Julie Wu

Vast, empty plots of land overgrown by brush and grass flank the tranquil new section of Lake Shore Drive, now a year old, that runs through the Lakeside Development site located in the South Chicago neighborhood. East-west streets intersect with the new roads and move towards the lakefront, to a newly christened beach park, the development’s most tangible achievement thus far. The park is named after the steel workers who were at the South Works plant for most of the twentieth century, and the remnants of that association still linger in the neighborhood. U.S. Steel owns the land on which Lakeside will be built, and many residents have parents or grandparents who worked in the steel mill. The only significant physical remnants of the plant’s existence today, though, are the ore walls, painted with slogans: “Work safely always in all ways.”

Since U.S. Steel dismantled the site in 1992, it has stood mostly vacant, with the exception of a short-lived attempt to build a Solo Cup factory a decade ago and a concert by the Dave Matthews Band in 2011. The disappearance of industry from the area has had a dire economic effect: South Chicago’s median household income of approximately $31,000 (according to U.S. Census Data) is well below the city’s median of nearly $47,000. As such, the Lakeside Development could be a boon to a community still struggling to find a viable replacement for the steel mills. With over six hundred acres of available space, the finished product will be a mixture of commercial and residential spaces constructed over the next twenty-five to forty-five years, ultimately designed to create a district that, according to the project’s official website, will be “a global initiative for innovative living…a compelling model for a green, 21st century lifestyle.”

This is heady stuff, but there are a number of worries about whether a place will still exist for the current community. A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), organized by the Alliance for the South East and put together by over thirty different community organizations from the area, attempts to articulate some of these concerns. Sent to McCaffery Interests—the main developer behind the site—in late September, the official document says that the CBA’s goal “is to maximize the Project’s benefits to the current residents of the project site, while offering McCaffery broad community support and decreased risk.”

“Without a CBA there’s no guarantee to prevent folks from being pushed out of the neighborhood,” says Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of the ASE. In the big scheme of the development, it’s not a big deal, but it is a very big deal for the community.” The document was put together by a process that began with a survey of local residents, passed out at local events like church gatherings and school board meetings. The concerns listed on the resulting document—foremost among them jobs, housing, education, and community improvement—were then delegated to a number of committees put together of local community leaders, who helped finalize the language of the CBA.

The proposed agreement is hardly radical. It calls for targeted hiring practices of what it names “Priority Applicants,” among them former convicts, veterans, and women, as well as the allocation of a “signifiant portion” of the affordable housing units, which it wants to be about one third, to those who are at thirty to fifty percent of the average median income, which would be between $10,000 and $15,000. There are also a number of suggested environmental practices, such as the regular testing of local waters and a notification to residents when pesticides will be used.

Coalition members are quick to emphasize that this document is primarily supposed to foster responsible development, not completely curtail it. “We don’t want to stop development,” said Arnold Bradford, Executive Director at Crossroads Collaborative and a resident of the area whose family has lived there since the 1980s. “We want to encourage it, but we don’t want to be displaced or moved out or destroyed as a result.”

Coalition members, however, feel that Dan McCaffery, CEO of McCaffery Interests, hasn’t always engaged with them in good faith. NietoGomez recounted that at their last meeting with McCaffery, in October of 2013, he assured them that he was supportive of a CBA. They have not yet heard back from him concerning their proposal. Bradford describes him as “friendly, but arrogant,” and worries that his focus on profit will ultimately doom the activists’ goals for the community.

For his part, McCaffery says that he greatly respects everyone that’s participated in the CBA so far, but that he simply does not have enough information currently to sanction a CBA, seeing as he does not yet know what retail or residential spaces there will be, with the exception of a Mariano’s grocery store on 87th Street. “A CBA is more meaningful when it’s constructed so all parties know they can live up to it,” he says. He also pointed to a track record of progressive engagement with the community, such as the fact that in 1984 he was the first builder to accept the use of affirmative action when hiring for the construction of the Quaker Tower in the Loop, or his cooperation with local community groups in creating a CBA for his redevelopment of the old Children’s Memorial Hospital site in Lincoln Park.

Tellingly, however, McCaffery also spoke about his desire to emulate similar projects to his around the country. He named one development, East Lake in Atlanta, as a particular success story. In the first half of the 20th  century, the area’s East Lake Golf Club was home to legendary golfer Bobby Jones, but over the decades the neighborhood fell into economic decline, and soon became known as “Little Vietnam” for its high rates of crime and poverty. The Atlantic Journal-Constitution called it “a shooting gallery, a poverty trap, and worse.” As McCaffery tells it, Tom Cousins, a real estate developer, was so upset when he heard that Bobby Jones’ home golf course was about to be turned into a dump that he stepped in to save it, embarking on an ambitious redevelopment project that eventually blossomed into the Villages of East Lake.

To many, elements of this story might seem comically stereotypical—elderly white man steps in to save beloved golf course, rescues neighborhood in the process—but East Lake today is a thriving community, widely held forward as a model for other underserved areas across the United States, including Chicago. And it was all accomplished, McCaffery claims, without significant disruptive changes to the neighborhood’s core identity. In citing this particular success story, he seems to at least want others to think he believes in the potential for gentrification to both improve a neighborhood and keep the local community, for the most part, intact.

“Within gentrification, there have been people left out, but it’s never undertaken with the hope of leaving people out. That’s a byproduct. To the extent we can minimize it, we’ll do it – to the extent we can. But we can’t let fear of gentrification stop progress.”

And while McCaffery does support a CBA, he would prefer if Natashia Holmes (7th Ward) and John Pope (10th Ward), the two aldermen whose wards are encompassed by the development, played a more central role in crafting it. Holmes, who earlier this year sponsored a town hall meeting with the ASE, wrote in an email that the coalition CBA provided a “good framework for what the community wants,” but that “a final agreement would have to be a compromise between all stakeholders—the developers, elected officials, and community.” She went on to outline her ideal process for creating a CBA, which first involves creating an “Advisory Group that will be made up of community members, experts in certain fields (technology, building trades, housing, environment, etc.), [and] the developer and elected officials, to forge an agreement that will work for all stakeholders involved.” Public meetings would also be held throughout the process in the interest of ensuring “accountability and transparency” towards the community. Alderman Pope could not be reached for comment, but he has, according to NietoGomez, expressed support for a CBA in the past.

While an alderman-endorsed CBA would ostensibly be an ideal compromise for both activists and developer—an open process mediated and sanctified by a local official—coalition members still have some reservations. Bradford, for example, expressed a worry that the developer would simply “put together his own blue-ribbon committee and completely shut the community out of the process.” NietoGomez has also called for more urgency in the process, exhorting McCaffery to help create an official CBA before construction begins on the first businesses in the area.

Nevertheless, it seems there is little the community coalition can do if McCaffery prefers, as it seems he does, to engage with the community through the aldermen. Even if this does happen, however, their actions will still have acted as a catalyst, sparking and accelerating the process of the CBA in the first place. For now, though, almost a year after the Lake Shore Drive extension opened through the future site of the development, the community remains  waiting. Questions about McCaffery’s authenticity and willingness to engage in the community will only be answered, at this point, by him.

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