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Uptown in the News  

February 15, 2006
Developer's vision for Wilson Yard, Cabrini
Holsten shapes neighborhoods
By Angela Caputo

Standing at the corner of Broadway and Montrose, developer Peter Holsten looks out at one of the newest and greatest challenges of his more than two-decade career that began with modest rehabs of walkups in then-struggling Chicago communities.

He's charged with anchoring the heart of the Uptown community, known as Wilson Yard, with multi-million dollar apartment buildings, big box and other retail space including a new Aldi grocery store, and parking to support it all.

The project is a far cry from the single-room occupancy and apartment buildings that he has helped to stablilize over the years on neighboring blocks that are practically a stone's throw away.

While the 56-year-old has moved on from most of those buildings, he's still captivated by the neighborhood. Because Uptown "is very dynamic," he said, and has so much heart and character he can't help but be pulled back.

What interests him most is "the tug of war between the haves and the have-nots," which isn't surprising considering the socially conscious enterprises that have shaped Holsten's businesses over the years.

Despite becoming a big-shot developer, Holsten says he's never lost sight of the principles that shaped him as a self-described "radical" college student on the University of Wisconsin, Madison campus in the 1960's. Even after making "an abrupt change," enrolling in business school at the University of Chicago and redefining himself as a "capitalist."

It's a rare combination, Alderman Helen Shiller, D-46th said. And it's a spirit that's essential to moving forward projects like Wilson Yard or his other biggest undertaking redeveloping Cabrini Green.

Delays in structuring affordable housing financing, buying public land and the like add up to ever increasing costs that climb with interest rates, labor and material costs.

He's one of the few developers willing to take the risks involved," Shiller said.

Turning a barren lot into a thriving commercial district no doubt takes vision. As the south suburbanite runs his hands across panels of terra-cotta, though, it seems that he hasn't lost sight of the important details that make up the big picture.

Across town Holsten is charged with transforming acres of land in the increasingly ritzy Near North neighborhood from shuttered public housing buidlings to mixed income communities.

It's been a tough road, he says. Under the city's Plan for Transformation the buildings would come down one way or another and Holsten is trying to make the best of difficult circumstances, both for himself financially and in considering the gravity of the lives impacted.

Clearly there aren't enough units to replace one for one the units lost in the high and low-rise buildings. Social expectations, like good neighbor training, have singled out Cabrini residents but haven't satisfied all of the neighborhood's newcomers. And all around that's added up to a lot of hard feelings, he said.

"We're still working on everyone getting along and that's an ongoing process.

In an unconventional move, and after being slapped with a potentially exorbitant bill for social support from the city, Holsten hired some trained social workers to help smooth things out for some families that are having a tough time adjusting.

But all the social services in the world won't help solve the real problelm, life-long Cabrini resident and public housing activist Carol Steele said. The real issue is that peiople don't want to be displaced from their own community. After helping to hand pick Holsten bercause of his commitment to low-income people, many feel increasingly let down by the project's outcomes.

"When they came to the table they said they were about the people and affordable housing," Steele said. "As time goes on it's all about how many dollars could be made."

The tragedy, Holsten said, is that pools of state and federal housing dollars are drying up, while the need keeps growing. "Every year the ratio of applications and (available) funding is 10 to 1," he said. "What do you do? You don't give up." Sometimes that means submitting proposals three years in a row until they finally get backing.

While striking deals for below market rate housing on the North Side may be more expensive, projects like Edgewater's Bryn Mawr and Belle Shore buildngs illustrates that "It's not out of sight," he added.

Holsten helped transform roughly 300 apartments on Bryn Mawr from flop houses to stable, small rental units with a lot of historic charm even through the project looked financially impossible with the owner holding out for high $6 million.

More than a half-dozen layers of affordable housing loans and tax credits were eventually established to make the project a go and they went on to earn preservation honors from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With an attitude more befitting a humble student than his title, the master developer of Wilson Yard and Cabrini, Holsten said in a way he still approaches his projects the way he did in his 20's, rehabbing small North Side apartment buildings.

He doesn't pretend to know it all. Nor does he expect everything to shake out just right. "We've (worked) by trial and error and we've learned a lot." But the thing that keeps him going, he said, is "a big heart for the underdog."

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