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Lightfoot's INVEST South/West Could Bring Critical Mass Of Investment To Struggling Englewood

Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood is not usually thought of as a hub for commercial real estate development. The South Side area more often garners notice when the news media tackles stories on crime or poverty.

But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration is set to kick off a major development project officials say will create jobs, spur other economic activity and preserve a local landmark. Called Englewood Connect, it’s part of the mayor’s INVEST South/West program, a three-year, $750M program that seeks to launch new developments in 12 commercial corridors across 10 disadvantaged communities.

Englewood Connect

The strategy is meant to bring balance to the city’s development efforts, which the mayor claims were too heavily focused on downtown neighborhoods under her predecessor. Her planning department announced this year's seven winning projects valued at $250M in communities such as Auburn Gresham, North LawndaleAustin, South Chicago and Bronzeville.

Critics say it’s too early to tell whether all this activity will draw other investors and projects into the same neighborhoods, sparking virtuous cycles of job creation and other long-term impacts.

But Englewood Connect could be one of the first projects in Lightfoot’s signature program to do just that. It won’t be a stand-alone effort, its developers say. Instead, the $10M project to transform a 4.28-acre site near 63rd and Halsted streets, including an empty historic firehouse, into a small-business incubator and food hub will also bolster the adjacent Englewood Square, a retail center developed by Leon Walker’s DL3 Realty. It includes a 20K SF Whole Foods, among other retail, and opened in 2016 after receiving support from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel

“The Englewood Whole Foods has a lot of suppliers that are locally based, and many do not have access to a commercial kitchen at affordable prices, and we hope to solve that with the Englewood Connect project,” McLaurin Development Partners CEO Zeb McLaurin said.    

His firm, along with partners Farpoint Development, a developer of the lakefront Michael Reese Hospital site, and designers SOM and TnS Studio, began planning Englewood Connect even before the city issued a request for proposals in August 2020, McLaurin said. And what he saw walking around and visiting Englewood was a site and neighborhood with long-term potential.

“As real estate developers, we are constantly observing surrounding markets where we intend to make significant investments,” he said.

That Walker’s company was able to plant a Whole Foods, typically thought of as an upscale grocer, in the middle of one of Chicago’s poorest communities, along with a Starbucks, a Chipotle and other retailers, showed new development could succeed, McLaurin added. Especially impressive was Whole Foods’ ability to draw customers from all over the South Side, a sign that Englewood was not isolated.

Asiaha Butler, a lifelong Englewood resident and president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, a community activist organization, said she encounters a diverse group of shoppers at Whole Foods. 

Deon Lucas, Eboni Lias and Asiaha Butler

“I haven’t seen that previously in Englewood,” she said. “A lot of my friends from Hyde Park used to come and tell me the prices were cheaper at Englewood’s Whole Foods and we also have a lot of people coming in from Beverly, Morgan Park and Chicago Lawn.”

Englewood Square also transformed that corner of the neighborhood, she added.

“It was a vacant lot with rocks and dirt, and to have big-box retail here is very helpful,” she said. “Folks can get their nails done and do their shopping at Whole Foods, and it's also one of the safest places in the area. It definitely showed retail development could work there, but Leon Walker had to take a risk, and Whole Foods had to take a risk.”

In addition to forging connections with Whole Foods, McLaurin said Englewood Connect will also tap into other nearby institutions, such as Kennedy-King College, a two-year community college, and Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute, a trade school, to provide opportunities for students to gain professional experience. Local street vendors, caterers and other neighborhood food businesses will have access to the kitchens and an event space, or they can make Englewood Connect their permanent home.

Experts say it makes sense to layer economic development onto the same site.

“There are certainly benefits to concentrating development, particularly in terms of the savings you will see on infrastructure costs,” said Christopher Ptomey, the executive director of Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. “It’s also a smart thing to do because they can be mutually supportive.”

Englewood Square and the Englewood Connect site

McLaurin added that as the project goes forward, the developers will stay in contact with community members through the Greater Englewood Neighborhood Roundtable, one of several monthly focus groups set up by Lightfoot’s planning department to monitor INVEST South/West initiatives.

Butler takes part in the roundtables, which also include the local alderman’s office, neighborhood businesses, organizations and resident groups. She said it’s useful innovation on Lightfoot’s part, and it will help ensure all new development in the neighborhood, not just Englewood Connect, fully reflects residents’ needs and attracts as much business as possible.

Even so, many residents are still reluctant to shop at the Whole Foods, years after it opened, because it’s seen as upscale, Butler said. A more popular choice is low-cost grocer Aldi’s, just a short way down the street.

“You sometimes see lines out the door [at Englewood Square] for Starbucks and Chipotle,” she said. “But the demographic that shops at Whole Foods is simply not in Englewood. I’ve never been there when it was crowded.”  

Butler said she wants to see a greater variety of food options, perhaps a mid-market grocery store like Pete’s Fresh Market that would complement Whole Foods and Aldi’s. And even though she supports McLaurin’s vision for Englewood Connect, Butler also said she hopes the city can help launch new businesses within other needy commercial corridors in the neighborhood.   

To make that vision a reality, her association joined with several other groups, including the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, and E.G. Woode to become developers themselves. The coalition’s Go Green on Racine initiative was a finalist for the Lightfoot administration’s Chicago Prize, a $10M grant for neighborhood development funded by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

Although they didn’t win, the city did approve a $1.75M grant in 2020 for their plans to transform a vacant building at 1211 West 63rd St., a half-mile west of Englewood Square, into a two-story fresh produce market.

“We just can’t invest all of the money for Englewood into Englewood Square,” Butler said.