In a bold move to try to help a West Side neighborhood hang on to one of its few grocery stores, Chicago city officials will consider using eminent domain to buy a shuttered Aldi that the company abandoned abruptly last fall.
The Garfield Park Aldi closed after 30 years at 3835 W. Madison St., leaving thousands of West Siders without a nearby grocery store where they can buy affordable, fresh produce or other staples. The closure was blasted at the time by neighbors. Dr. David Ansell, vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center, called it “an act of violence,” saying, “food is medicine.”
Now, the Department of Planning and Development is asking the Chicago City Council for authority to acquire the 15,000-square-foot building, in what could represent a new strategy to combat food deserts. The city’s swift incursion into the private market — essentially insisting that the former Aldi location reopen as a food store — is unusual.
“I want to ensure that it remains a grocery store,” said Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th Ward, who says he helped hatch the idea.
The city would only purchase the property — currently listed for $700,000 — if Aldi fails to sell to another grocer. The property sits in a commercial corridor that the city targeted for reinvestment back in 1999. The Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district would provide the funds to purchase the old Aldi building and Ervin says a community-driven process could find a new grocer for the site. (TIF funds and donated city land helped the only other grocery store in the area, Save A Lot, open a decade ago.)
“By us saying we [are] going to acquire it, [it] kind of puts a damper on anybody else wanting to acquire it for any other purpose,” said Ervin, who sees the building as “an investment in the future of the community and an investment in the health of the people of the community.”
Ervin said residents in nearby senior citizen buildings relied on Aldi for groceries. He said Aldi’s abrupt departure (even the alderman’s office got no advance warning) was “just wrong.”
Activists, including medical students from Rush, have highlighted the so-called “death gap,” a life expectancy gap of 16 years between residents of West Garfield Park and residents of the Loop. That has to do with food insecurity as much as poverty, housing insecurity and lack of access to medical care, they’ve argued. The group West Side United finds “nearly all of the 560,000 residents on Chicago’s West Side face at least one barrier to food security,” including reduced quality, variety, or sufficiency of available food.”
The proposal to give the city authority to purchase the former Aldi has already been approved by the Community Development Commission and the Plan Commission. It is slated to be considered at City Council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee on February 15 and could be voted on by the full council later this month. Authority would include eminent domain, meaning Chicago could compel Aldi to sell the store to the city.
Aldi did not respond to multiple WBEZ requests for an interview. In statements sent to media and residents following the closing, Aldi said the store closed due to “consistently declining sales and the fact that we’ve operated this location at a loss for several years.”
The city’s move to potentially purchase the Aldi is a “fantastic thing,” said TJ Crawford, executive director of the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative. That group protested the closure, helped coordinate food giveaways in the Aldi parking lot afterward and demanded the company sell the store to the community for $1. Their petition called on city officials to purchase the building and incentivize a new grocer to locate there.
“It’s the city listening and hearing and responding to a community need and then positioning themselves to be able to step in and work collaboratively with the community to meet that need,” said Crawford, who said he’ll hold off on celebrating until the store actually reopens. He said his group is currently in the process of recruiting and “vetting” grocers and is looking for a “step up” from Aldi.
“We want to make sure that the grocer that comes into this space is committed to the community and has a much more integrated, cooperative relationship with the community than Aldi’s had,” Crawford said. He wants any new grocer to support community health and well-being and “Black culture wellness.” He expects those principles to guide “how they build, design, and operate this store along with the products, food and other things that they offer.”
Ald. Ervin said he’s been talking to two medium-sized grocers that are interested in the building.
Department of Planning and Development spokesman Peter Strazzabosco acknowledged it’s a “big deal” for the city to potentially step into a private market transaction to make sure a community gets what it wants. But he says there are a number of recent examples: The city is purchasing a 6.3-acre vacant lot in Pilsen to ensure affordable housing for that community. The city also has authority to acquire some privately owned property being redeveloped as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, including the Laramie Bank Building.
And in another grocery store example, the city had authority to acquire the 8.5-acre Jeffrey Plaza shopping center in South Shore after a Dominick’s closed at the end of 2013. Even with acquisition authority, the 62,000-square-foot store remained vacant for six years. The deal ultimately included $10 million in TIF funds and $12 million in tax credits for the developer.
Notable in the case of the Garfield Park Aldi is the city’s swift action on an issue — food deserts — that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said is a priority for her administration. Also differentiating it from other examples, the property is not particularly large — it encompasses just the 15,000-square-foot store and an adjacent 63-car parking lot on one acre of land — and has no historic significance.
“There are other food stores in the area but the convenience and options this one provided for a lot of people is a significant loss,” said Strazzabosco. In addition, “the store’s closure left a void on what has historically been a key retail corridor for the West Side.”
Strazzabosco said the city is in ongoing discussions with Aldi about the future of the site.
A “bold move,” but more will be necessary
“It’s a bold move for a municipality to put that constraint on private enterprise, and to be very intentional about maintaining a particular use of a property that directly aligns with what the community needs,” said Stacey Sutton, a professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Department at UIC.
Sutton said there’s opportunity for Chicago to do even more. For instance, the city could own and maintain the building and incentivize a community-owned food enterprise to open there, offering tax abatements or incentives. Sutton said that could lead to stability and prevent another grocer from leaving. “If this is really about community-driven [process] and … community wealth building — if the community residents own and operate it, it’s not going anywhere,” said Sutton.
She said cities often have more power to get residents what they need than they choose to wield.
“I think cities have more power than they want us to believe. This notion that, ‘Oh, we can’t do anything, it’s just the private market’ — I don’t believe that.”
Collete English Dixon, executive director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University, said the city cannot ignore the fact that, for some reason, Aldi did not find it profitable to remain at the Garfield Park location.
“Aldi is a multinational entity. They have experience broad and wide. So what was it that they could not make happen there? Whatever that is, it’s still there, no matter who owns it,” English Dixon said.
That means the city should be prepared to do more than just find a new owner, she said. “I hope they’re also considering what other sort of financial support they may need to bring to the table to help make sure that whomever does go into that site is going to be successful and stay,” English Dixon said.
Reporting for this story was inspired by a question from a Curious City listener. Look out for an upcoming episode with a full answer to that listener’s question.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.
Becky Vevea and Asia Singleton contributed reporting to this story.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.
Asia Singleton is Curious City’s multimedia intern.