The Story of Woodlawn Central and Its Vision for the Future

When ailing communities are revitalized, new development often prices long-term residents out of staying in the area—a “gentrification” knock-on effect those behind an ambitious renewal project in Chicago are committed to avoiding.

The Woodlawn Central Master Plan that aims to help breathe new life into the historic South Side district—whose past residents include Black icons like Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens and playwright Lorraine Hansberry—has been created by the neighborhood’s well-known Apostolic Church of God.

The 20,000-member church, founded in 1932, wants to turn eight acres of its campus, worth around $20 million, into a mixed development including housing (some 800 units), business, retail and entertainment space. The plan, the first step in a broader Woodlawn development effort, centers on preserving and fostering the existing community. Outside investment interest in the project has been heightened by the area’s proximity to the University of Chicago campus and the planned Obama Presidential Center in nearby Jackson Park.

WayMaker Journal spoke with lead developer J. Byron Brazier, the son of co-developer and Apostolic Church of God pastor Rev. Byron T. Brazier, and grandson of the church’s founder, Bishop Arthur M. Brazier.

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WayMaker Journal: Tell us about the Woodlawn neighborhood.

J. Byron Brazier: I grew up there going to church. Bishop Brazier is my grandfather, and I was the first baby blessed in the Kenwood sanctuary when it was built in 1977, so it’s home. Though we don’t live in Woodlawn, we spent more time at church than probably we did at home, so it has a great meaning to me. Bishop did 27 or so developments… to see it decline to where it is today really not only inspires me as a developer and as a creative, but also as a legacy process and a legacy project. For me, it’s an assignment, to bring new life, if possible, to the community that I find near and dear to my heart.

WJ: What is the history of the Apostolic Church of God in the Woodlawn neighborhood?

JB: Apostolic started on Kimbark, between 64th and 63rd, and Bishop had about maybe 100 members. As he began to really move forward in the ministry and work within Woodlawn, he really made an impression on the community and grew the church… He’s been a pillar of the community. At one point when they were building the Kenwood sanctuary, there was an L track that went from Cottage Grove to Dorchester, which is about two city blocks, and Bishop was very instrumental in getting that portion of the L tracks removed because they were dormant—there was a lot of gang activity happening underneath the tracks and it really made the neighborhood very dark. A lot of people remember him for that, and some people liked it, and some people didn’t like it, but ultimately, I think it made Woodlawn a much better community.

WJ: Tell us about Woodlawn Central and why it is important to not only Woodlawn, but to any major city that has seen its resources diminish and evaporate during different economic times?

JB: Woodlawn Central was really birthed out of a much bigger idea. When Dr. Brazier [my father] started doing more of the community work outside of the pastoral work that he was doing, he wanted to re-imagine The Woodlawn Organization, which Bishop built, to a community developer organization called the Network of Woodlawn… The community is a part of, intricately, the development process, from pre-development all the way to [the] verticals and operations. It’s a very interesting take on the development process, because developers are not trying to develop people; they’re only trying to build buildings… One of the challenges was to actually not re-litigate our history, but to look forward and say, “What are the things that we would need infrastructurally within our community so that it could become a viable instrument for investment, as opposed to benevolence?” You can’t give enough to a community to develop it to a magnitude of economic sustainability.

Developers are not trying to develop people; they’re only trying to build buildings.


WJ: How have you approached that challenge?

JB: [As we began to work through this idea, of building retail, residential and commercial aspects] simultaneously so that the people themselves can see themselves within the project, each of four [closed-down] schools in the area became cultural destinations. We used agriculture, technology, visual arts and performing arts as the over-arching concept. In-between that is a walkability that would be mixed-use rental, and then you’d have your infill of the community that then would become your buyer’s market. So you can still have a multi-income community, you can have a walkability that’s not just a corridor… but actually be able to pull the culture and convenience into this concept, to where now people want to live here, people want to visit here, there’s entertainment here, there’s retail, there’s a lot of different things, like architecture that people want to see when they travel internationally, especially.

WJ: What type of retail will you be bringing to this development?

JB: A Black community can’t be a Black community without Black businesses. So, I’m really looking at established Black businesses, emerging Black businesses and being able to support those businesses financially through a CFI [cash flow from investing] process. I’m looking at restaurateurs, retail, clothing, goods and services; we’ll have a specific promenade for that. It’s not going to be massive, but I think that we’ll have enough room for a variety of different retail. We have 213,000 square feet of commercial space.

WJ: How much is all this going to cost?

JB: [Overall] we’re talking at least an $8-to-$10 billion endeavor. We’re looking 30, 40 years down the pike, but we’ve still got to catalyze this. And so that’s when I went to Dr. Brazier and I said, “You’ve got to put our money where our mouth is. You’re sitting on eight acres of parking lots. We can do a micro version of this big project right here on the church campus.” It took me several years to convince him that it would be viable, and I think that there were other people who were very instrumental in quantifying that as a good investment, because there’s nobody investing in the Black community at this level. The church, I feel, has the future of the Black community squarely sitting on its shoulders. And if it does nothing, then everybody else does nothing: the church must lead in this process. This is important because it’s setting the church to a new precedent and it’s setting the community to a new precedent of process. You’re building buildings all over our community, but how many of us own these buildings? How many of us are benefiting economically and socially from the building of these districts that they’re building around the country, within and around the Black community?

WJ: With some major entities involved, how are you dealing with still being able to make it affordable? A lot of communities never get off of the ground because, at the end of the day, it’s so expensive that in order to maintain them and keep them vibrant, the taxes and everything has to go up.

JB: We have to actually tailor-make and customize our process so that when higher taxes come because more development is coming, those who are there stay there. The church is very focused on making sure that this is development without displacement. I think that is the reason why Woodlawn Central is special from the principles that we have, that we’re not going to displace anybody. If you leave it’s because you want to leave, not because you have to.

WJ: How has the community been involved in the project?

JB: In 2018 and 2019, I was socializing the process for the community development organization, and I presented to them the 2060 planned vision of the schools. Then I had a really great opportunity to work with Montana State University, who came over and did vision boards and models. In 2020, we presented that to the community and we have had nothing but support for the entire concept. In 2021, we announced Woodlawn Central and have had little to no pushback; a lot of curiosity. Then again, our community has seen a lot of ideas, but we haven’t seen them realized, so I think that once it becomes more of a reality for everybody, we’ll hear a lot more about what they think.