The complex and challenging process of creating affordable housing in Chicago is a highly involved endeavor that has resulted in ongoing conversations about various ways local and federal agencies, design professionals and developers can collaboratively solve challenges. There have been many ideas with few solutions, yet in Albany Park, one project is prevailing: Oso (meaning “bear” in Spanish), a new multifamily residential building with 48 affordable housing units, is making its mark. Designed by Logan Square based Canopy Architecture + Design, Oso is doing more than creating affordable units — it’s demonstrating what can happen when neighborhood groups come together with architects and developers to build a more inclusive Chicago. Led by Jaime Torres, AIA, Canopy is approaching its 10-year anniversary and in that time has narrowed its focus to what Torres calls “balanced development.”
“We’re building connectivity between the end user, climate based design and community influence, building better legs for underserved neighborhoods and small-budget nonprofits,” he said. Oso is a project that defines the firm’s strengths and agility. Torres was contacted by the North River Commission (NRC), asking for assistance in developing five contiguous Albany Park lots after they were passed up by several for-profit developers. Evergreen Real Estate Development, a nonprofit developer, took on the site. Working closely with Alderman Carlos Rosa (35th Ward), Canopy and the NRC, the group proposed the fully affordable development to residents, being approved with unprecedented enthusiasm.
“It was a dream situation,” explained Torres. “The community engagement process involved meetings conducted by the NRC and Alderman Rosa, who was pivotal in pushing the idea of affordable housing. There was unanimous support for affordable housing, as well as smarter parking solutions.”
The project is currently under construction and will include the 48 units with 22 parking spots. Parking was a major design concern. “We wanted to create a building that’s in a scale that works in harmony with existing buildings, the river and Montrose,” said Torres. Federal subsidies provided zoning relief to greatly reduce parking requirements.
The building features precast concrete of varying textures. “We asked ourselves how to make the building feel gentle and soft; to create more texture, make it more human,” Torres said. Corrugated concrete textures, meant for touching, are used at the street-level, while decorative sunshades add pops of color. Outdoor spaces will help blend the structure with the public: “We picked up the idea of outdoor spaces from the community meetings and are creating a true civic space … we introduced an outdoor courtyard that integrates the building with the street,” Torres said. Other features include Juliet balconies composed of yellow patterned steel that will cast shadows both in and outside.
Oso represents more than a quality design that respects the existing neighborhood fabric — it demonstrates how architects can work simultaneously as designers and advocates. Canopy has spent the last 10 years using design to advocate for balanced development. It’s an inherently political issue, something that isn’t taught in architecture schools, according to Torres. “You have to put on that developer hat, in a way, to ask what the biggest need is, and what the biggest opportunity is,” he said. “Canopy, 10 years ago, would have said ‘architects are not politicians.’ But now we have to be at the table. Architects have to be a voice in creating healthy development.