Archer Courts: Building redevelopment revitalizes a community - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Archer Courts: Building redevelopment revitalizes a community

Profile of public housing redevelopment in Chinatown.

When public housing high rises were first built, some designers made sure that residents would have access to the outside by creating open air corridors that also functioned as common space.  But as the years went by and communities changed, chain link fencing was used to close in the corridors.  The result was dark and oppressive — negating the initial impulse of the designers.

Today many of those buildings are being torn down in Chicago — Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor and Stateway Gardens for example.  But in Chinatown, the rehabilitation of a mid-rise development from the 1950s is catching the eyes of public housing advocates and being touted as a model for the future.  Archer Courts was built in the 1950s to provide homes for people displaced by construction of the Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways.  The seven-story building has a similar design to the high rises – including the chain link fenced corridor.  Unlike the high rises, Archer Courts is part of a larger community and close to public transportation.  These two things made it an attractive prospect for redevelopment to the Chicago Community Development Corporation (CCDC), and in 1999 it purchased Archer Courts from the CHA.  CCDC and architect Peter Landon decided Archer was worth saving, and a $6.5 million project got underway.

At the heart of the matter for Landon was the inclusion of residents’ ideas and preferences for the re-design.  Landon made a point of visiting each tenant and listening. The resulting design is dramatic — bright and comfortable.  Landon reclaimed the corridors by installing a glass wall (some call it a curtain), new light fixtures, colorful flooring and apartment doors painted bright primary colors.  The effect is stunning and, more importantly, makes the space a more appealing place for residents to use.  Landon's Web site features the project and says that the glass paneled curtain, “completely changed the function of the corridors, and dramatically altered the appearance of the buildings to the benefit of both the residents and the community at large.”

Sunlight streams into the colorful new corridor at Archer Courts.

The success of this redevelopment is as much about process as physical change and design.  Remarkably, each resident was able to stay in the building during the rehab.  With some expert planning, the developers managed to avoid disrupting the community with displacement and may even have helped to strengthen it with their inclusionary planning practice.  In addition, redevelopment took residents’ concerns about services seriously, and added a number of different types of community space including a large multipurpose room, laundry rooms, a wellness center and a computer-learning center that offers residents access to the Internet and classes on how to use the technology. 

Residents are quick to point out just how much they like having these things so close to home and how they have served to make the complex feel and function more like a community.  “I’m 87 years old and I never thought I could learn how to use a computer,” says one resident, “Now I can check the library (Chicago Public Library) catalog to find out if the book I want is available – it saves me a trip to the library if it isn’t!”  Another resident uses the wellness center’s services to keep tabs on her blood pressure, “this is such a wonderful thing to have right in my building!”  A community health worker agrees that many of the residents have minor health problems and provide…just steps from their front doors.”

Archer Courts is a noteworthy success story but not a blue print.  The lessons learned from this project are simple and straightforward – designing living space, both personal and community, works best when the people who will use the space are included in the planning and design process.  The process used at Archer Courts is the real model.

A young boy enjoys the new courtyard. 

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