyn Thompson. “It’s an ideal place for young people to live in a strong and vibrant community. In our eyes, the probability of this failure is negligible. “

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
The Bryn Mawr Metra Electric stop as seen from the window of an apartment at 7051 S. Bennett Ave., a formerly derelict residential building that a group of South Shore residents renovated on November 15, 2021 to revitalize the community.

Although South Shore cooperative housing faces numerous challenges to survive, the model remains present in the dense neighborhood.

“Aside from good intentions, you need the resources” to invest in a property while keeping rental prices manageable for existing residents, Kelley said.

In addition to finances, the Bennett Avenue project benefited from the broad knowledge base of its investors. Among the neighbors are professional architects, civil engineers, lawyers, real estate investors, computer specialists, and marketers.

“You go back and forth between the idealism of wanting to change something [and] the pragmatism of an investment, ”said Kelley. “You need to balance these two things to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, but cover your basics so that it can be sustainable.”

For projects like yours to be successful, city grant programs like Invest South / West and the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund should provide funds specifically for community-led initiatives. Politicians must also pressure absent landlords to sell their decaying properties to community-minded developers, they said.

“More investment and more involvement in projects like [Invest South/West] would help a lot moving forward, “said Kennedy.

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With the residents moving into the apartments next month, the Highlands neighbors are preparing for the future. They will seek to recruit companies for the Bennett Avenue project and discuss the possibility of future projects while building sustainability into their plans.

Community-run projects require “a lot of heavy lifting,” Kelley said, but the redevelopment proves that it is possible for South Shore residents to buy and redevelop a building for the benefit of the neighborhood.

“It’s a real testament to the power of the community and our community in particular,” said Kelley.

Credit: Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago
7051 S. Bennett Ave., a formerly derelict apartment building that a group of South Shore residents renovated to revitalize the community, photographed November 15, 2021.

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