A sign for South Shore along 71st Street on Aug. 19, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH SHORE — Up to $1.5 million in city funds will be awarded by the end of the year to turn a vacant Dante Avenue lot into a garden, renovate two theaters at the South Shore Cultural Center or upgrade the handball and racquetball courts at Rainbow Beach.

The funding comes through the Chicago Works Community Challenge initiative, which will grant up to $10 million to support seven public projects on city-owned properties. These include improvements to parks, libraries, outdoor public school facilities and vacant residential lots.

Supporters of the three project finalists in the city’s Southeast planning region presented their plans at a community meeting Thursday. The projects:

  • The creation of a community healing garden on a vacant lot at 7302 S. Dante Ave., which would aim to reduce negative mental health impacts of violence in the neighborhood.
  • Upgrades to the Paul Robeson Theatre stage and the outdoor stage at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive.
  • Improvements to the racquetball and handball courts and clubhouse at Rainbow Beach, 3111 E. 77th St.

The three South Shore projects are among 21 finalists for community challenge awards, which are funded by the Chicago Works infrastructure plan.

Only infrastructure projects like playgrounds, park paths and library modernization work are eligible for community challenge grants. The funds can’t pay for programs, staffing, computers and other equipment.

Seven plans — one from each of the city’s planning regions — will receive grants of up to $1.5 million each. All awarded projects will be announced by the end of the year and are planned to break ground by late 2022.

The 14 other finalists will be placed into a “priority pipeline” for future dollars, though other funding sources to complete those projects have not been determined, city officials said.

The vacant Dante Avenue lot where the Hood Foundation wants to create a community healing garden. Credit: Department of Planning and Development

The Dante Avenue garden can help deter gun violence in the area by limiting access to gangways and offering neighbors relief from stress and anxiety, Hood Foundation founder LaDonna Hall said. The garden proposal is the only finalist citywide that would repurpose a vacant lot.

Hall’s foundation and NeighborSpace would partner on the project. Only decorative, non-edible plants could be purchased with city funds.

“These vacant lots are giving so much access to run through it,” Hall said. “We just thought it would be a good idea to block off some of these areas [and] create a garden space to beautify the area so perpetrators wouldn’t be able to have that free run and make it straight to the alley.”

An artist’s rendering of proposed improvements to the outdoor stage at the South Shore Cultural Center. Credit: Provided

At the South Shore Cultural Center, the Paul Robeson Theatre stage could use upgrades to allow for more expansive theater productions, operas and dances, said Michelle Bibbs, a neighborhood resident who applied for the grant on the cultural center’s behalf.

The outdoor stage to the cultural center’s southeast — idle and in need of renovations — would receive a new canopy, lighting and sound system. New theater and music programs could coincide with the improvements, but they would not be paid for with Chicago Works funds.

“The center has become, almost exclusively, this rental facility for private events in a space that is supported by taxpayer dollars,” Bibbs said. “If other communities like Lincoln Park can have Theater on the Lake … then certainly, the South Shore Cultural Center can be upgraded, renovated, programmed and activated.”

The women’s bathroom in the clubhouse is “rusted out, completely out of order and plumbing is needed,” project backer Carolyn Vazquez said. Credit: Provided

The handball and racquetball courts at Rainbow Beach need improvements, and the park’s clubhouse is in need of roof repairs, a fresh paint job and new plumbing.

Court upgrades would support a Racquets at Rainbow youth fitness program, said Carolyn Vazquez, the project’s backer and an Illinois State Racquetball Association governing board member. The clubhouse repairs would also improve safety, as there are exposed pipes, rusted lockers and waterlogged furniture inside, she said.

“If there’s a way for me to create a safe space for [youth] to come to, I think we can … improve a lot of the ails that we have going on in our communities,” Vazquez said. “Developing the space and doing the renovations at Rainbow Beach not only will help us lay that foundation, but will exponentially allow us to reach out to many more youth.”

If a region’s winning project costs less than $1.5 million, excess funds won’t go to the other two finalists, officials said at a Far South Side community meeting last week.

The Southeast region covers 15 community areas from West Englewood down to Auburn Gresham, over to South Chicago and up to Bronzeville.

Though more eligible submissions were received from the Southeast region than anywhere else in the city, all three finalists in the region are in South Shore.

Projects in all regions were chosen using 10 criteria, including feasibility, potential impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the likelihood residents would use them.

The Southeast region finalists “represent the highest-scored projects that fit within those financial feasibility constraints,” said Natalia Kapani, Mayor’s Office project manager. “While they are all in South Shore, they do represent three different wards within the Southeast area.”

Many submissions were not on city-owned property or were too expensive to be covered by the community challenge funds, said Gabriela Jirasek, planning department assistant commissioner.

Residents can share their thoughts on the three projects through a community survey on the city’s website. A recording of Thursday’s meeting is available on YouTube.

The Southeast region meeting was the latest of seven virtual meetings on the Chicago Works community challenge, to be held Tuesdays and Thursdays through Nov. 9.

For a full schedule of community meetings and links to recordings, click here.

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