Illustration: Shane Tolentino
Illustration: Shane Tolentino

The Community Engagement Challenge of Invest South/West

Auburn Gresham residents grapple with the City’s vision for development on 79th Street

In a lively and contentious Auburn Gresham virtual town hall meeting on June 8, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) ran an exercise to make a map. The exercise was to gauge community-backed uses for 838 W. 79th St., a vacant City-owned lot located a block west of Halsted on 79th and Green St., which DPD is attempting to develop. But there was one problem: plans for the lot had already been decided, and it seemed to some residents the meeting was called in part for damage control.

Residents wrote goals for the 79th Street commercial corridor on digital yellow sticky notes, which were added to the Google Maps-view of the neighborhood. As the presentation zoomed out to accommodate all of the suggestions being offered, ideas stretched to Gresham’s boundaries and beyond: from 79th and Halsted north into Englewood, east into Chatham, and west past Damen. Watching residents’ ideas take up an increasingly large section of the South Side makes it clear that as development comes, it is going to involve a lot of people.

Auburn Gresham is one of ten neighborhoods emphasized by Invest South/West, Mayor Lightfoot’s citywide development initiative meant to reinvigorate key commercial corridors across Chicago’s South and West sides

Almost two years in, projects are beginning to take form. Since its inception shortly after Lightfoot took office, Invest South/West has had a massive scope—regularly billed as bringing $750 million public dollars of reinvestment to economically abandoned communities. But public funding is only part of the equation. The City’s thinking is that public development will catalyze private development, and that the mix of the two will create generative commercial corridors. 

DPD put out a request for proposals (RFP) in September 2020 and in March of 2021 announced winning proposals for sites in Austin, Englewood, and Auburn Gresham. But in Auburn Gresham, DPD in fact received only one proposal: for a mixed-use affordable housing building, estimated to cost $19.4 million, developed by Evergreen Real Estate and the Imagine Group. 

Development near 79th and Halsted and its ripple effects are poised to change the 79th Street corridor and beyond. With a new Metra stop slated to open three blocks east of the site, the intersection is considered equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD), and thus prioritized by the City. 

Across the street, the Healthy Living Hub will soon open, bringing many amenities including health services, office space, and a restaurant. The $15.9 million Hub, which is being developed by the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), will receive up to $2.1 million in  City TIF money as well as $10 million from the Chicago Prize, a private development award from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. 

DPD officials have stated during community meetings that they want Evergreen Imagine to “develop off of the Healthy Living Hub.”

Changes to the streetscape are already affecting residents’ perceptions of the project. Traffic and parking were two concerns brought up in community meetings. 79th Street, already one of the busiest streets in Chicago, would only become more congested with both Evergreen Imagine and the Healthy Living Hub opening. One resident, in a public DPD meeting, complained, “You have to account for the increased traffic jams, you guys have added in all these bike lanes so where we had two lanes [for cars] we barely have one lane.” 

According to DPD, “High-density, mixed-use developments were identified in multiple Invest South/West meetings as best-practice strategies that foster pedestrian activity, economic vitality, community cohesion, affordable housing opportunities, public safety, and other community benefits.”

But in DPD-led roundtables, residents spoke against the density of an eTOD corridor, instead lobbying for safe public spaces, locally owned business incubation, and stronger steps toward increased homeownership.  A community center was one example repeated often. Above all, a desire for space that benefits the residents already living in Auburn Gresham outweighed units for new residents.

Disagreement over the proposal in Auburn Gresham brings into focus the difficult ongoing work of community engagement in development. During the pandemic, in-person opportunities for engagement were closed, limiting consensus-building and leading to a more opaque development process. This has led to an initial proposal that doesn’t align with the wants of some current residents. 

As part of the bungalow belt, Gresham residents take pride in homeownership.  Auburn Gresham’s 2016 collaborative Quality of Life Plan, “Your Voice Matters,” states “We take pride in the longevity of our residents and celebrate their continued commitment in our community. The Great Recession made homeownership more difficult to attain for many, and disproportionately affected households in Auburn Gresham and surrounding communities.” 

In town hall meetings, residents’ collective emphasis on strengthening homeownership options versus bringing in new rental units is at the heart of tension. According to the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, 44.6 percent of housing is owner-occupied in Gresham, higher than neighboring community areas like Chatham and Englewood. 

This tension, ultimately, is about making sure that neighborhood growth is benefitting the residents who have worked hard to remain here, they said.

Negative perceptions of low-income housing are a boogeyman across Chicago. Residents in Auburn Gresham expressed concern that bringing new residents in without also supplying necessary resources and spaces won’t add up to a positive. Auburn Gresham homeowners are protective of their property values, which are slowly rebounding from 2008’s crash. Between the fourth quarters of 2019 and 2020, single family sales prices increased 17.3 percent. 

Residents are wary of rentals being prioritized over commercial development but Gresham residents aren’t against affordable housing as a whole. “They just don’t want it there. That’s it,” says Cheryl Johnson, a Gresham resident and urban planner who helps manage 79th Street’s Special Service Area (SSA) #32.

“I think DPD has good intentions,” continued Johnson. “I think what happened was they heard ‘affordable housing’ and just ran with it. They looked at this stretch of land along 79th Street, ‘Ok this is where we’re going to do InvestSouth/West,’ instead of looking at the commercial needs and how you could support existing businesses along 79th.”

It’s DPD’s “tunnel vision,” as Johnson puts it, that has hindered their own community engagement process. Many community members felt as though they were only made aware of the project after it was already decided. 

GAGDC and its CEO Carlos Nelson have been at the table with DPD since Invest South/West first rolled out. Still, Nelson wonders if engagement wasn’t as long as it could have been. “Only after [the City said it was going to develop the site for mixed-use housing] did they go to the neighborhood and say ‘what do you think about this idea we have?’” he said.

Nelson sees differences between how GAGDC worked to create its Healthy Living Hub versus how the City presented Evergreen Imagine JV LLC to the neighborhood. Speaking about Invest South/West’s more expeditious engagement process, he said, “There’s definitely a kind of perceived timeline, like the clock is ticking. And that’s not something that is generally the case when you have community planning.” 

Since Auburn Gresham’s site for Invest South/West only received one proposal, and thereby the de-facto winner, options for the site were limited. Some residents feel as though they missed a step in the engagement process.

According to David Block of Evergreen, a reason he thinks Auburn Gresham received only one RFP might be the neighborhood’s signs of distress that have discouraged commercial developers from investing. Block cited the CVS, Bank of America, and Save-A-Lot that have all recently closed as examples of disinvestment. “Folks who are in this business may have decided to save their resources for another opportunity,” said Block.  

Austin and Englewood, the two other sites where winning proposals were announced, are both building off existing pieces of their respective neighborhoods. Austin, renovating the Laramie State Bank building, is putting new use to a landmark that has defined the corridor for decades. (Though the City’s RFP process has also come under fire from Austin residents who believe that Austin-based Westside Health Authority should have won over the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Heartland Alliance, because of its local connection to the community.)

In Englewood, the City is continuing to build out the Englewood Square shopping center, a plaza long in the making, and the new Invest South/West phase will continue what has been growing for years. 

Evergreen Imagine, however, is new construction on a vacant lot, and with other new development coming in, the corridor is in flux.

Maurice Cox, commissioner of DPD, doesn’t believe that the proposed development should stall out just because some neighbors are against it. Defending both the proposal and DPD’s engagement process in a June 24 roundtable, he said, “We always have the option to do nothing. But that’s what every administration before this administration decided to do. And we would like to do things differently.”

In Auburn Gresham’s Quality of Life Plan, residents spoke directly to how they view non-local investments: “Outside investment continues to threaten the long-term stability and affordability of our community.” 

Looking at the stores that have left the corridor recently, it is hard to disagree. National chains, with limited connection to the neighborhood, have abandoned 79th Street. Commercial corridors need the collaborative efforts of many different stakeholders to succeed. And when national chains—which provide necessary services like  food and medicine—leave, it can be an uphill battle to course correct. 

17th Ward Alderman David Moore, speaking of the difficulties of finding willing vendors, recalls an anecdote of how previous mayors have had to strong-arm reticent companies: “When Walgreens didn’t want to come to Auburn Gresham, I remember clearly what Richard M. Daley told them. He was like ‘Well I hope you have…no problems with your zoning on the [stores] you want to do on the North Side.” 

DPD noted in its June 8 meeting that 838 W. 79th St.’s square footage wouldn’t allow a grocer. But the project could be a catalyst for a grocery store. Both Evergreen Real Estate and Ald. Moore mention the idea that when enough households are in an area, the economics could push a grocer to move in. “They don’t look at just spending power…they’re counting rooftops,” said Moore. 

Many factors play into a corridor’s vibrancy. Cheryl Johnson, who works with SSA #32 as well as #69 (which is bound by 80th and Ashland to 95th) believes that City development dollars should be going toward street beautification and public safety. “We need to get lighting along 79th…. So we can do decorations in the winter time, brighten up the street. On 79th Street it’s so dark.”

The City has attempted to create more welcoming business corridors, but they haven’t been without fault. In Chatham, money from Together Now, a City-backed fund for small businesses, was used to create a boardwalk on 75th Street. But the boardwalk was removed in June after a mass shooting and complaints of rowdy late-night behavior. 

To Asiaha Butler of Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), the boardwalk removal is a failure of the engagement process: “It wasn’t no engagement on what that conversation could have been with the people who really are out there at midnight.”

The 75th Street boardwalk’s failure has implications for Auburn Gresham and beyond. Public safety is a necessary component of a healthy corridor. And engaging with the community— regularly, and at multiple levels—is crucial for the City’s goals to not only materialize, but remain intact. As neighborhoods across the South and West Side get courted by corporations looking to invoke Invest South/West for goodwill in City Hall, building a vibrant, walkable corridor is more than new infill development. 

Elijah Brewer, who runs Brewer Coffee and Custard on 79th and Morgan, is unclear on why new construction is being prioritized. His cafe received a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant in 2020 to subsidize costs for a facade repair. “If you take a tour of the Auburn Gresham community, you will see several boarded up, vacant structures…there are numerous buildings that could be repaired to address the affordable housing issue.” 

While many in Auburn Gresham aren’t happy with the City’s development process, their frustration has manifested positively as participation. Opposition to the Evergreen Imagine proposal, spurred in part by an anonymous flyer, has led to increased dialogue between neighbors, the proposal’s developer, and the City. The flyer announced a Zoom meeting where the City and DPD would explain why mixed-use affordable housing would be going to 79th and Green, and that “if you care about the future of this neighborhood do not miss this Zoom meeting.” If the goal of the flyer was to get people talking, then it did its job. 

Referencing the flyer, Carlos Nelson said, “If you track the meeting cadences over the last one-plus years, you’ll see that there’s been a lot more participation over the last three or four months.”

DPD and Evergreen Imagine have held regular community meetings since the proposal was announced, and it seems that neighborhood engagement is changing the scope of the proposal. One of the developers, Evergreen REG, has been responsive to the community’s input. “I think we heard pretty loud and clear from the community that what we had originally proposed…was too dense,” said David Block of Evergreen. “We are now working on a revised proposal…that will lower the density on that original site but put some units on another City-owned site on the 79th Street corridor.” 

While the revised proposal is moving forward, the developer isn’t over the moon about the route that DPD took them on to get here. “In hindsight,” said Block, “we all might have done this process a little bit differently.”

“What I applaud [the city] on,” said Shaka Rawls, principal of Leo High School, “is hearing the pushback from the community and then revising the process. So I was really proud that the city took another look at the process, included community voices, and then started to move forward with the project again. That should have happened on the front end, but it’s happening on the back end.”

In neighboring Englewood, a local community group is employing different strategies to engage the neighborhood around development.

Butler and R.A.G.E. have many irons in the fire, for example. One project she is working on is getting the shuttered Racine Green Line stop back open. To engage with the community on this subject, R.A.G.E. has put up chalkboards by the old El stop so that pedestrians can put in their two cents. “When you’ve got people who are from here, who’ve done this, we know that there are all types of levels of engagement,” said Butler.

This different way of finding consensus, one that de-emphasizes technology and is led by trusted community leaders, is a way to get a more rounded understanding of what a neighborhood needs. “If folks on the fifth floor could be open to a different way of how community development is done, I think we could have a win-win situation,” said Butler. “We’re still trying to get them there because it’s still this power dynamic of ‘We come in, we do this. Y’all don’t do this, you just live here.’”

While Evergreen’s initial proposal wasn’t well-received by Auburn Gresham, the fact that they could agree on a compromise is a good sign for the corridor. Community-backed development is inherently difficult—trying to find consensus amidst an often disparate group of stakeholders, all with their own interests, expectations, and dreams, often creates disagreement. The City and Evergreen Imagine still have an uphill battle, though. “Right now you have a community that feels a bit betrayed,” said Rawls. “So as opposed to building a relationship, you’re repairing a relationship. That makes things much more difficult.” 

In Auburn Gresham, any proposal will still have to go through the City’s Planned Development (PD) process. According to the developers, the hope is that groundbreaking might occur in the spring of 2022. “What is encouraging here [is that] they want to invest dollars in the area to resurrect it,” said Brewer. “But how they go about it—the devil is in the details.”

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Jonathan Dale is a freelance journalist focusing on issues related to the urban built environment. He is a Chicago native, and last wrote for the Weekly about the community organizations that competed in the Chicago Prize.

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