It’s been 40 years since the release of “The Blues Brothers,” that raucous romp through a Chicago gone by, but still quite familiar. Numerous articles — and reprints of old articles —remind this boomer of that fact, and they got me to thinking. Always dangerous, I know.
What, after all this time, has become of the site of the old Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, used and abused so memorably in the film?
Before I get into that, it’s important to note that Harvey is in the south suburbs, where nothing that’s an improvement happens fast. The region grew up around an industrial base, declined with it and has been riven by racial tension.
Most of Chicago’s wealth advanced north and west from downtown, areas that benefited from a jobs and corporate magnet called O’Hare Airport and a landscape further from smokestacks. The south suburbs always seem last in line for any regional priority. A few years ago, in a striking bit of symbolism, its Metra trains were the last to get bathrooms.
The towns labor under property taxes that discourage commercial growth, adding to the burden for low-income residents. There also are the hidden taxes of crime and corruption. Harvey has been a capital of both and a problem child for regional groups dedicated to economic improvement.
An example is the old Dixie Square Mall, which closed in 1978 and was used for the movie a year later. The one-time 64-store galleria then stood vacant for years, a spectacular and perilous ruin. Crimes occurred there, scavengers took everything they could, and aficionados of dead malls documented the wreckage. Asbestos and political ineptitude complicated any demolition plans.
Finally in 2010, the state came through with $4 million to help with demolition. It gave control of the project to the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, because handing the money to Harvey would have been like lighting a match to it. In 2012, what was left of the mall finally came down.
The last private group to own the parcel southeast of 151st Street and Dixie Highway let the taxes go, so Harvey got the land under Cook County’s no-cash bid program in 2016. That might not have been a good thing, but the city elected a reform-talking mayor, Christopher Clark, last year, and there are signs of a turnaround.
Nicholas Greifer became Harvey’s economic development director in November. He’s set about promoting key sites in Harvey for redevelopment, including the 39-acre patch of the old mall. The overall strategy is to promote Harvey for logistics and transportation, using its rail and highway links as a selling point. Greifer said the theme is “trucks, trains and technology.”
“It’s obviously a priority for the city. With the new leadership under Mayor Clark, we are rebuilding our staff and our capacity to handle projects like this,” Greifer said. He hopes to solicit developer interest in the former Dixie Square site by September. “We want this to be a streamlined process. We don’t want anybody having to go through 30 pages of instructions to respond to something,” he said.
He draws encouragement from news last week that Amazon is building two fulfillment centers, which are major hubs for the company, in Markham and Matteson, each projected to employ 1,000 people. The Markham site is barely a mile south of the former mall.
“That’s a game-changer that will make this area even more interesting to investors,” he said. Also, state officials are completing the full interchange nearby at Interstates 57 and 294, a project expected to be done at the end of 2022. It was one of two places in the country where interstates crossed, but drivers couldn’t go from one to the other.
Greifer has a particular eye on a growing demand for cold-storage warehousing, which industrial brokers have cited as an active market because of the growth of online grocery deliveries.
With property tax breaks for industrial redevelopment, Greifer said Harvey can offer a deal that compares well against sites in outlying counties. He said Harvey has forged positive ties with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corp.
“We’ve put together a pretty good working relationship. They want us to succeed,” Greifer said.
The old mall property tends to take on water, so Greifer said Harvey will be asking the state for a grant to assist with a retention plan. He also noted receipt of a small state grant, $15,000, to lay the groundwork for improving the city’s broadband.
State money sent to Harvey — imagine that. Can the times really be a-changin’?