Chicago’s new planning commissioner, Maurice Cox, observed something very quickly when he met with community groups across the city.
“The last thing we need is another plan,” Cox said.
They already exist and the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) plans to use them. DPD is diving in to 10 neighborhoods, from Austin to Auburn Gresham, to revitalize what Cox calls the front door of neighborhoods — commercial corridors. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is banking on the initiative INVEST South/West to deliver on her campaign promise to marshal resources to neglected neighborhoods.
INVEST South/West is less a plan but a way to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment over the next several years. In all, DPD aims to bring $1 billion in investment to give the initial 10 selected neighborhoods a boost.
“We can align their vision with resources, leveraging those public investments to spur more private investment and philanthropic investment,” Cox said.
The overall vision is dynamic urban life that has safe streets, focal points for pedestrians and a welcoming atmosphere for entrepreneurship.
“[When] there’s not an empty storefront on the block is a clear indication of success,” Cox said. “I always think when you get a really popular family sit-down restaurant, so popular that you can’t even get a reservation, well you should be able to walk across the street to another family restaurant or walk down the block. It’s the whole notion of clustering the economic activity in a walking distance.”
INVEST South/West also aims to spread equitable development around the city in these oft-neglected neighborhoods: Auburn Gresham, Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, New City, North Lawndale, Quad Communities, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore.
The city selected those communities using two criteria: the existence of at least one well-developed community plan and the existence of at least one active commercial node.
On 79th Street just west of Halsted Street, a four-story terra cotta building blends in with the rest of the boarded-up structures nearby. The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) owns it. For three years, the group has gotten no traction in its attempt to revitalize the former furniture warehouse into a healthy-wellness building with a restaurant, offices and a green roof.
GAGDC Executive Director Carlos Nelson recalled when Cox recently visited the group’s office.
“And this guy sat here and said that project is going to happen,” Nelson said. “I never had that experience working with executives in the city. It was so refreshing.”
It’s an indication of what Cox meant when he says no more neighborhood plans are needed. They already exist, and Cox promises to take a ground-up approach on community development.
And over on the West Side, the nonprofit Austin Coming Together (ACT) wants to beautify Chicago Avenue.
“Go down our commercial corridor, there’s not a whole lot of aesthetics and things that you can really point to that draw you in and make it conducive for businesses to want to set up and be attracted to place their business there,” said Darnell Shields, ACT executive director.
In Detroit, where Cox led the planning department, he made streetscaping improvements such as widened sidewalks on busy business strips. In Chicago, Cox said he wants to reshape DPD to have dedicated neighborhood planners.
Shields said it’s about time the city pays attention to the West Side.
The city’s investment of capital is certainly a benefit, and so is the expertise of DPD, Shields said. “To really bring that expertise that they have to help the community in their vision and realizing their vision of reimagining how their corridors and other spaces can be better utilized.”
As a part of INVEST South/West, the city pledges to commit $220 million in tax-increment financing dollars, $30 million from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund along with $500 million in planned infrastructure investments and partnerships with sister city agencies. The city needs to raise an additional $250 million from private companies. BMO bank has pledged $10 million.
DPD is launching community conversations next month focused on all 10 communities and while some projects will take years to finish, Cox said by spring there will be some progress completed.
As Cox has toured neighborhoods with city council members and community leaders, he said he’s been surprised about Chicago in his short time here.
“When people talk about the South Side or the West Side, they always talk as if there’s some deficit or something lacking. And I was surprised because I didn’t see what was lacking. I saw what was there,” Cox said. “I saw incredible buildings that have perhaps been disinvested but they look as architecturally important as anything in Chicago.”
And Cox saw people incredibly determined to better their communities. And that gives him a lot to work with.
The Department of Planning and Development will host community engagement events that will provide an overview of INVEST South/West. The events will feature performances by local artists, planning exercises for community areas, youth activities and food from local vendors.
Englewood, Auburn Gresham and New City
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019
Kennedy-King College, 6301 S. Halsted St.
Humboldt Park, Austin and North Lawndale
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020
Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd.
Quad Communities, South Shore and South Chicago
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020
Gary Comer Youth Center, 7200 S. Ingleside Ave.
5 to 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 31, 2020
Pullman Community Center, 10355 S. Woodlawn Ave.