The commissioner behind Chicago’s ambitious $2.2 billion INVEST South/West initiative is stepping down Sept. 15.
Maurice Cox led the department of planning and development, which launched the signature program in the South Shore, South Chicago, Roseland, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, Austin, Englewood, North Lawndale and New City/Back of the Yards areas. The projects encompass housing, small businesses, transit and public space. Appointed by former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cox is one of the last high-profile department heads to leave the previous administration.
“This has been an opportunity of a career to work with such an incredible collection of neighborhoods and an extraordinary number of people who love them dearly,” Cox said. “And it feels like it was really worth it. When I see how excited people were to be given respect that their neighborhoods were seen, and most importantly that seeing led to increased investments so that they can plan to stay.”
You can read more about the programs in the 10 neighborhoods here.
Cox recently sat down with WBEZ’s Natalie Moore to talk about what he learned, what projects excite him most and more.
Where is the city with INVEST South/West? When can we see a finished ribbon cutting?
Cox: One of the biggest challenges is that sustained neighborhood investment doesn’t adhere to political cycles. They take five to seven years to begin to show themselves. Auburn Gresham was in the first round of investments that were made; the cranes are in the air and those projects will be completed in 2024. Austin is probably the next out the gate and Englewood is also under construction. These were some of the most catalytic and large-scale investments that these neighborhood neighborhoods have seen in decades.
What did you learn about reversing disinvestment in communities that have suffered through it for so long?
You don’t start from scratch. You always inherit the work from your predecessor, and your job is to layer that investment with the particular vision that you want to offer. In Englewood, for example, a prior investment had been made in a shopping center. My job was to co-locate housing so we have a mixed use six-story building going on right next to the shopping center and the renovation of the firehouse just behind the shopping center as a culinary hub.
Ten years from now, how do you think the South and West sides will look?
We will see the wisdom of the strategy that became Invest South/West, which was to focus investments in a walkable geography, close to transit, that creates the type of amenities that residents have longed for for many, many years. And we will find the population stabilizing, and people rediscovering these neighborhoods as great places that we know they are.
Which project excites you the most?
Roseland has a special place for me just because the main street is so iconic. And now it’s getting this infusion of a new CTA stop, which tens of thousands of people to access that community and the jobs outside of their community. And it will spur the type of equitable transit development that I don’t think was imaginable just a few years ago. It’s multiple sites along the single corridor. Back of the Yards/New City is another one that anticipated our desire to create a micro-district where one developer identified four different development opportunities within a two-block area and is advancing each one at their own pace.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your tenure as commissioner?
I am an architect and urban designer. I’ve done this job in other places like Detroit. I would say that in Chicago, not all aldermen expected to have a commissioner that had a vision that was guided by a set of principles, and that was anxious to win their trust. I took a lot of time to build that trust, personal relationships, I’ve literally experienced every square mile of the city with an alderman. We often started with the large — which were these complex, multi-financed very complex tax credit deals, which inherently are difficult to deliver. So, if I could have started with small, I think we could have seen more cranes in the air earlier.
Why are you leaving as commissioner and what’s next?
The reality is that you serve at the pleasure of a mayor, and every mayor has a right to assemble their own team and so that’s what I anticipated. And that’s what has come to fruition.
What advice would you give your successor? And the mayor?
I would say stay the course, but have the wisdom to layer your agenda on top of what you’ve inherited. And so the results tend to be more amplified as a result of not starting from scratch. So stay the course on these neighborhood commercial corridors. It is once we get them working, they will attract other investments that you did not even anticipate. So that would be my advice. If your agenda is youth, then you layer the youth agenda on top of the investments that you’ve seen in the pipeline in that way. The strategy will be more layered and more sustainable for the long haul.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.