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Why were East and West Garfield Park excluded from Lightfoot’s neighborhood development plan? West Side alderman demands to know

Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox was on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings — and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, had Cox right where he wanted him.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot (center) and Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox (left) announce the mayor’s $250 million “Invest South/West” plan last month in Austin.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago’s new planning and development commissioner came under fire Thursday for failing to include two impoverished West Side neighborhoods — East and West Garfield Park — in a $250 million mayoral plan to bring “transformative change” to 10 inner-city neighborhoods.

Former Detroit planner Maurice Cox was on the hot seat at City Council budget hearings — and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, had Cox right where he wanted him.

Ervin demanded to know why 10 neighborhoods are targeted for the unprecedented infusion of city capital and East and West Garfield Park are not among them.

Instead, the plan Mayor Lori Lightfoot proudly calls “Invest South/West” includes Auburn Gresham, North Lawndale, Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Quad Communities, New City, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore.

“If you look at statistic after statistic, East and West Garfield Park are in the top two or three. This is where government needs to be helping. In those communities that need it the most,” Ervin said.

“Kenwood has million-dollar homes in it. There are no million-dollar homes in Garfield Park … This is almost an insult. How do I go back to my constituents and tell them there’s 10 communities … and we’re not one of `em? ... How do you make that make sense to the residents? What are we to tell them — we’ll get you next time? People have been hearing that for years.”

Ervin was so “baffled” by the list, he literally asked Cox whether or not the strategy was to “go after low-hanging fruit.”

The commissioner insisted that was not the case and that all of the communities chosen “have their challenges.”

Cox said he was the “first to notice” that West Garfield Park was not in the first round” and asked his new staff, “Can you take me to the community-based organizations that serve that particular area?”

“They were hard-pressed to find the groups that are located in that area. So I would rather build the capacity of that group and come in [during] a second-phase,” the commissioner said.

Ervin demanded to know why Cox didn’t reach out to any of three aldermen who represent East and West Garfield Park to identify community-based organizations.

“I am more than happy to work with you to identify those folks on the ground … We’ve made a commitment to work in the 10 areas [first]. And I’m happy to do some initial work to prepare the next communities to follow in very, very quick order,” the commissioner said.

Cox said he has “felt that pressure” from every community area in the South and West Sides. But choices have to be made.

“I’m challenged to implement a strategy that’s based on aggregating resources if I have to work on every neighborhood at the same time. I don’t think it’s gonna be an effective strategy,” the commissioner said.

“I’d like to concentrate. I’d like to get some strategies that work, then move them to the next sequence of neighborhoods.”

Last month, Lightfoot told a standing-room-only news conference in Austin that the 10 neighborhoods were chosen based on a host of factors that include: local business activity; retail and institutional anchors; transportation amenities; historic buildings; recent and pending public improvements; and potential community partners.

The $250 million, Lightfoot said, is “re-prioritized money already in the pipeline” from: tax increment financing; the moribund $100 million Catalyst Fund; the Small Business Improvement Fund; and the share-the-wealth Neighborhood Opportunity Fund generated by developers paying a fee for permission to build bigger and taller buildings downtown.

Together with $500 million in CTA, Metra and Park District improvements already in the pipeline — and a $10 million sponsorship from BMO Harris Bank — the goal of the program is to turn abandoned commercial corridors into thriving inner-city neighborhoods with the amenities needed to attract residents, not lose them.

“I have been champing at the bit for months to be able to stand here in this moment. And I said, with due respect to my friends on the South Side, when we make this announcement, we must come to the West Side,” the mayor said on that day.