New owners of Bronzeville’s historic Lu Palmer Mansion, 3654-3656 S. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, are seeking to rezone the property and transform it into a workspace and Black media archive.
The Obsidian Collection Archives, a Bronzeville-based media nonprofit, purchased the mansion for $1.25 million in May of 2021. More than a year later, at a June 30 community meeting held by Alderwoman Sophia King (4th), members received feedback on their rezoning proposal and discussed plans to have the building landmarked by the Commission of Chicago landmarks.
Also known as the Hammer/Palmer Mansion, according to Preservation Chicago, it was built between 1885 and 1888 by architect William Wilson Clay for Justice D. Harry Hammer. From 1976 to 2004 it was the home of the noted Black activist, reporter, writer Lutrelle ‘Lu’ F. Palmer II and his wife Jorja English Palmer.
Despite this legacy, in recent years the mansion has been vacant and the structure has fallen into a state of disrepair. In 2019, the building was in danger of demolition by neglect and declared one of "Chicago's Most Endangered" by Preservation Chicago.
The Obsidian Collection Archives (OCA) is a nonprofit organization "committed to preserving Black historic and modern journalism through digital archiving with proper cataloging and storage of print documents, photographs, film and television," said Angela Ford, founder and executive director of OCA.
"Its purpose is to make accessible to the public, the historic and factual accounts of Black life around the world."
OCA is proposing a $9 million renovation of the Hammer/Palmer Mansion. Renaming it Obsidian House, it will be a private membership club and workspace that will "offer a hub for journalists and other creatives to live, breathe and experience Black history and Black journalism."
"Paying members will have the opportunity to grab coffee and merchandise, hold conversations and attend special lectures. Organizations and community groups will be able to have a mailing address, book rooms and schedule sessions. Small archives will even be able to store their archives at our facility for a storage fee."
OCA is requesting a zoning change from RM-5 (residential multi-unit - allowing medium to high-density apartments as well as single family homes and duplexes) to B3-2 (community shopping district - allowing residential units above the ground floor).
Ford explained at the community meeting that the request for the zoning change resulted from the need for Obsidian House to provide an income stream that would satisfy the requirements of a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan that the organization has received. Obsidian House will also need to pay real estate taxes of over $50,000 per year. The proposed income generating components of Obsidian House will require business licenses, which can be issued only with the requested zoning change.
While generally supportive of and enthusiastic about the project, neighbors had a number of questions that can be categorized into two areas of concern - parking and the consequences of a future sale of the property, in which the requested rezoning would allow a future owner a more invasive use of the property.
Ginneh Strickland, who lives next door to the building, noted the community’s enthusiasm. "I talk to you (Ford) probably two to three times a week, we're super excited for you to develop the project” said Strickland. “It's been a vacant building and we've been neighbors with crack homes for 20 years."
Continuing, Strickland said that neighbors want to ensure that "we have parking to get into our homes and our tenants have parking to get into their homes, and you have a lovely space to provide (job) opportunities."
Emma Albers, a traffic engineer retained by OCA, reported that per the city zoning code for the building’s size and variety of proposed uses, OCA is required to maintain six off-street parking spaces on the site.
However, Albers said, "we would basically be requesting a variance to provide zero, none, since there is no space for parking on the site." She also noted that if the building were to get Chicago Landmark status, no parking would be required.
Albers then reported a parking study her firm had made of the area. "We inventoried parking availability a couple of weeks ago throughout a couple hours of the day and found that between 38th and 35th on Calumet and on western frontage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, there are 310 street parking spaces, and on average approximately 45% of them are available during what we anticipate to be peak operations of the site."
Neighbor Richard Roche asked if Obsidian is exempt from paying real estate taxes, and if the business zoning would remain should the property get sold again.
"So if someone comes along with an entirely different idea for that property, do they benefit from the fact that this zoning change has occurred and (does it) entitle them to go into an entirely different kind of business down the road?"
Liz Butler, an attorney retained by OCA, said that the nonprofit’s property, once permitted with business licenses, will not be exempt from property taxes. Butler also confirmed that “yes, the zoning will run with the property.”
Continuing with the zoning discussion, Bronzeville resident Kimshasa Baldwin said, "So from all the information that's been presented, it's not that you're looking for a B-1 or B-2, you guys are going for the maximum a B-3 (zoning), which means that a restaurant could be there. That's not the use that you're looking for, but it could be a restaurant."
In response, Ford said, "I care about this community too… I just turned 58; I've been in the city all 58 years. So, I'm not going to add something that is going to just be the drag of the community. I'm part of this community.”
Ford assured neighbors that “the design is beautiful, the space will be beautiful and we will find the parking so that it doesn't disrupt your guys’ lifestyle. You have my word on that. I'm not just gonna grin through this meeting and act like I'm not hearing you and that I don't care. I do (care). We will not be your parking problem"
Continuing, Ford addressed the property’s $50,000 real estate taxes and the need for the business to make money to cover them.
"I'm not one of those billionaires that can just set up the place as a RM-5 museum (house museum), let people come in for free. Not sell a cup of coffee, not sell a bottle of water, and somehow just shake out $50,000 a year. Mathematically, that's not possible," said Ford.
Ford asked if the community only wanted to allow wealthy people to set up museums by their own benevolence. “The things that we're proposing actually drive the revenue so that we can have this business in the community," she said.
"I hope everybody understands that the bills have to be paid… So I hope we think about all of that."