Woodlawn church looks to develop hub for Black life

The Apostolic Church of God has been in Woodlawn for nearly 70 years. Now, it’s looking to use some of its property to create a hub of Black life, culture and entertainment for the community.

Developed by the Network of Woodlawn and led by the church’s pastor, Rev. Byron Brazier, and his son, developer J. Byron Brazier, Woodlawn Central, as it is called, would be an "indigenous location" for Black culture.

"Even in the face of gentrification, the best way to develop the Black community is from the inside out," said J. Byron Brazier. "We want to share our experiences and our unique perspectives with the world, just like every other culture gets the opportunity to do."

Spanning eight acres of church-owned property near 63rd Street and Dorchester Avenue, the plan includes a technology center, a hotel, commercial business spaces, a theater and private residential buildings.


Also included is a vertical farm at Kenwood Avenue and 63rd Street, built atop a parking structure.

Brazier said the development is intended to benefit Woodlawn – and it will benefit from tourists drawn to the area by the Obama Presidential Center, being built a short walk away in Jackson Park.

Brazier said occupants of the commercial spaces will be announced soon and include a hotel chain. Residences will include units designated as senior housing.

If the zoning is changed, as Brazier hopes, the development could have up to 870 units, ranging in size from studios up to three bedrooms. Current zoning allows buildings up to 15 stories; Brazier wants the site rezoned to allow a building of up to 25 stories. That building would have a rooftop pool with views of the lake, he said.

While rents haven’t been determined, the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance states 30% of the units should be affordable for families earning 30% to 50% of the area’s median income, which is $25,450.

Though the definition of "affordable" rent varies, the Woodlawn Affordable Housing Initiative states a development with 100 units should have 15 available at $543 a month and another 15 units at $942 a month.

Brazier said the development is intended to attract higher-earning tenants, too.

"It has to be a multi-income community," Brazier said. "We have to figure out what the best opportunities are for that to make sure there’s sustainability for the church and that there’s also sustainability for the community."

By "sustainable," Brazier means the development must make money, which can be reinvested in the community, while being environmentally responsible and also providing both indoor and outdoor spaces that "speak to the community and the community culture."

The environmental component will include solar power and a system to store rainwater, allowing it to be used later to water gardens and landscaping.

The timeline is aggressive, he said. Details, including the architects, design team and business partners, will be announced this year, with groundbreaking in 2023. All aspects of the project would be complete by 2028.

Brazier hopes to use modular technology to drive that timeline. Individual housing units would be fully finished off-site, then stacked on top of each other after arriving on location.

That approach, Brazier said, would be up to 45% faster and about 35% more cost effective. Among the firms using that technology is FullStack Modular in Brooklyn, New York.

The cost for the development is steep, ranging from $300 million to $600 million. Multiple potential investors have offered to fully fund the project, Brazier said, and he hopes to announce a partnership by year’s end.

It’s all worth it, he said, to promote Black entrepreneurship and success.

"The lack of accessibility to monetizing and getting the capital support for Black entrepreneurs and creators and innovators is probably the thing that I feel like we miss out on the most," Brazier said.

Black business ownership falls behind Asian, Latinx and white business ownership across the country, he said, and "based upon our contributions to this country, we should be at least 25%" ownership."

To fight those disparities, the Woodlawn plan will have a program on Black business infrastructure development and cultural competency. That program will take "a significant portion of the overall investment" and re-invest into emerging and established Black-owned businesses to then bring onto the campus, Brazier said.

"You can’t have a Black community without Black businesses," he said. "If this can be a process to catalyze the growth of Black ownership within the country … the structure that we’ve created is a viable option to look at how we create not just in Chicago, but in Detroit and in Ohio and in California and in New York."