Proposals sought for key commercial stretches emphasize corner parcels and some architectural landmarks.
Maurice Cox is a planning commissioner with a plan. If it works, and early returns are promising, he’ll be making headway against one of Chicago’s most intractable economic problems.
It’s how do you get investors, developers and contractors interested in working in low-income neighborhoods where the long cycle of disinvestment still rules? And a corollary: How do you get Black and Brown people involved to prove that when construction starts, it’s not some gentrification plot?
Cox is the commissioner of planning and development for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. As part of her Invest South/West effort, Cox’s agency has posted requests for proposals involving 11 stretches of well-traveled commercial streets with more to come.
Areas covered include Bronzeville, New City, Englewood and South Chicago. Some properties the city owns; others are in private hands. All could be put to better use. The agency has emphasized properties on busy corners in the belief that improvements there could inspire others nearby.
“We say in development, ‘You lose the corner, you lose the street,’” Cox said.
He said there has been a strong competitive response to the RFPs from partnerships of developers, architects, nonprofits and others, many minority-owned and with pedigrees in downtown or neighborhood projects.
“I’m thrilled that developers are buying into the notion that these communities should get excellent design,” he said.
After taking community feedback, the city has picked winning proposals for three of the sites. For five more, the application deadline has passed and replies are being reviewed. Those eight sites accounted for 35 submissions, most including minority-owned partners, an impressive result for properties long ignored. The city just recently solicited proposals for three new sites.
How are the properties picked? Cox said his staff knocked on doors. “We asked the community, ‘Where do you think we should start?’” Residents often pointed to empty, boarded-up buildings of design distinction.
Examples include an Austin site at 5200 W. Chicago Ave., the old Laramie State Bank, and the former Pioneer Bank building at 4000 W. North Ave. and adjacent properties in Humboldt Park. The buildings are designated city landmarks, reminders of when banks were topped only by churches in bringing fancy architecture to neighborhoods. Banks needed it to sell themselves as a secure place to stash money.
At the Laramie State Bank, the city has selected its favored development team. Heartland Housing Alliance and Oak Park Regional Housing plan a blues museum, bank branch, café and business incubator in the old space with a multi-story rental building on a parking lot next door.
Athena Williams, executive director of the Oak Park group, said she hopes work can start next year. City incentives are being discussed, and she said she expects little problem negotiating a sale with the owner, John Young, a longtime Austin resident. He’s known in the neighborhood for his love of the 1929 building, but deed records show he’s had trouble keeping it. Young couldn’t be reached for comment.
“The architecture drew me to it, just the grandiose stature of the building and all the things it could have become,” Williams said. She said that since the city announced the agreement, another group that didn’t get the property has spread “misinformation” alleging gentrification.
“People are saying it’s Oak Park coming into Austin. No, it’s not,” she said. Williams has lived in Austin for more than 20 years, and her group has worked in the community for 15 years. She said the property could figure in plans to turn that section of Chicago Avenue into a “Soul City” district celebrating Black arts and culture.
Pioneer Bank, for which proposals are being sought, was built in 1925 and is owned by an attorney, Loukas Kozonis. He’s developed residential buildings on the Northwest Side. Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said his group has tried to help Kozonis, but communication has been difficult. “We have sent developers his way in the past, but they weren’t able to proceed with any offers or agreements,” Miller said. Kozonis did not return calls for comment.
Cox said private owners, even if they are distant or inattentive, have every inducement to cooperate with the developments. “Property owners we talk with are elated. We are bringing them interest in a property they haven’t been able to move,” Cox said.
The city’s RFQs state the owners have promised good-faith efforts to sell. If they don’t, the city always has eminent domain — the power to force a sale — in its back pocket. But that can be contentious and drawn out. Cox doesn’t want to go there.
Instead, his agency has drawn attention to key sites by putting information in one place. The RFQs contain facts about ownership, property histories, soil conditions and local demographics.
Just maybe, it’s helping developers see opportunities where they once saw only obstacles.