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North Chicago public housing project’s days are numbered

JazmAllen 18 North Chicago looks out front door her home along Carver Ave. MariJones Townhomes public housing. The complex located

Jazmin Allen, 18, North Chicago looks out the front door of her home along Carver Ave. at the Marion Jones Townhomes public housing. The complex, located on the south east corner of Dugdale Road and 14th Street in North Chicago, is to be demolished with plans for housing and retail development. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 13, 2013 2:36AM

NORTH CHICAGO — The 51-year-old Marion Jones public housing project at Dugdale Road and 14th Street will be torn down by 2014 to make way for a new mixed-income housing development.

The 125 attached dwellings are still sturdy — “built like a tank” — according to David Northern, executive director of the Lake County Housing Authority, which oversees Marion Jones, but they have outlived their value.

“It’s the oldest development we have and it costs us a tremendous amount to run,” Northern said. “The energy costs are horrific.”

The agency has also struggled to maintain security at the low-income complex, spending $120,000 per year on surveillance cameras, lighting and uniformed patrols.

“We’ve seen arrests of people for guns, drugs, all kinds of situations,” said Northern, who points to other urban areas that have turned away from segregated housing for the poor that, like Marion Jones, lacks nearby retail development and tends to fester.

“It’s our goal to make it a safer, modern environment,” Northern said. “To do that with the existing infrastructure, we’d have to spend more than $12 million.”

When the Marion Jones public housing project opened in January 1962, it replaced a hundred or more shacks with no running water in what came to be designated as the North Argonne Urban Renewal area. The new, federally subsidized attached brick homes were a step up for the poor, who paid an average of $56 a month in rent.

Martin Cunningham, 70, moved back to the neighborhood in 1999. He and his mother were among the first residents at Marion Jones.

“You couldn’t beat it back then,” Cunningham said. “Everybody was nice. Back in the day, we respected everybody. These days, the kids don’t respect nobody.”

Cunningham, a veteran of the Korean War, said the homes are poorly insulated. Thermostats, locked-in at a chilly 65 degrees, are covered with wet rags by residents who insist the practice makes them run warmer. Cunningham and several other of the 298 Marion Jones residents interviewed by the Lake County News-Sun this week say they support the plan to bulldoze and rebuild, under which leaseholders in good standing will receive relocation counseling and moving expenses, and maybe a spot in the brand-new development.

Linda Allen, mother of three and a resident for four years, said she may move back to Rogers Park in Chicago or maybe to Springfield.

“I just want to take my kids to a peaceful environment,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of crime out here — fights, all-night partying — sometimes gun fire.”

The housing authority has big plans for the new development, which will cost between $60 million and $100 million depending on whether adjoining properties can be acquired from Foss Park District and the city. Ideas on a master plan call for between 180 and 300 new units and possible retail.

Construction is expected to begin in early winter 2014. Relocations will begin after school lets out this May. The authority’s board is expected to select a development partner at its next meeting Jan. 24.

North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham said the new construction will bring jobs, economic development and a boost to local property values.

“It’s not just North Chicago,” Rockingham said. “The federal government is moving away from strictly low-income to mixed-use in areas across the country. Low-income residents should feel part of the community, not kept apart.”

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