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What will it take to build a more equitable Chicago? Investment and Innovation on the South and West Sides

As deputy mayor under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I saw firsthand the positive impact on neighborhoods of significant economic investments.

Focused investment, exemplified by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support for Englewood Square — where Whole foods opened a store in 2016 — reduces economic disparities and fosters jobs, writes Andrea Zopp.
Sun-Times Media

Black and Brown Chicagoans across the city’s South and West Sides face stark disparities in practically every area of life. While there have been many efforts to tackle the imbalance, critical benchmarks like income inequality and life expectancy gaps between Chicago’s white and Black populace are going up instead of down.

Take Fuller Park, due west of Bronzeville. More than 50% of households are below poverty level, over a third of residents are unemployed and the median income is less than $22,000.

Advancing equity has been at the forefront of many conversations over the last year. However, equity in many South Side neighborhoods cannot be achieved without significant economic investment.

As deputy mayor under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I saw firsthand the positive impact on neighborhoods of significant economic investments like the Englewood Square development anchored by Whole Foods in Englewood, the Hatchery in Humboldt Park and the Method plant and Whole Foods distribution center in Pullman. I know from experience that large-scale, sustained investments offer our communities opportunities that reduce disparities, foster jobs and provide them better infrastructure.

While we have taken steps in the right direction, we need continued focus and commitment to overcome the decades of underinvestment on the South and West sides. As a city, we must nurture these large-scale projects to ensure they come to fruition. We need to encourage community entrepreneurship in the South and West Sides to help expand economic opportunity and build wealth. But it will take several big ideas, combined with many smaller ideas, to have meaningful, lasting impact.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $750 million program Invest South/West is a great start. Inclusive at its core, it encourages development and entrepreneurship and is asking entrepreneurs to step up to the plate as quickly as possible.

Still, we need to attract more commercial anchors. It’s a proven fact that businesses attract residents and change communities. Take the Pullman neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. Pullman brought in a commercial anchor — Walmart, in 2010 — then, with support from the city, other businesses followed, including Method Soap and a Whole Foods distribution center. Along came new residents, too.

We need to change the landscape as well to build health equity. Look at the Hatchery on the West Side, a nonprofit incubator that aids local food and beverage entrepreneurs, and Always Growing Auburn Gresham on the South Side, which will include a renewable energy and urban farm campus as well as a “healthy lifestyle hub.” These endeavors are already on their way to creating significant new businesses — the kind that will spur more economic opportunities and bring sustainable food offerings to these areas.

We need more large-scale, sustained mega-investments too. True transformation will take the kind of area anchors that cost billions of dollars to build but bring massive change to entire sectors of cities. Yet they must also be equitable developments and involve community groups and entrepreneurs.

Bronzeville Lakefront, a 100-acre, $8.2 billion megadevelopment on the former Michael Reese Hospital site, is a case in point. The land has been vacant, and an economic albatross with a $13 million annual tax bill, since the city purchased it in 2009 for $91 million.

With its anchor — the Chicago ARC Innovation Center, a cutting-edge health innovation and technology hub — and mix of workforce and affordable housing, businesses, community space and hospitality offerings, Bronzeville Lakefront is designed to spur vast economic development for not only Bronzeville — a neighborhood contiguous to Fuller Park — but the entire South Side.

Even better, in a true commitment to equity, the team behind Bronzeville Lakefront — GRIT Chicago — is diverse. Its partners are 50% Black, and the contractors hired to date are nearly half minority- and women-owned businesses. They’ve orchestrated a thoughtful sustainable development that can infuse Bronzeville with new industry, retail and housing; generate an economic impact of $8.2 billion; and create 31,000 full-time positions and 45,000 direct and indirect construction jobs.

Chicago’s tax rolls will benefit from Bronzeville Lakefront too. Instead of paying out $13 million in property taxes annually, Chicago will take in more than $1.5 billion in revenue over the next 20 years. Ald. Sophia King (4th) deserves hearty praise for making this development happen in her ward, as does Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Real change takes real work, commitment and time. Projects like Invest South/West, the Hatchery, Always Growing Auburn Gresham and Bronzeville Lakefront need continued public support. More significantly, they must be sustained by the city now and in the future so they can take root and continue to grow and be a model for equity others can follow.

Andrea Zopp is managing partner at Cleveland Avenue and a former City of Chicago deputy mayor.

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