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MetroEdge Kicks Off Albany Park Effort

LISC/MetroEdge launched a retail study of the Northwest Side Albany Park neighborhood with a meeting on April 22 attended by about 50 residents, business owners, agency representatives and others at the Albank Building.

Helen Dunlap, senior consultant with LISC/MetroEdge, gives a presentation detailing the work to be done in Albany Park.

Ed Finkel

LISC/MetroEdge is a retail market analysis package of products and services specially tailored for low-income communities. This package can be used to identify the untapped retail potential of neighborhoods and create the informational materials retailers, government agencies, and community groups need to promote business, employment, and shopping opportunities in emerging markets.

MetroEdge will partner with the Lawrence Avenue Development Corp.(LADCOR), Albany Park Chamber of Commerce and North River Commission. NRC a week later was honored as one of three finalists for the State Farm-LISC “Spirit of Revitalization” award at a national conference in Indianapolis. (For more on that, please click here.)

Melissa McDaniel (left), executive director of the North River Commission, and Liz Griffiths, executive director of the Lawrence Avenue Development Corp., are among key participants in the MetroEdge process.

Ed Finkel

Liz Griffiths, executive director of LADCOR, detailed new developments and storefront renovations in Albany Park, with 36 projects planned or under construction, 517 condo units new or planned, 269,812 square feet of new or rehabbed commercial space, and more than $200 million invested in commercial corridors.

Developments include retail, like a new Fifth Third Bank branch, three restaurants, and the “Mayfair Shopping Plaza” with a Staples, Walgreen’s, Starbucks and T-Mobile; mixed-use developments in and around the Brown Line “El” stop at Lawrence and Kimball; a senior housing development, an addition to Peterson Elementary School, and the Albany Park Multiethnic Sculpture Garden at Lawrence and the Chicago River, a project that developed through LISC’s Building Community Through the Arts program.
LADCOR and its partners keep in touch with local businesses and with national retailers who might want to locate in Albany Park, as did Payless Shoe when cold-called, “lo and behold,” said LADCOR President Scott Berman. Transit-oriented development is a top priority, he said. “We do it with a gut feeling and with the ammunition we receive from market-study firms.”

‘Not a Shelf Product’

“Should we, strategically, when we’re working with condo developers, say, ‘Maybe in your building, we should have something else [other than retail]?’ ” said Scott Berman (left), president of LADCOR.

Ed Finkel

And that’s where LISC/MetroEdge comes into the picture, Berman said. Helen Dunlap, MetroEdge senior consultant, explained what MetroEdge brings to the table, using a combination of data from the national firm Claritas, which is based on the Census, complemented with local data sets on economic indicators like building permits.

“We have unique combination of experience in community development,” she said. “We are practitioners who learned several years ago that we needed to better profile communities” with a wide range of information. One key metric will be retail “float” overall and broken down by category, which shows how much net spending occurs outside the neighborhood vis-à-vis within the retail service area.

"The service sector can come into play," Dunlap said, to ensure that retail does not become overbuilt.

Ed Finkel

The reports MetroEdge produces typically consist of 10 or 15 Powerpoint slides designed to be used early in the development process and easy to mix and match depending on whom you’re meeting with, Dunlap said. They’re also intended to be interactive, she said, “So you might sit down with a retailer, or so existing businesses can understanding how customers are changing.”

Median incomes of city neighborhoods are often lower than suburban areas, Dunlap said, but MetroEdge produces an analysis that shows retailers how density and income diversity often combine to mean that spending power per square mile is equal or greater. “I often make the joke that lawns don’t shop,” she said. “Gardens bring down density, and thus the retail potential.”

MetroEdge will spend the spring working with those in the room and others who might be interested to define what questions they would like answered and what their top priorities are, and then do the

Wholesale businesses present a challenge because they don't market to the street — and thus don't need to look sharp.

Ed Finkel

research and produce the report, Dunlap said. They will highlight developments in the pipeline and profile public improvements that might entice retailers to locate in Albany Park, she said.
“I don’t doubt you’ll use [the report], given the energy in this room,” Dunlap said. “This is not a shelf product. It ages very quickly if you don’t use it.” Although LISC will be funding the effort, she added, “I want you to treat us as though you are.”

The Community Reacts

Berman responded to the presentation by saying that the MetroEdge report will present “the groundwork for building up our main streets,” like Lawrence, Foster and Montrose avenues. One important issue will be the many wholesale businesses that dot those streets, which “don’t need to look good because they don’t market to the street,” he said.

Another debate Berman foresees will be whether every condominium building needs retail on the ground floor – it might look nice, but it could eventually become overbuilt and cause existing retail space to go empty. “Should we, strategically, when we’re working with condo developers, say, ‘Maybe in your building, we should have something else?’ ” he said.

Albany Park features ethnic and specialty grocers (top photo) but no Dominick's or Jewel; Payless (bottom) is among chain retailers to have targeted the community.

Ed Finkel

Dunlap said the community needs to figure out what it wants to be a destination for – restaurants seemed a top priority in the discussion thus far. “A key piece of this work will be defining the geography,” she said. “This is about the goods and services in the area and the market for them.” To maintain retail storefront continuity along major streets without adding too much retail, she added, “The service
sector can come into play.”

One participant in the meeting, who identified himself as a commercial developer, said that major arteries like Ashland, Western and Irving Park have retail vacancies that last several years, so perhaps the plan should concentrate elsewhere. He expressed the belief that commercial spaces near transit will be absorbed the quickest.
Another participant expressed the hope that there will be a critical mass of retail built up which creates synergies found between existing and new businesses, rather than finding retailers with “isolated profiles” that seem “dropped down” into the neighborhood.

“This is a starting point,” said Jake Cowan, business manager for MetroEdge. Going forward, he said, the group needs to come up with key questions, prioritize them and narrow down the study area geographically. A second meeting will be held to finalize the parameters, Berman said, and then MetroEdge will report back to the community this summer.

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