Long-dormant retail corridors in eight neighborhoods on Chicago’s South, Southwest and West sides could come alive, thanks to a $16 million program bankrolled by tax increment finance money.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to turn designated retail corridors in Austin, Back of the Yards, Bronzeville, Chatham, Englewood, South Shore, West Humboldt Park and West Pullman into “Retail Thrive Zones.”
The goal of the three-year pilot program is to use $16 million generated by local TIF districts to create jobs, provide shopping choices for local residents and generate the pedestrian and automobile traffic that makes neighborhoods safer.
“That type of economic activity is both good for our neighborhood economic growth and a good part of our public safety,” Emanuel said Tuesday at a related news conference on the site of the old Kennedy-King College in Englewood.
The mayor was highlighting the city’s plan to sell 18 acres of city-owned land at North and Throop to private developers and rebuild the outdated vehicle maintenance facility there on the now vacant Kennedy-King property in Englewood.
Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said the eight designated corridors were chosen because of the “needs of the surrounding neighborhood,” the presence of a “strong community partner able to play a primary role” and because there was funding available in the local TIF.
“We are trying to promote the mayor’s concept of . . . assisting areas that have not had this type of investment. . . . The fact that you have one or two or three busineses . . . is not necessarily enough to create a truly sustainable corridor for a whole community. . . . They need assistance to kind of go to the next level to get that kind of critical mass of neighborhood commercial activity,” Reifman said.
“Every community wants to have similar types of amenities. They want coffee shops or dry cleaners or grocers or restaurants. Whatever it is that makes their neighborhood a place they want to be. Those have collateral benefits of economic activity, jobs, safety. But the goal is to make them viable economic retail corridors.”
Starting Tuesday, $9 million in city grants will be made available to new and existing retail businesses. The $250,000 grants can be used to rehabilitate commercial buildings — everything from roof and façade repairs to new plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems.
City Hall has also forged a partnership with unspecified lenders who will help create bridge loans. The city only reimburses retailers after the fact “and that becomes an impediment for people who don’t have capital upfront,” Reifman said.
“We’ve identified some common obstacles to entrepreneurship in these areas and trying to create vibrant commercial corridors. We’re trying to come up with new tools and new approaches to try to overcome those barriers to get the type of investment in those corridors that we’re hoping will occur,” the commissioner said.
The remaining $7 million will be used to support what City Hall calls “vibrant and healthy retail corridors.”
That includes “strategic targeting of distressed buildings and persistent vacancies for investment and activation.”
Pop-up retail spaces, including so-called “BoomBoxes,” will help entrepreneurs and growing businesses test new concepts without incurring heavy capital costs,” Reifman said.
“It’s kind of like a rail car that’s adapted to see if the retail concept works. It’s fitted out. It’s modified. But, it creates a small retail space for someone to try a retail concept to see if it has marketability,” Reifman said.
“There’s a boom box across the street from Whole Foods in Englewood on 63rd Street where people can come and have a period of time to test ideas that make sense. If it’s successful, they can take it to the next level. But it gives them a low-cost experiment.”
The city also plans to make “light infrastructure investments” to encourage visitors, including sidewalks, tree planting and cultural activities to draw traffic.
Every one of the new zones will have a “local partner organization” to provide “coordinated coaching, mentoring and networking opportunities” and, ultimately support services that include “free design and architectural assistance.”
Emanuel’s plan to let downtown developers build bigger and taller projects provided they share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods has already generated $4 million. The city started accepting applications Monday for those $250,000 grants.
Together with the Retail Thrive Zone initiative, that’s $20 million being pumped into long-neglected neighborhoods.
Last year, Emanuel blamed his dismal showing among African-American voters in a New York Times poll on “40 years” of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
The share-the-wealth program and Retail Thrive Zone programs are just two of the steps the mayor has taken to try and reverse that trend and win back support from black voters who believe their unsafe neighborhoods have been left behind.
So was the creation of a $100 million Catalyst Fund to bridge the funding gap outside the downtown area and the hiring of former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp as Chicago’s $185,000-a-year deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer.