Project Harvest Commons
Location Chicago
Developer Heartland Housing, Chicago
Architect Landon Bone Baker Architects, Chicago
Builder Linn Mathes, Chicago

Harvest Commons, a formerly derelict Art Deco hotel on Chicago’s Near West Side, is a testament to development’s power to transform buildings and their residents. The 1930 hotel was a bad seed—a source of crime, drug dealing, and prostitution. “We took it over after it had sat vacant for six years,” says Hume An, director of real estate development for nonprofit developer Heartland Housing. “Our vision was to do an environmentally sustainable historic rehab that would house the formerly homeless and those exiting the prison system.”

Landon Bone Baker Architects, Heartland’s design partner, gutted and rehabbed the building. Its existing 160 rooms were pared down to five stories of 89 micro-units that include full kitchens and baths. Chickens are part of the deal; residents can volunteer in the quarter-acre urban farm, gathering eggs, cooking in the kitchen lab, and learning about nutrition from one of Heartland’s supportive services partners, which occupy the first-floor offices.

The Funding Dance

These days, affordable housing projects go through a complex set of funding steps to become a reality, and Harvest Commons was no exception. Heartland Housing’s real estate development director Hume An describes how the financing pieces fit together on this $23 million project: “We bought the property for $1 and then got an affordable tax credit based on donated properties—the donation is the difference between the appraised value and the amount we paid,” An says. The company then sold those tax credits to investors for 87 cents on the dollar, raising $11.76 million. Other money came from Illinois Housing Development Authority low-income tax credits ($1.08 million), and, because it is a historically significant building, historic tax credits to the tune of $2.68 million. Heartland Housing also received $3.88 million in tax increment financing from the city, and a small energy efficiency grant of $182,000 from the state. Other capital sources came from federal energy tax credit equity ($30,000), seller financing of $2.34 million, $123,000 in a general partner capital contribution, and a deferred developer fee of $224,000. “It’s pretty complicated, but on almost all of our projects, we don’t use any of our own capital,” An says.

The landmark building got a new lease on life, too. The front lobby’s existing tile was restored, along with intricate plasterwork in the original historic lobby, now used as a community room. Energy upgrades will see it through the next phase. These include a 13-well geothermal system, an eight-panel solar thermal array supplying 60 percent of the domestic hot water needs, and plants covering half the roof.

The architects also spruced up the façade’s ochre-orange brick and terra cotta. “In the nonhistoric parts of the building, we tried to come up with a more modern material, so we layered fiber-cement cladding sheets over the brick and bumped out some bays,” says Landon Bone Baker principal Jeff Bone. “The ground floor as it relates to the garden is greenified with the new [green-and-white-striped] material.”

A butterfly-roof pavilion will host garden parties and art openings, and worktables can hold harvested beets and rutabagas. (In its first season, the gardens produced more than 1,000 servings of vegetables and eggs, with 11 percent resident participation.) “There are future plans for a farm stand; a big gate opens up and the community can come in,” Bone says. Not bad for a building once known for decay and despair.