Push to Boost Investment on South, West Sides Starting to Pay Off: Lightfoot

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reverse decades of disinvestment on the South and West sides by focusing on 10 Chicago neighborhoods launched a year ago, with the loftiest of goals.

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But the first year of Invest South/West was marked by a pandemic that triggered an economic collapse, record-high levels of violent crime and civil unrest — complicating the mayor’s ambitious effort to address the root causes of crime, poverty and population loss in Chicago's Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, Lightfoot celebrated the program’s first anniversary Monday, saying it had begun to show results.

“This is just the beginning of something great and special happening in our city,” Lightfoot said. “We won’t be stopped by a pandemic, we won’t be stopped by economic and fiscal challenges because we are more determined and united than ever to lean into our values and make sure that we continue forging a path for more inclusive development in every neighborhood in our city that has been deprived of development for way too long.”

A year after the fanfare-filled launch, city officials said the program had begun to show results — with $70 million in public funds attracting $300 million in private investments.

The program calls for the city to spend $750 million in public money by October 2022 to address the fundamental problems that have tormented South and West side communities for decades, including a lack of jobs and few inviting places to shop, gather and have fun. 

“The first year was very much about building a strong foundation,” said Samir Mayekar, the deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, in an interview with WTTW News.

The pandemic, coupled with the unrest that swept the city in the wake of social justice protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody on May 25 shone a “spotlight” on the systemic problems Invest South/West is designed to address, Mayekar said.

“There is a real sense of urgency,” Mayekar said.

But Lightfoot’s spending plan for 2021 includes no new funds for the initiative — an implicit acknowledgement that the city’s financial pain could curtail Lightfoot’s ambitious vision, first laid out in her 2019 campaign for mayor. 

Lightfoot is confident that a more sustained and thoughtful effort to boost redevelopment on the South and West sides will prove more effective than the “scattershot” efforts of previous administrations, Mayekar said.

Invest South/West bets that private investment will be drawn to Auburn Gresham, North Lawndale, Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Quad Communities, New City, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore by the city’s investments, making “catalytic developments” possible, Mayekar said.

The program’s first order of business was to identify 12 commercial corridors in those communities that could serve “as focal points for pedestrian activity, shopping, transportation, public spaces, and other quality-of-life amenities for local residents,” according to the city.

City officials announced Friday they picked 10 community groups to coordinate those efforts. The groups will be paid $80,000 annually for five years to breathe new life into the corridors.

In addition, city officials announced Oct. 19 that it would use $650,000 from tax-increment financing districts to fund eight regional business centers on the South and West sides. 

The centers will help businesses and entrepreneurs get loans, find new employees and get help navigating the city’s bureaucracy, officials said.

But the biggest test of the program will come next month, when requests for proposals are due to redevelop three sites in the heart of Englewood, Austin and Auburn Gresham into pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects.

Those developments have the power to transform those neighborhoods, and trigger a “tremendous amount of investment,” Mayekar said.

“People and companies will want to be where the money is flowing,” Mayekar said.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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