An encouraging start to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program

It’s good to see City Hall making a serious attempt to revitalize Chicago’s historically neglected South and West side commercial areas.

This article originally appeared on Chicago.SunTimes.com.

An architecturally significant, but long-abandoned Austin neighborhood bank could see new life as a vibrant multi-use building featuring a cafe, a blues museum and even a bank branch.

The proposed $37.5 million transformation of the old Laramie State Bank, 5200 W. Chicago Ave., is one of the first three projects announced this week under the city’s Invest South/West program.

It’s still early and we certainly reserve permission to criticize Invest South/West if it starts to go sideways but for now, we’re glad to see the city making a serious attempt at revitalizing historically disinvested South and West side commercial areas.

No top/down neighborhood planning

Invest South/West has been a signature initiative of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Announced in 2019, the three-year plan seeks to invest $750 million in dormant and struggling retail areas in 10 neighborhoods.

The city’s planning department identified parcels and issued requests for proposals for the sites to redevelopment teams. The first three winning teams selected after their schemes were reviewed by the targeted communities were announced this week.

We like that city Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, a transplant who is a newcomer to our ways here, is willing to buck the past and give communities a voice in guiding the selection process.

It’s at least a sign that that Chicago’s typical top-down, “We know what’s best for you,” approach to neighborhood planning might finally be on its way out, as is City Hall’s successor tactic of making a show of holding community meetings only to do what it wants anyway.

As an apparent result of this transparency and community engagement, the three proposals go far beyond the same-old, same-old proposals for the South and West sides.

In Auburn Gresham, a team composed of Evergreen Real Estate Group and the Imagine Group promises a $19.4 million project of 56 units of affordable housing with ground-floor retail on a now-vacant lot at 838 W. 79th St.

The stylish and contemporary new building would be across the street from a rehabbed 1920s structure not part of the Invest South/West proposal that will be home to a fitness center, a pharmacy, a green roof and office space for community organizations.

And in another $10.3 million proposal, the development team Englewood Connect seeks to turn a shuttered 1929 firehouse at 62nd and Green streets into a commercial kitchen.

The Englewood proposal also includes reusing and programming a plaza outside the station and calling for the creation of a second building an “eco-food hub” that would house a business incubator, and training and employment facilities. The complex would be able to feed local residents, as well.

West Side benefits

It is encouraging to see Austin on the city’s West Side a part of town too often overlooked when redevelopment spoils are dealt as the site of the largest and most expensive of the planned three Invest South/West developments.

In addition to the old Laramie State Bank renovation, the Austin United Alliance team led by non-profit Oak Park Regional Housing and the Heartland Alliance seeks to build a multi-story, mixed-income rental building complete with a green roof, public plaza and outdoor art.

“Do you feel the buzz and excitement in this room? I do,” Lightfoot told an audience Monday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin as the winning plans were announced. “That tells me this is a new day.”

We hope so. And one that’s long overdue.

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