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When Big Plans Have Big Impact

“Be flexible. It’s great to make plans, but a lot of this stuff just kind of happens. You’ve got to adapt.”

David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI), said that an essential quality for community developers these days is an ability to manage constant, often unexpected, change.

Gordon Walek

He wasn’t trying to be a keynoter, but panelist David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI), captured the mood of many at the second convening of LISC Chicago’s Great Neighborhoods Club focused on economic development.

It’s a gathering of developers, bankers and community leaders in search of better ways to connect big, sexy projects – like the Barack Obama Presidential Center – with the advancement of struggling neighborhoods.

Today there are so many twists and turns in community development work, Doig said, that his college-age daughter has taken to calling him “The King of Random.”

Random? Not exactly. More like Manager of Change … constant, often unexpected, change.

An earlier LISC Chicago Great Neighborhoods Club panel last October explored the spinoff potential of an Obama library and the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. But the May 14 event had a different feel, perhaps because so much had changed, both good and bad, in the interim.

Best/worst paradox

On the one hand, 2015 is producing a remarkable string of civic achievements, and not just downtown blowouts such as the NFL draft, James Beard culinary awards or the Microsoft Ignite tech-fest at McCormick Place. Those events drew thousands, generated millions and showered the city with glowing global PR.

“I’m really concerned about city’s ability to support neighborhood development,” said Raul Raymundo, executive director of The Resurrection Project. “At minimum I think it means we have to be more creative … find new ways to involve the private sector in our work.”

Gordon Walek

Out in the neighborhoods, meanwhile, flagship supermarkets are rising in long overlooked neighborhoods, most remarkably a Whole Foods at Englewood’s fallen-but-fast-recovering 63rd and Halsted crossroads. A Method-brand enviro-friendly soap plant is opening in the new Pullman Park, the first industrial construction on the South Side in decades. And that hoped-for presidential library? It’s a lock now that the Barack Obama Foundation has narrowed its site search to either the Washington Park or Woodlawn neighborhoods.

Then again, there’s an almost Dickensian, worst-of-times flipside.

The fiscal prospects of both the city and state have worsened dramatically in recent months, calling into question their continued ability to subsidize community development with grants, loans, tax breaks and various programmatic supports.

“I’m really concerned about city’s ability to support neighborhood development,” said Raul Raymundo, veteran executive director of The Resurrection Project following the panel session. “At minimum I think it means we have to be more creative … find new ways to involve the private sector in our work.”

Fittingly, how best to tweak the city’s role was the first question put to the morning’s panel of experts posed by moderator and member of LISC Chicago’s Board of Advisors Lori Healey, who recently took over as CEO of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority.

Shops & Lofts, a mixed-use development at 47th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, is emblematic of the type of neighborhood development that can happen when city officials and community groups work together.

“Mayor Emanuel has done a very good job,” responded panelist Doig, citing the mayor’s “personal lobbying” on behalf of CNI projects such as the aforementioned Method factory, Englewood’s Whole Foods and, importantly, designation of the vestigial factory Town of Pullman as a national historic park.

What’s needed, he said, are closer linkages between the city’s residential, commercial and industrial efforts, all of which come into play at CNI’s mixed-use, Pullman Park development, where $135 million already has been invested. Example: CNI and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) had to plead mightily with CTA to extend a bus route to the Park’s new Walmart-anchored shopping center.

Panelist Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corp., also praised the mayor and aldermen Will Burns (4th) and Pat Dowell (3rd) for helping push to fruition the newly-opened Shops & Lofts mixed-use development at 47th and Cottage Grove. Her suggestion: modify the city’s Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) so loans can be repaid over time, not upfront at project completion.

Never “surprise” neighbors

Julian Green, vice president of Communications and Community Affairs for the Chicago Cubs, stressed the need to “have the back” of your local alderman by keeping neighborhood leaders informed.

“Do your groundwork before anything shows up in the newspaper,” advised Green, whose employer is not just redeveloping Wrigley Field, but has plans for an office/retail/hotel and public plaza complex west of the ballpark. “Neighbors don’t want to be surprised.”

“Change is hard,” added CNI’s Doig about the attachments people have to their neighborhoods “even if their situation is not ideal.”

All three agreed with Doig’s opening thesis that, going forward, flexibility will be the watchword now that the private sector is rebounding … just as the public side, with its pension funding crises, runs low on resources.

Private-side push

“All the more reason we need developers, especially ‘big project’ developers, to be engaged in neighborhood economic development,” said LISC Chicago’s Executive Director Susana Vasquez following the discussion. “It’s one thing to make big plans,” Vasquez said. “It’s another to implement them … and hold true to the promise that those plans can positively impact urban neighborhoods.”

“We are a city of big plans," said Richard Sciortino of Brinshore Development, chair of LISC Chicago’s advisory board. "And even big plans start with small steps.”

Gordon Walek

One concept worth study, she said, would be special impact zones wherein longtime owners and tenants of limited means would be shielded from the full tax impact of soaring property values caused by mega-projects.

The May 14 event was co-hosted by U.S. Bank, a partner of LISC Chicago and also of CNI and its Pullman Park development. The series is part of LISC Chicago’s Campaign for Stronger Neighborhoods now close to raising $40 million to leverage the resources neighborhoods need to become stronger and healthier.

In his brief benediction, Richard Sciortino of Brinshore Development, chair of LISC Chicago’s advisory board, reminded all that “We are a city of big plans. And even big plans start with small steps.”

More information: Caroline Goldstein,

Posted in Economic Development, Placemaking, Pullman


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