The city is hunting for developers to take the reins on the first batch of sites—projects in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Austin (see details on each below)—and laying out the menu of tax incentives available to help lower some of the financial hurdles that real estate investors have long cited as one of the main reasons for decades of neighborhood disinvestment. Those roadblocks may be even more onerous now in a COVID-19-induced recession and after episodes of looting and riots this summer wreaked havoc on both small businesses and national retail chains that historically have been hard to retain for those communities.
If the city’s plan works as intended, new developments in the designated neighborhoods would be financed and under construction as soon as 18 months from now, said Chicago Department of Planning & Development Commissioner Maurice Cox. And the bigger victory would be spurring other investors to follow suit.
“This is us setting the stage for what equitable development on the South and West sides will look like,” said Cox, who has helped organize monthly in-person and virtual community meetings since November, gathering input from stakeholders in designed Invest South/West neighborhoods about their most pressing needs. Those discussions formed the basis for the RFPs, which give prospective developers guidelines for what local residents and business owners would like to see built and include renderings of possible designs generated by firms including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Perkins & Will and SCB.
The RFPs are a key formal step toward realizing the vision of Invest South/West, the highest-profile initiative Lightfoot launched during her first year in office toward her goal of stimulating the economic revival of neighborhoods suffering from population loss, poverty and few investors willing to help. The administration said in October it would steer $750 million in public funding into 10 designated South and West side commercial corridors over a three-year period, pulling in money from pools including its tax-increment financing districts, its Small Business Improvement Fund and its Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, which former Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched requiring downtown developers to pay money for certain zoning allowances into a pot that is used for South and West side small-business grants.
Those funds and financing tools have been available to developers for years, but used sparingly by smaller, community-focused developers that have had only limited help from City Hall or other deep-pocketed investors and developers, Cox said. Many investors have been scared off by metrics of neighborhoods where most residents are below the poverty line, average household annual incomes are under $30,000 and low commercial rents make it hard to justify big development projects.
“We know that there is a risk in being the first to do a private development (in such neighborhoods). The city, by putting these incentives in place, is saying, ‘We’re going to share that risk with you,’ ” he said. “The level of coordination of streetscape work, housing, retail in terms of (Neighborhood Opportunity Fund) resources as well as TIF is a level of alignment that has rarely happened in Chicago neighborhoods on the South and West sides.”
Two of the first three locations are parcels of city-owned land, and the other is a block that the city plans to purchase. Cox said the sites for the first three RFPs were selected for their nearby “residential stability” and have an “ecosystem of community organizations on the ground, willing and able to partner with private development.” The city owns a total of 36 acres in the commercial corridors targeted for Invest South/West, according to a Planning Department spokesman. Responses for the first three RFPs are due Nov. 24.
The focus in this South Side neighborhood is on Englewood Square, at the northwest corner of 63rd and Halsted streets. The city targeted the shopping center as a catalyst for economic revival when it lured a Whole Foods grocery store, Chipotle and Starbucks there more than four years ago, though its impact on stoking more retail development has been limited.