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How mayor’s plan could save a historic bank and bring new life to South and West sides

The success or failure of Invest South/West is really a referendum on Chicago’s future.

A proposal by the firm Perkins & Will for property in Austin at 5200-24 W. Chicago Ave.
A conceptual rendering for the reuse of vacant Laramie State Bank and adjacent parcels.
Provided, Perkins & Will

For most of the last 30 years, any deposits made at the former Laramie State Bank — a striking Art Deco beauty in the Austin neighborhood — likely came in the form of plaster chunks falling to the floor.

But city officials, through Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s much-touted $750 million Invest South/West plan, now want to improve the fortunes of the dilapidated 91-year-old Austin neighborhood building, and two South Side sites as well.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development has issued a request for proposals for the three historically disinvested retail areas in hopes developers will step up with plans to provide “pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects that address local development needs while fostering additional investment on adjacent blocks.”

But along with the sharp architectural renderings and hopeful language, an unspoken yet fundamental question is also on the table.

Are Chicago’s leaders, financiers, developers and citizens finally committed to equitably rebuilding the South and West sides? Or are we content with having a glistening central core and North Side — much of it underwritten with billions of dollars in public subsidies — while streets and neighborhoods beyond Roosevelt Road and Ashland Avenue remain adrift in disinvestment and population loss?

This is an effort worth watching. Because the success or failure of this venture, Invest South/West, is a referendum on the city’s future.

‘Comprehensive investment’

Unveiled last October, Invest South/West is a three-year program to uplift retail districts in 10 South and West Side neighborhoods, including Austin.

“This is what a truly cross-sector, comprehensive investment plan for our South and West Side looks like,” Lightfoot said when announcing the effort last year.

The three new RFPs — request for proposals — are the first issued under the program.

In Austin, planning officials are looking for a development team to create a rehab and reuse plan for the vacant Laramie State Bank, 5200 W. Chicago Ave. The project would also include the redevelopment of five vacant parcels just west of the building. The city is willing to step in and acquire the property if a developer can’t come to terms with the landowner.

Invest South/West has also targeted a site at 62nd and Green streets in Englewood. The plan calls for a mixed-use “town center” anchored by a 1929 brick and terra cotta fire station, a designated city landmark that was once home to the fire department’s Engine Co. 84, Truck 51. A mix of residential and commercial uses are foreseen.

Then two miles south of Englewood in the Auburn Gresham area, city officials want to transform six vacant city-owned lots on 79th and Halsted streets into a new commercial building with residences on the upper floors. The site is across the street from the proposed Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub, a wellness and community center planned for a long-vacant former furniture store at 839 W. 79th St.

If all goes well, the end result will be much-needed jobs, quality housing and new investment opportunities for all these neighborhoods. It will also provide a template for reinvesting and rebuilding the other seven Invest South/West neighborhoods.

Taking care of all parts of the city

Chicago — riven by COVID-19, neighborhood violence, and summer unrest unlike anything we’ve seen here in 50 years — must come to grips with a precious truth: we can no longer remain a metropolis so deeply divided by race and economics that two cities exist within the borders of one.

So while the aims of Invest South/West might strike some as a kind of charity, in truth, this is balanced development; a city taking care of all parts of town rather than just the haunts of the privileged few.

Is Invest South/West perfect? No. We’re still scratching our heads over how the initiative somehow excluded the faded, but historic, Madison and Pulaski retail intersection in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

And the city must also explain how it plans to make these investments while staring down a billion-dollar municipal budget deficit. It would be a terrible thing to hold out the promise of change on the South and West sides, then snatch it all back because the city is broke.

If Chicago is going down this road, as it should, it had better finish what it starts.

With that in mind, the responses by the developers to the RFP and whether any of this gets built at all is shaping up as an important test for Chicago and its future.

A more equitable city

If done correctly, Invest South/West, and efforts like it, have the potential to make Chicago a better and more equitable city than before.

The due date for each RFP is Nov. 24, 2020. If the entities in charge of this city — the ones in and outside of government who make this place run — really care about Chicago, now is the time to be counted.

Austin, Englewood and Auburn Gresham have gone far too long without the transformational redevelopment that neighborhoods like these sorely need.

So much more work is needed. And hopefully, it’s now on its way.

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