Growing grapes to revive South Side neighborhoods
The Home Front
04/27/2011 10:00 PM
When Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel takes office in a few weeks, one of the great challenges facing him along with an underwater budget and some of the worst schools in America will be what to do with the vast real estate wilderness called Chicago’s South Side.
The city of Chicago estimates there currently are about 10,000 vacant lots on the South Side — most of them stretching from McCormick Place around 22nd Street to Hyde Park and from Lake Michigan deep into Englewood.
However, renovation specialist William Lavicka of Historic Boulevard Services believes the land bank may contain 40,000 to 50,000 lots when you take into account both city-owned and privately-owned vacant property on the South Side and West Side.
If this property could somehow be resurrected from the deep, dark fiscal hole of delinquency and put back on the active real estate tax rolls, the tens of millions of dollars in new revenue could be injected into the sagging city budget.
Urban pioneer Bill Lavicka, a tough, very creative guy who served in the Seabees during the Vietnam War, has dreamed up a unique renovation venture for the landmark Raber House, an 1860s mansion at 5760 S. Lafayette Ave. about 1½ miles west of Hyde Park in the Washington Park neighborhood.
The home, which is one of the city’s few remaining residences built before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, once was the residence of John Raber, a prominent businessman and early Chicago real estate developer and politician.
The four-level Italianate chateau is capped by a wooden cupola and widow’s walk, and features arched bay windows and a sweeping central staircase.
Lavicka’s plan not only calls for saving a historic building and putting it back on the tax rolls, it also creates a venture that dove-tails into the city’s Urban Agriculture program and its plan for a public park and green space surrounding Raber House.
Lavicka is urging the city’s Department of Planning to create the Raber Estate Vineyard on about 2 acres of vacant city-owned land surrounding the mansion.
Under the plan, Lavicka would renovate the two-story mansion and transform it into a boutique winery, a wine-making school and teaching facility that would tutor students in the art of creating wine with hearty varieties of grapes grown on vacant property surrounding Raber House. Some 5,000 grapevines would be planted on the vacant acreage surrounding the mansion.
At first blush, it sounds like a pipe dream, but 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran likes the idea because the venture likely will bring $1 million in investment dollars into the Washington Park neighborhood, and generate jobs while bringing in an influx of homeowners who want to live near a vineyard and a park.
The Raber Estate Vineyard is the kind of outside-the-box thinking Mayor-elect Emanuel needs to endorse to help jump start Chicago’s neighborhood economy.
Phase two of Lavicka’s dream calls for building a commercial wine-production facility where dozens of jobs could be created and thousands of bottles of his Chateau Chicago wine could be made, fermented, bottled and sold. This new venture also would generate real estate tax revenue for the city.
Since 1976, the respected Chateau Chicago label has corked about 20,000 bottles of home-made wine, and the vintages produced by Lavicka with a group of his loyal wine-making friends at his Near West Side home by the Jackson Boulevard Wine Club have garnered many respected winemaking awards over the years.
When Lavicka speaks about renovating the Raber House today, he sees it as the first step in the rebirth of the entire neighborhood, which already is earmarked for a spacious park, baseball fields and other vegetable growing acreage in the Urban Agriculture zone.
“The way the South Side will be reborn is by creating islands of commerce,” Lavicka said. “Developments like the Raber Estate Vineyard will bring jobs, and new retail and residential development to Washington Park and spark a real estate revival.”
Don DeBat’s weekly real estate column is syndicated by DeBat Media Services. For more home-buying information visit his website at: www.dondebat.net.