ENGLEWOOD — With developers vying to shape the future of Englewood Square, some community leaders are concerned they don’t have all the information about how city leaders are making their final decision.
Four development teams unveiled their plans last month in two virtual hearings for transforming the land around the old Englewood firehouse near 63rd and Halsted. All of the proposals involve repurposing the 98-year-old structure and include ideas like a coffee shop, food hall and a culinary center.
The city launched two online surveys for residents to give feedback on the developers’ presentations, which generated about 80 responses.
Asiaha Butler, founder of Residents Association of Greater Englewood, said she was concerned the lack of anonymity may have dissuaded neighbors from participating. She relayed that to the city planning team, who revised the second survey to remove any questions regarding identity.
Even with the responses, Butler, who has closely monitored the project’s progress, said organizers aren’t clear how resident input influences which developer the city ultimately chooses to reinvigorate that critical intersection.
“We’re doing our best to try to engage residents as much as possible, so their voices can be heard when it comes to massive projects like this,” Butler said. “What we’ve been saying — very openly — is that we don’t know how our feedback is weighed against the internal evaluation.”
The project is part of the city’s INVEST South/West initiative to spur development in several South and West side communities. In Englewood, the priority is building at and around 63rd and Halsted.
The first phase of Englewood Square is anchored by a Whole Foods Market, Starbucks, Chipotle and other retailers.
Given the size and scope of the second part of the work, Englewood Square has potential to reinvigorate the commercial strip along the 63rd Street corridor. Local leaders look for it to complement the Go Green on Racine initiative further west and turn the area into a cultural attraction.
There have been other nagging details with the process.
The city’s department of planning and development held a virtual roundtable Feb. 19 for community members to weigh in on the proposals. But Deon Lucas, a member of one of the presenting teams, wasn’t on that call.
“I had to find out from someone else that it was happening,” said Lucas, part of the East Lake Management/Imagine Group collaborative.
Lucas said he doesn’t believe the city’s planning department is acting in bad faith, but he’s concerned the process isn’t informed by the community they’re trying to help. Bryan Haynes, another resident who has followed the project from the beginning, had similar reservations. He worries the process is “too opaque” and the most important decision-making is taken out of the hands of those most affected.
“The commissioner’s idea to divide the city into seven divisions with a planner for each one was exciting because there would be someone at [the department] who actually knows what’s going on in your community,” Haynes said, referring to the structure of INVEST South/West.
“But now I’m like, ‘Who’s the one representing my community? Are they at events?’ I don’t know.”
Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the planning department, pushed back on concerns there is not enough transparency around the process. He said the community review process has been “unprecedented,” especially considering pandemic-related challenges.
The project’s goals “were established through community input, the proposed projects were made public through multiple formats and public feedback was solicited through multiple engagement opportunities,” Strazzabosco said.
He said the survey response for Englewood Square was “substantial,” given about 150 people participated in the meetings to hear the developer presentations.
“Community members that couldn’t attend the presentations or subsequent roundtable discussion were invited to review the proposals and developer videos on the Invest South/West website and provide comments by email,” Strazzabosco said.
“Ultimately, a selection committee representing numerous city of Chicago departments will select a winner based on responsiveness to the [request for proposal], community preferences, developer experience, financial capacity, proposal viability, development team diversity and local inclusion, among other criteria.”
The roundtable invitations Lucas mentioned are usually reserved for residents to provide their input, not for development teams to present and offer comments, Strazzabosco said. Lucas said he understood that but still felt not being on the call was a missed opportunity.
“That feels like a bad game of telephone,” Lucas said. “Hearing the feedback after the fact isn’t the same as hearing it in real time. They could just say, ‘Hey, you can join the call but you’ll be muted,’ so that we can listen and take notes.”
City officials are scheduled to announce the winning development proposal in March.
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