Laramie State Bank Building

Congratulations and praise are due the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and the Heartland Alliance for earning the nod of the city of Chicago’s Invest South/West project and being chosen to save the lustrous yet decrepit Laramie State Bank building and adding a block of affordable housing, too.

We love this building. It is a genuine landmark in Austin, anchoring the corner of Chicago and Laramie. It harkens back to when banks were banks and knew that creating the edifice was part of the message of strength and commitment to a neighborhood. We’ve watched this anchor become an anvil over nearly 40 years as it has been ignored and allowed to deteriorate to the point it turns up regularly on preservationists’ lists of most endangered buildings.

Wisely, the city of Chicago chose Laramie State Bank as its initial targeted project under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s critical decision to invest in the West Side and South Side.

The Housing Center, which has for a decade been active in Austin and placed a satellite office in the community, made an audacious move here. It is not a developer. It is not a property owner. But in teaming with the Heartland Alliance, it has built in those skills. Credit to Athena Williams, the housing center’s executive director, and a longtime West Sider for having this vision. It is more than a happy coincidence, we surmise, that the lead on Heartland’s housing department is Rob Breymaier, who earlier had headed the Housing Center.

The plan put forward calls for salvaging and restoring the bank building and using its 10,000 square feet of commercial space as a Blues museum, a business incubator, a co-working space, a locally owned coffee shop and, in a nice nod to history, a bank branch. Beyond the bank’s walls and on city-owned land just to the east, the proposal is to build 76 units of housing, 53 of which would be affordable housing. There is also, in the renderings, a handsome and welcoming public space facing Chicago Avenue.

New Moms, another nonprofit with Austin and Oak Park roots, also submitted a proposal. While it was not chosen, it reflects the vitality and vision of New Moms that we see every day in its work. 

Also among the seven proposals considered by the city was one from the venerable and essential West Side Health Authority. A force in Austin over decades when this great neighborhood lacked champions, the WHA’s leadership is frustrated that it was not chosen for the Laramie State Bank project. 

We get it. This one is a prize. It has notable financial backing from the city and, as one of Lightfoot’s key initiatives, it will get plenty of attention.

That said, we’d urge Morris Read and the leadership of WHA to be thoughtful before it disparages the Housing Center as an interloper from Oak Park or its leader Athena Williams as anything less than a woman who rose up in leadership on the West Side.

This is no “land grab” as a protest sign at a WHA press conference outside the bank proclaimed yesterday. Our perspective, as one of the few institutions that has long worked in both Austin and Oak Park as the publisher of the Austin Weekly News and Wednesday Journal, is that these two communities are at a precious moment of alignment. 

Mutually respectful relationships are flourishing — and sometimes bumping — across the divide that Austin Boulevard has too long represented. 

A successful restoration of the bank and a successful addition of affordable housing will be a stunning statement in Austin. And it will only add to the momentum long built by worthy organizations such as the West Side Health Authority.

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