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Invited In Only To Be Shut Out

The city’s premiere development initiative, Invest South/West, has brought hope to areas long ignored by developers. But some residents say they’ve been left out of decision-making on the projects coming to their areas.

Bill Smiljanic-Pérez, a community organizer who took part in the city's Invest South/West planning process, called it "a facade, it's a veneer. The city talks about engaging communities, but they drag you along and then do what they want in the end.” He is seen above next to the former Pioneer Bank at North Avenue and Pulaski Road, a site for city redevelopment.
Victor Hilitski/For the Illinois Answers Project

CHICAGO — When Joyce Brown was told the Invest South/West program was coming to her South Shore neighborhood, she and other residents did just what city officials told them to do — they started making their wish lists.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s highly touted program plans to spend $750 million citywide in neighborhoods starved for investment and development, and Brown hoped some of that money could build up the community where she has lived for nearly 40 years. A grocery store here. A dry cleaner there. A new bakery for residents. 

Instead, Brown says after numerous back-and-forth debates during community meetings with city officials, her South Side community is getting housing it didn’t ask for.

“We were told [the city] can’t build those things until people come,” Brown said about her suggestions. “All I’m trying to do is preserve my community.”

When the mayor unveiled the program just months into her term, she extolled the initiative as the city’s best effort to bring public and private investment and development to 10 neighborhoods that have received little of it in recent decades. 

Lightfoot promised a collaborative, “community-based planning and development strategy that will ensure equitable investment in the South and West sides.” 

Without it, South Shore and the other nine community areas would likely continue to go without major developments.

Many residents have praised Invest South/West’s goals of revitalizing long-neglected Chicago neighborhoods. The initiative has given hope to neighborhoods and energized them, they say. 

But interviews by the Illinois Answers Project with almost two dozen stakeholders and community groups reveal a common thread of complaints. While the city vowed to involve locals, residents say they’ve felt shut out of any real decision-making.

In a process that was supposed to be transparent, it’s often unclear, residents say, how the city selects winning projects. Even some alderpersons say they’ve been left in the dark. 

Stakeholders worry that winning developments are often about dollars and cents — what is the most financially viable with the least cost to the city — while neglecting the community’s wishes. Despite assurances from the city that it wants to bring in new, smaller developers to the table, some of those firms say they’ve lost out to the familiar, bigger players who appear favored by the city.

Community stakeholders in at least four Invest South/West target neighborhoods said city officials overrode their requests and chose anchor developments that didn’t have strong community backing.

In South Shore, the long-neglected intersection at 79th Street and Exchange Avenue will become home to a $47.3 million project including housing, retail and a museum space to be built by a team including the Chicago developer responsible for Englewood’s Whole Foods, now shuttered.

In Auburn Gresham, some residents criticized city officials after Lightfoot announced the selection of a $43 million affordable housing development in early 2022, despite a wave of requests for commercial businesses.  

On the West Side, Austin community groups flagged a selection process they called unfair to neighborhood-based developers. Ultimately, the city chose a $37.5 million project to renovate the former Laramie Bank to include a blues museum, bank branch, café and business incubator. 

And for one Humboldt Park site, the city broke a tie between two proposals, choosing what one resident called a “vague” plan for a $53.9 million rehabilitation of the former landmark Pioneer Bank.

Those stakeholders and others said the goals of Lightfoot’s plan are on target, but the execution diminished their optimism about its outcome.

“A lot of people ended up saying, ‘At least we’re getting something.’ But why promise people things then do what you want to do anyway?” Brown asked.

Many of the details of how the city picked winners and losers remain unclear. 

The city has refused to release many documents related to the program, including such basic information as detailed responses from developers, the top three plans for each site and even who sat on most of the selection committees. The Better Government Association, the publisher of the Illinois Answers Project, is suing the city to obtain those records after the city denied or ignored Freedom of Information Act requests for them.

Peter Strazzabosco, a spokesman for the city’s planning department, said it “values all public comments and suggestions during RFP [requests for proposal] development and review” and other suggestions from residents are “being fulfilled” through city grant programs. 

Ultimately, some requests aren’t reflected in final projects because of concerns surrounding financial viability, he said. 

“Some neighborhood goals, depending on the area, are not feasible during this phase of Invest South/West due to local market conditions that preclude private-sector participation,” Strazzabosco said in a written statement. “Invest South/West is intended to improve local market conditions so all neighborhoods enjoy similar private and public amenities.”  

Fanfare, Excitement Then Disappointment

The city announced Invest South/West in October 2019 and held kickoff celebrations featuring fanfare starting in December. 

The celebrations drew alderpersons, organizers and community members enthusiastic about having the chance to sit at the table with city planning officials, rather than “having the city come down… and tell communities ‘we’re doing this for you, and we’re doing it this way,’” which Lightfoot described as “the wrong way to do anything” at the one-year celebration of the program in October 2020.

Residents were excited to tell the city what they envisioned for blighted business corridors in their neighborhoods, completing surveys and needs assessments provided by the city. 

Some residents, like Brown, showed up not just with community wish lists but with corridor studies and existing quality of life plans — to show they’d already done their homework and knew their communities’ needs.

The city convened roundtable processes, led by officials from the Department of Planning and Development and other city departments, to “ensure the neighborhood voices are heard and integrated into the priorities” of the initiative and hear feedback, according to the city. 

In the months following the mayor’s announcement, Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox publicly echoed the idea that existing community plans would be the cornerstone of Invest South/West developments. 

“I don’t believe in top-down planning,” Cox told Curbed Chicago in December 2019. “People cannot come from the outside and tell a community what to do.”

Early on in the community roundtable process, the city said it had three main evaluation criteria for Invest South/West proposals, focusing on building community wealth, “professional competence” of developers — a category that includes responding to community priorities, design excellence as well as innovation and creativity — and the economic feasibility of the potential project. 

Beyond those criteria, the city has provided little additional details.

As Lightfoot announced winning project bids, residents say they saw no scorecards, no breakdowns of ownership or equity structure for the winning developer and project, and there was scant explanation as to why the winner was selected.

“The roundtables are a start at engagement, but if all we’re doing is presenting to a table of folks but there’s no involvement in the decision-making and no explanation then it’s falling short,” said Bernard Loyd, a longtime Bronzeville resident who runs a neighborhood revitalization effort there.

Bernard Loyd, a longtime Bronzeville resident who oversees a revitalization effort there, criticized the relatively limited pool of funds available for Invest South/West projects when other city-backed projects have received much more.  “We’re battling over nickels and dimes while other communities are getting $100 bills — and have been for decades.” (Victor Hilitski/For the Illinois Answers Project)

DPD first activated the initiative in three neighborhoods. In August 2020, the city released requests for proposals for project sites in Auburn Gresham, Englewood and Austin, and the process that followed was contentious. 

In Auburn Gresham, community residents pushed back on an affordable-housing development initially selected by a committee that critics said did not represent neighborhood voices.

Ald. David Moore (17th) held an emergency meeting where attendees scolded city officials, saying they needed to worry less about bringing new people to Auburn Gresham and more about keeping business in the neighborhood.

Moore told Illinois Answers that roundtable meetings with DPD mainly included neighborhood groups with existing ties to City Hall, and residents may feel left out because city officials “don’t want so many voices in this meeting that [they] don’t get any progress.”

But according to Moore, the neighborhood campaign challenging a low-income housing plan was “detrimental” to community support for a plan that he ultimately thinks will provide more sustainable housing options for residents in his ward. 

Janetta Pegues, an active resident of the Englewood community who attended Auburn Gresham’s roundtable meetings, said she was frustrated that more moderate voices weren’t amplified to “counter those who were insistent on pushing this narrative that really wasn’t reflective of the whole community.” 

The $43 million development, spearheaded by the Imagine Group and Evergreen Development, broke ground in August. 

Strazzabosco said in Auburn Gresham alone there were 30 community meetings on the request for Invest South/West project plans. 

To address community concerns about “potential over-development” of the initial location, a second site was added to provide additional public amenities and the city is offering incentives to help reopen a Save A Lot grocer — a response to community input, he said in a written statement.

In Englewood, a coalition of community organizations, dissatisfied with city plans, partnered with Ald. Stephanie Coleman’s 16th Ward office to strategize how to fund and support existing development concepts in the community. 

Asiaha Butler, co-founder and CEO of Englewood’s resident association, R.A.G.E, said Coleman’s process has been more inclusive than the city’s which “doesn’t feel like a roundtable, it’s a table where the city is just throwing out information.”

“I’ve seen it just from working in Englewood — [the Department of Planning and Development] just operates as its own entity with developers, sometimes with aldermen, sometimes with communities, sometimes not … they work with who they need to work with — whether that be the community or not,” Butler told Illinois Answers.

On the city’s West Side, longtime organizers like Jackie Reed, former CEO of the Westside Health Authority, say that Lightfoot’s and Cox’s approach excluded residents and community groups in the long run.  

The Austin-based development organization Reed is involved with bid on the Invest South/West site at West Chicago and North Laramie Avenues but lost and protested for months after the winning proposal was announced.

“They act like they have community support but they have not had that support,” Reed said.

Of the 21 members of  selection committee that awarded the Laramie State Bank site to Heartland Housing and Oak Park Regional Housing Center, all but one were city employees at the time, according to city records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The city denied a request for similar records for the other Invest South/West neighborhoods. In a written statement, a spokesman for the planning department said three “community-based evaluators” were part of subsequent project proposal review processes after the first three sites were chosen. 

Athena Williams, head of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, said when the request for proposals was first released she went to groups, including Westside Health Authority, to form a partnership. 

That group told her they didn’t need partners for their bid and ultimately Heartland Housing was the only group that wanted to partner on a proposal.

She didn’t hear a lot of pushback on the submitted plan and she “talked to a lot of individuals.” Williams said she’s urged Heartland to do community meetings to hear from residents and ensure the project continues to address what’s needed most. Despite complaints, she’s excited for what the project could provide to the community.

“This is stellar — this is unseen support that should have happened many administrations ago,” Williams said of Invest South/West. “At this point, the fact that my project has received roughly $39 million from the city – the West Side has not seen that during my existence. Let’s celebrate that.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) told Illinois Answers that she initially thought she’d have more leverage in selecting a winning bidder for the Austin project but was not made privy to the city’s decision-making process. Mitts said COVID-era restrictions made for a rocky start to the city’s engagement efforts but hoped things could now improve. 

After the first round of requests for plans was released, the city changed its model for engagement to include a community resident on the committee responsible for selecting the winning project.

Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the SouthEast, said the process in her community is a “work in progress.” Her organization has teamed up with others to comment on the city’s new master city plan, especially as it concerns developments.

“My thing is, it’s great that the investment is here, but at the same time, considering the scale of it, more needs to be done,” NietoGomez said.

Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the SouthEast, says: “My thing is, it’s great that the investment is here, but at the same time, considering the scale of it, more needs to be done.” (Victor Hilitski/For Illinois Answers Project)

Others who spoke on the condition of anonymity said engagement efforts were often one-size-fits all and failed to meet the unique needs of each community.

Some community meetings lacked Spanish translators. The city at times did little outreach beyond sending emails to established groups. Seniors received limited technical assistance to complete online surveys that were often their only chance to provide feedback.

Strazzabosco said the organization that provides the city’s private translation service has “been unreliable for certain events, due to staffing issues,” but officials are working to “ensure these meetings have the relevant translation available.”

Beyond the community meetings and publishing the requests for proposals, the city emailed residents who expressed interest in participating, hosted other meetings related to the Invest South/West project “upon request and through sister agencies” and summarized milestone and spending information in annual reports in its efforts toward transparency, Strazzabosco said.

Some involved in the evaluation process question whether proposals that don’t excel in a category focused on putting money back into the community but ask for the lowest amount of city financing get preferential treatment.  

Shaka Rawls, principal of Leo Catholic High School in Auburn Gresham, said when the city invited him to participate in discussions about things like youth centers, local retail and sit-down restaurants, he expected that input to be reflected when a winning development was announced.  

“That is not what happened,” he told Illinois Answers. “It’s a funding issue. Now it’s ‘how do we fit this round peg in a square hole?’”

City-backed projects are often harder for smaller developers to secure because they have to ask for more financial support. 

Christyn Freemon, a consultant to a development team that lost out on one project, says as long as city departments like planning and others consider that a weakness of these proposals, community-based developers will continue to be left out.

“The process is not as inclusive or equitable for smaller developers,” Freemon said. “If we’re talking equity the city should be willing to make a bigger investment in a place that it has disinvested in for years.”

In response to criticism that small developers were not a bigger part of Invest South/West, Strazzabosco said in a written statement projects that “may have addressed community needs but were otherwise non-viable” were not selected. 

“A primary goal of Invest South/West is to support minority and emerging development entities that reflect the communities in which they are building,” Strazzabosco said.

New Projects, Familiar Developers

Many Invest South/West sites feature familiar developers who have worked on some of the largest or more prominent projects in the city, despite the city’s promise to cast a wider net.

In Humboldt Park, the city chose two business corridors — one on North Avenue and another on nearby Chicago Avenue — for development. 

That meant two roundtable processes for community members to pick a site and creating “a community-driven survey … to see what the community wanted,” said William Smiljanic-Pérez, who participated in the North Avenue committee.

Smiljanic-Pérez said the planning department’s request for proposal release marked a change in the community’s relationship with the city.

There were two main bids the selection committee considered, he said. One hit all the bullet points of the RFP the community worked together to create, while the other was “very vague … but asked for less [tax increment financing] money.”

The two proposals received nearly the same score from the evaluation team, records shared with Illinois Answers show. 

Ultimately, the department of planning awarded the North Avenue project to Park Row Development, All Construction Group and JGMA. That group “didn’t really know the community and didn’t really do much to engage with the community” prior to submitting the bid, Smiljanic-Pérez said.

Engagement was limited to mostly communicating with Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) and a representative from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center rather than with the community at large, Smiljanic-Pérez said. Neither JGMA nor Maldonado responded to requests for comment.

“Invest South/West is a facade, it’s a veneer,” Smiljanic-Pérez said. “The city talks about engaging communities, but they drag you along and then do what they want in the end.”

JGMA, along with Park Row Development and All Construction Group, will create the Team Pioneros project, a $53.9 million planned rehabilitation of the vacant Pioneer Bank, filling it with an entrepreneurial incubator space, Latino cultural center, and office space for JGMA, according to the city.

JGMA has developed the Chinatown branch library and the Humboldt Park Wellness Center. The group was recently chosen to develop the city’s casino. 

Another site north of the bank will also be redeveloped to include 75 affordable residential units, offices for Humboldt Park Family Health and a potential library branch, according to the city.

Smiljanic-Pérez said he was “disappointed” by the process and its outcome, in the end.

“That’s my critique of Invest South/West,” Smiljanic-Pérez said. “The city tries to be about equity, but, when you push them on that, you realize what they really want to see is growth and sites that make money versus the community groups pushing for things that are better for their communities.”

In North Lawndale, the city selected as the developer Related Midwest — known for luxury apartments and condos as well as for building the city’s $7 billion “newest neighborhood” the 78 — to develop a site with 548 Development, an MBE-certified “up-and-comer” in the city’s development world, Cox told the Chicago Sun-Times.

That 20.8 acre development will include two community centers and public, open space featuring art and a solar-powered industrial complex, according to the city.

A plan for another site in the neighborhood, which will be a collaboration between GRE Ventures, Imagine Group and 548 Development, features 60 mixed-income apartments, three market-rate townhomes, as well as retail and restaurant space, and a community center.

Imagine Group is part of the development team on the Invest South/West Auburn Gresham apartments planned for Moore’s ward.

KMW Communities and LG Development, in a $19.2 million joint venture, will develop a project chosen for Bronzeville’s business corridor, called The Legacy District, along with Bronzeville Community Partners, according to the city. 

That project on a city-owned corner of 47th Street and Vincennes Avenue is slated to include 12,000 square feet of commercial space and 25 mixed-income residential units. The project is slated to create 174 permanent jobs and 140 construction jobs.

KMW and LG are likely best known for their home and apartment developments. KMW submitted the winning proposal to build The Ave. on West Chicago Avenue in Humboldt Park.

DL3 realty, which developed the now closed Whole Foods in Englewood, was chosen to develop the Thrive Exchange project in South Shore along with Revere Properties and Claretian. 

“It seems to be the same developers, it’s always the same big dogs, it’s never the little developers in the city,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said. “We don’t go to the people, we don’t try to spread the wealth in the city … they don’t really value what the people in the community think.

Taylor said the city’s approach to Invest South/West “exposes that we’re not as transparent and not as community friendly as we should be.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the city and developers on the Legacy District project have “done very little to engage the community” or her office on the anchor development coming to her ward. 

While she likes that the city has tried to engage the community through the roundtable process, she remains concerned about delays.

“The Invest South/West concept is good, what it’s trying to achieve is needed on the South and West sides, but at least in my community it’s been short on results,” Dowell said.

The initiative has been slow throughout the 10 communities chosen for development, as reported by Crain’s Chicago. The first of the flagship developments, in Auburn Gresham, didn’t break ground until last August. 

Despite the slow start, Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign featured a clip of her and others in an ad breaking ground at that development among others as part of her push to convince city residents she deserves another term.

Familiar Promises But Missed Opportunities

For most people active in the 10 communities targeted by Invest South/West, this isn’t the first time hearing political promises of revitalized city-owned lots and revamped business corridors – what have been an eyesore for longtime residents who once knew those areas as thriving hubs. 

While the mayor’s initiative is still in its early stages, the work and plans to bring business back are decades old. Some who spoke with Illinois Answers say their frustration with city officials has only been exacerbated by Invest South/West – seeing a missed opportunity to not just offer a place in the conversation but also in the decision-making. 

A South Shore resident since 1989, Jacquie Jakes-Johnson said she’s attended every meeting for the Invest South/West project coming to her neighborhood and was invited by Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) to join the committee overseeing the Thrive Exchange project earlier this year. The roundtable hasn’t met since September, she said.

She said there’s a “50/50 split between people who are excited … who believe in this development” and others who “say we get promised these things and funding is always yanked back.”

DL3 Realty, which will build the Thrive Exchange, revised its proposal and added a bodega to the plan, signaling to Jakes-Johnson that the company did listen to the community.

Mitchell is working on bringing a grocery store to the area and the condos that are slated to be built will “bring in more people with disposable income, and you need that in order to bring in more of the things residents need in South Shore,” Jakes-Johnson said.

But when she thinks of the funding available through Invest South/West, Jakes-Johnson questions whether it’s fair.

“When I think about the limited amount of funding, especially for South Shore, it’s not equitable because other areas do receive what appears to be unlimited TIF-funding while we are barely scraping the barrel to get the necessities we need to thrive and keep going,” Jakes-Johnson said.

Loyd and others who spoke to Illinois Answers took issue with the limited pool of funds available for Invest South/West projects when other city-backed projects have gotten many more dollars. 

“We’re battling over nickels and dimes while other communities are getting $100 bills — and have been for decades,” Loyd said.

‘It’s A Life Investment’

Craig Chico, the head of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council which manages the corridor project for New City, said the reality is “[the city] can’t give everything to everyone, and some requests and desires aren’t relevant to what this money can be used to do.”

The city chose Chico’s council as well as other community-based organizations to work with its agencies and local partners. 

Each gets an $80,000-a-year contract over five years funded by tax increment financing dollars from the districts along each development corridor.

Chico, whose family moved to Back of the Yards in the 1920s, an area that falls in the boundaries of New City, said he watched the commercial areas “kind of die” over the years as malls moved in but people, and other businesses, moved out.

He’s not an expert as to where the money “is going and where it’s coming from, but it’s spotlighting areas that need it.”

“When this corridor was dying and rotting and there were vacancies, no one paid attention to it — it wasn’t a priority,” Chico said, adding that the neighborhood’s project, called United Yards, is “one of the key pillars to get people to stick around” or come back to New City.

Having that cornerstone will allow the city and community to “focus on other pieces like safety and economic development,” he said.

“I’m hoping this can be more sustainable,” Chico said. “You can’t invest in one community at the expense of another. Not every community is going to be Sauganash, but all should have basic amenities for people to feel good about where they live. [This initiative] is more than just a financial investment, it’s a life investment.”

Malcolm Crawford, corridor manager for the Austin area, said he believes city officials have “the right intentions and I think that change is coming.”

Along with the redevelopment of the old Laramie Bank building, the city also plans to revamp adjacent land with a mixed-income, multi-story rental building that includes a green roof, public plaza, social spaces and outdoor art.

Tucked between Oak Park and West Humboldt and Garfield Parks, disinvestment in the Austin community, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, made it a prime target for Lightfoot’s effort. 

But Crawford, who is the executive director of Austin African American Business Networking Association, said the mayor’s attention has brought excitement to his West Side community.

“We’re [one of] the largest community [areas] in the city and for years we’ve gotten the least resources and that’s evidenced by what we’ve seen for years,” Crawford, a 20-year resident of the area, said. “I’m excited to see the potential of what can happen in the community and I believe something has to happen.”

The winning project for Austin’s Invest South/West corridor is a renovation of the Laramie Bank building and is expected to create 150 construction jobs and 22 full-time jobs.

He brushed aside criticisms of the initiative as forcing communities to fight over a limited pool of funds or continuing the top-down development process that has plagued the city’s neighborhood projects saying “something beats nothing.”

“We’ve never had the amount of a voice that we have now,” Crawford said. 

Loyd, the Bronzeville resident, said neighborhoods like his lack the resources to address the basic needs of residents. 

He said the goal of the Invest South/West initiative is “right on” because communities need “much more systematic” levels of investment, but Bronzeville and others tagged for projects need even greater levels of investment for the program, and their neighborhoods, to succeed.  

“The fundamental issue of Invest South/West . . .  is, until we can create vibrant communities of color, Chicago will never be truly successful.”

Contributing: Emeline Posner

This article first appeared on Illinois Answers Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.