Built in 1924 and designed by the same architects who were behind downtown Chicago’s glamorous Drake and Blackstone hotels, the iconic Bridgeview Bank building in Uptown stands out for its unique, triangular footprint rounded elegantly at the intersection of Broadway and Lawrence Avenue.
But the 12-story, neoclassical gem also stands out because it has become a linchpin in Uptown’s extensive social service network. There, countless low-income and immigrant residents have found help from a variety of agencies all under the same roof.
Bringing those providers to the Bridgeview Bank building was the vision of Suellen Long, who was hired many years ago to rehab the largely-empty and deteriorated building during a time when Uptown struggled with poverty and gangs.
“It seemed to me that our clients were going to be nonprofit organizations, because that’s who was working in the area and who we needed in the area,” Long said. “So I just made that decision and went after the tenants.”
Today, the building is home to organizations including Illinois Action for Children, RefugeeOne, Asian Human Services and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
But that chapter is coming to a close as the building’s new owner makes plans to turn it into apartments. The agencies that benefited from operating under one roof are now asking where they can afford to go, and whether there is even a need for them anymore in the gentrifying lakefront neighborhood of Uptown.
In April, Cedar Street Companies added the Bridgeview Bank building to its vast portfolio of real estate holdings in Chicago, when it purchased the property from First Midwest Bank. Cedar Street, which is based in Uptown, has notified tenants that they must vacate the building when their leases end, before 2021.
“The timing is terrible for us as an organization,” said Melineh Kano, executive director of RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement organization in Illinois.
RefugeeOne began leasing offices in the building in 1985 to be close to the refugees who flocked to Uptown from Vietnam, Cambodia, and later Bosnia and Iraq. Even as refugees were priced out of apartments in the gentrifying neighborhood over the years, the agency remained in the Bridgeview Bank building. That’s because the rent there was kept at an affordable level, and elected officials and other service providers in the neighborhood were strong supports.
Kano said she was informed that RefugeeOne would have to leave the building when its lease ends September 2020. The problem, said Kano, is uncertainty around the organization’s funding. Refugee services in the U.S. have faced steep cuts from the federal government under President Donald Trump. Kano said she’s had to lay off staff and cut programs. If Trump is reelected, Kano expects more lean years ahead. She said a Democratic president might restore funding.
“I reached out to [Cedar Street] because I wanted to see if there was a way we could extend our lease by one year, so it would get us until after the presidential election,” Kano said. “But unfortunately that is not a possibility.”
Cedar Street CEO Alex Samoylovich declined to comment for this story. A statement from the company stated that “a number of existing tenants may … stay in the building,” but it did not include further details.
From his conference room one floor up from Kano, Andy Kang can see another historic building that Cedar Street bought in 2013. Kang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago, watched as The Lawrence House transformed from last-resort housing — for people on fixed incomes, with bad credit or criminal histories — to pricey, “micro unit” apartments for young professionals. Cedar Street has executed similar projects with other buildings in Uptown, including a vacant Jewish synagogue, and ongoing renovations to a building where the Illinois Department of Human Services formerly served residents on the North Side.
“I'm angry that our city leadership continues to not have a plan about how we ensure that gentrification doesn't also mean displacement,” Kang said. “I refuse to accept the idea that these are just unstoppable economic forces and there's nothing that can be done to really put in place policies that allow for mixed-income neighborhoods.”
Kang said his organization has had a busy agenda in recent years, pushing for local policies that protect and expand immigrant rights. But now that his agency itself is being displaced, he said it’s time to take on gentrification in immigrant neighborhoods. He said Pilsen and Logan Square are examples of how, unchecked, immigrant residents often end up priced out of the very neighborhoods that they made attractive in the first place.
“I think this is an issue that isn't going to go away for a lot of our immigrant communities, and it is likely one that we're going to have to give more of our attention to,” he said.
But some are optimistic about the next chapter for the Bridgeview Bank building.
Martin Sorge, executive director of Uptown United and Business Partners, said even if the agencies have to leave the building, Uptown will remain a welcoming and diverse neighborhood. He added that he is glad that a company rooted in the community, and with a good track record of adaptive reuse of historic buildings, is the new owner.
“I think [Cedar Street was] the best to understand the context of Uptown and who is in here,” Sorge said. “From our standpoint, they also have been really supportive of a lot of local small businesses.”
Ald. James Cappleman, 46th Ward, did not immediately comment on the changes coming to the building in his ward.
The move is forcing agencies to reflect on whether they’re still needed in a neighborhood where median incomes increased 45% between 1980 and 2017. Craig Maki, CEO of Asian Human Services, which has offices on three floors of the building, said his agency has been aware that the need for their services has shifted to other parts of the city.
“We were already looking at alternate solutions for where should we be and what should our physical locations look like to best serve the clients that we serve, who primarily do not live in Uptown any longer,” Maki said.
Maki said he dreams of moving to another building largely like the Bridgeview Bank building, where multiple service providers can work together, across floors and specialties, to help clients that come to them with a variety of needs. He said it has been challenging to come up with funding for such a model for nonprofit organizations, but in the long run it can save money and have better outcomes for clients.
“Our only choice is how do we become more effective and efficient in delivering … high-quality services?” Maki said. “It’s our belief that a physical location designed that way is one vehicle to achieve that.”
Many of the agencies are now starting to look for space in neighborhoods where their low-income and immigrant clients have moved, such as West Ridge, Albany Park and Hermosa. Still, Kano said finding something affordable has been difficult. And she said losing the Bridgeview Bank building as a home for service agencies is about more than a change in real estate.
“We are really losing a community that was created in Uptown of helping the marginalized people,” she said. “And that is going to be very sad to see.”
Odette Yousef is a reporter with WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.