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Comprehensive Community Development: Albany Park Works to Do More with Less

In just the past year, North River Commission and its partners have hosted an art walk, an arts festival, and a restaurant crawl; announced the opening (in March) of a senior wellness center; and developed affordable housing for 21 student teachers – all under the rubric of the Great Neighborhoods Program.

And they hadn't exactly been languishing previously. Since the Great Neighborhoods Program began in late 2008, NRC had already set into motion a sculpture park, after-school programming, a summer concert series, a street banner project, neighborhood tours, affordable housing creation and preservation, and open space preservation.

Proprietors at Merla's Kitchen feature their wares during the Albany Park restaurant crawl.

Gordon Walek

Conceived as a way to determine whether the comprehensive community development pioneered through LISC/Chicago's New Communities Program could work on a smaller scale with significantly lower budgets, Great Neighborhoods has relied even more heavily on partnerships and community buy-in, says Melissa McDaniel, program director for NRC, lead agency for the effort.

The work evolved from NRC's decades of integrated community development strategies as well as LISC's previous involvement in Albany Park through both Building Community Through the Arts, which focused on the community development potential of arts-related activities; as well as LISC/MetroEdge, which had analyzed the community's economic development prospects and engaged business owners and other stakeholders. All have laid the groundwork for developing best practices on the strategic use of modest resources to implement integrated strategies that address neighborhood priorities.

Those activities, in turn, built upon a two-year planning process, completed in 2006, called the Futures Forum, through which residents, businesses, and institutions coalesced to assess and tackle the issues and needs facing the community. NRC conducted hundreds of interviews with community leaders and facilitated dozens of focus group and working group sessions where participants shared their ideas and dreams for the future of Albany Park. They listed five priority areas that have guided NRC’s work: arts and culture, economic development, education, housing, and parks, open spaces and the environment.

While NRC's strong core staff and board leadership have certainly been integral to the early success of Great Neighborhoods, McDaniel says, the accomplishments would not be as broad or deep without "partnerships we have in and around the neighborhood – relationships we have built and maintained in the last 50 years as well as new relationships in the past few years under Great Neighborhoods. We have been able to … leverage additional partnerships and grow projects into the next phase."

An art walk in North Park last fall included an installation that children designed on Bryn Mawr Avenue.

Gordon Walek

NRC and its partners have needed to take small donations from LISC and figure out how to leverage them, McDaniel says. For example, they coupled a $5,000 grant for the restaurant crawl with discounts and pro bono work from consultants. For the sculpture park, LISC money went toward surveys and construction drawings that helped gain the support of the Chicago Park District and Ald. Richard Mell (33rd).

"Our staff, board and partners have been prioritizing how best to use the modest resources we have," she says. "We've been really strategic in how we use those dollars, seeing an opportunity and being able to capitalize on it."

Engaging community members through bimonthly membership meetings and multiple points of contact such as phone calls and e-mail blasts related to specific projects has helped build support for Great Neighborhoods initiatives, McDaniel says.

"We do that across-the-board, in every way possible," she says. "On particular projects, we engage leaders and community members who have a specific passion. … We think about who we have relationships with, who's going to want to be there."

Five Priority Areas
On the education front, NRC and its partners have helped 11 schools launch 16 after-school programs that serve about 450 students through a combination of state and federal grant money, along with school-business partnerships in years when grant money did not fill the bill.

Artists and gallery visitors gather on Bryn Mawr Avenue during the art walk.

Gordon Walek

"We've gotten creative," McDaniel says of the North River After School Collaborative. "What are the local resources we can use and leverage to support and sustain these important programs for our kids?"

The restaurant crawl, which 150 people attended last May, was designed to spur economic development more broadly by inviting people into the neighborhood to sample its diverse ethnic offerings.

"We had a few folks from the neighborhood, but a lot of folks that weren't," McDaniel says. "People were commenting about what a great experience they had, that they would come back and do it again."

Titled "Bon Appetit" and produced in partnership with the Albany Park Chamber of Commerce, the crawl was the latest in a series of efforts since the April 2009 report from MetroEdge – along with the stakeholder engagement that helped to inform its findings – inspired NRC and its partners to market their community as a dining and entertainment destination.

Others have included the lightpole banner project, neighborhood walking tours with podcast audio, participation in the citywide LISC Burnham Tours project during the centennial celebration of Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Chicago in 2009, and most recently a training program for community members who want to help out as tour guides.

"It's so we can have a larger network of people who know the history of the community, know how to tell the story, and who can share the great work that’s going on here with other folks," McDaniel says.

Patrons enjoy Filipino fare at Merla's Kitchen, 5207 N. Kimball Ave.

Gordon Walek

The longer-term economic development goal is transit-oriented development around the Lawrence and Kimball El stop that’s the terminus of the Brown Line. There, NRC and partner Lawrence Avenue Development Corp. are seeking funding for a feasibility study that could help secure support from the Chicago Transit Authority, which has questions about the engineering-related challenges of such a project.

The sculpture park has been the centerpiece of arts-related efforts, and with Park District approval in hand the groundbreaking will take place this spring. The summer concert series drew 800 people in 2009 and 1,000 last year. And the first annual Albany Park Arts Festival and North Park Art Walk – two separate events – will be repeated in 2011.

The Art Walk, a free event in October led by the husband-and-wife sculptor team of Anna Koh-Varilla and Jeffrey Varilla, gave hundreds of people from the neighborhood and beyond a chance to see artwork displayed in galleries and warehouses along Kedzie Avenue as well as "pop-up" studios and storefronts along Bryn Mawr Avenue. In addition to the Koh-Varilla Guild, NRC partnered with the Hollywood-North Park Community Association.

"We tried to use this to create more visibility and promote the neighborhood but also to find more artists, figure out who else was in the neighborhood, and form more partnerships," says Rebecca Rico, project coordinator at NRC, who notes the agency made heavy use of Facebook for the first time in promoting the event. The partners "agreed this was part of what they wanted to do, not just because we like art but because this will benefit residents and businesses in the community. We can put our heads together. None of us has all the resources."

One of the many art works installed in a vacant storefront during the art walk.

Gordon Walek

Held in June, the Albany Park Arts Festival stemmed from a partnership with Northeastern Illinois University and a group of artists that is working together again to plan for this summer's event, Rico says.

"So many people have called and said, 'Hey, I live in the neighborhood. I'm an artist,' " she says. "We posted on different blogs about the event. That's gotten us a lot of visibility. We need lots of volunteers."

On the housing side, a partnership with Indiana University and its urban immersion program has led to the student-teacher housing. NRC has identified nearby housing that offers “the right landlord, at the right place, in the right location,” McDaniel says. "We've helped to facilitate school placements and connect them to the larger community, getting them involved in volunteer opportunities."

Housing is nothing new to NRC, which built and owns Mayfair Commons, has ongoing partnerships with several ethnic mutual aid associations to find affordable family housing for newly arrived immigrants, and is also currently seeking $2 million in gap financing plus an appropriate site(s) for a 50-unit affordable senior housing development. The project already has $4 million in Home Loan funds and both community and aldermanic support, McDaniel says.

The Great Neighborhoods effort has addressed environmental and open space issues mostly through the 600-unit North Park Village affordable senior complex, where NRC and its partners continue to work with the city to ensure its status as a "green model for environmental practices," she says. Steps in that direction have included a recycling center, installation of solar panels, and new bioswales to help with stormwater drainage.

The North River Commission each summer hosts a series of concerts in Ronan Park.

Gordon Walek

More broadly, entering the fifth year of its strategic plan NRC and its partners are assessing their progress as NRC assesses its organizational goals. "What did we do? What did we champion? What should we continue?" McDaniel says. "Where are we on our goals, and how do we move to the next step?"

"In all of our issue areas, we've made tremendous progress," she says. "We've identified which projects we have worked on that served our goals, and what the impact has been."

Posted in Economic Development, Placemaking, Albany Park

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