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Lightfoot’s planning chief vows to ‘finish the job’ started with Englewood Whole Foods — and rebuild 9 other neighborhoods

Maurice Cox is the former Detroit planner lured to Chicago by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to preside over a neighborhood renaissance.

Chicago’s Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox is interviewed Thursday by Chicago Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and David Roeder.
Chicago’s Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox is interviewed Thursday by Chicago Sun-Times reporters Fran Spielman and David Roeder.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox vowed Thursday to “finish the job” Rahm Emanuel started by putting a Whole Foods in Englewood and do the same in nine other neighborhoods, in part, by re-purposing shuttered schools.

Emanuel famously closed 50 Chicago Public Schools in one fell swoop. Many of those school buildings remain vacant nearly seven years after the largest school consolidation in Chicago Public Schools history.

The former mayor’s relentless lobbying — and an $11 million city subsidy for site preparation and environmental remediation — persuaded Whole Foods to open an 18,000-square-foot store at 63rd and Halsted streets across from Kennedy King College.

Cox talked openly in an interview Thursday with the Chicago Sun-Times about the unfinished business left behind by both of those decisions.

Although the Whole Foods was a “powerful investment in a food desert,” he argued it was “one piece of a puzzle that has not been completed.”

“I don’t discern a housing strategy to suggest that area is going to be re-populated to support those types of activities. I don’t see a parks strategy to complement that Whole Foods. I don’t see a public realm transformation. I see one item in what would have to be a comprehensive strategy,” Cox said.

“We are going to finish the job. I want to take advantage of Kennedy-King as an educational anchor. We want to populate the street with smaller, locally serving businesses that can benefit from the foot traffic that a Whole Foods creates. We want to have an affordable housing strategy than can anticipate what the future population will be when we re-build Englewood. I want to have a strategy for maintaining vacant lots, which is not throwing grass seed and setting up a mowing regime.”

Cox knows from experience what can be done with the dozens of still-vacant school buildings that stand as a symbol of neighborhood neglect.

During his tenure as Detroit’s planning chief, he commissioned a study of that city’s 72 shuttered schools with the goal of determining which buildings could be redeveloped, which ones needed to be “mothballed for a long time” and which ones needed to be demolished.

“That’s how you do it. You have to look comprehensively at this amazing resource of iconic neighborhood buildings that will find their re-use,” Cox said, suggesting senior housing, affordable housing, community and recreational centers.

“I’d like to convince the mayor to allow us to release some of these schools for redevelopment. I want to do that in consultation with the community there because they have very clear ideas about what they need.”

Cox is on the hot seat to deliver on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s $250 million plan to bring “transformative change” to 10 South and West Side neighborhoods: Englewood, Auburn Gresham, North Lawndale, Austin, Humboldt Park, Quad Communities, New City, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore.

His laser-like focus on neglected neighborhoods was obvious when he was asked about a “One Central” project that calls for decking over railroad tracks west of Soldier Field to make way for a wall of high-rises built on a transportation center and about the visionary plan to put a “cap” over the Kennedy Expressway to create more park land.

He called them both “big, audacious” projects that are “easier proposed than done.”

“You start talking about billion-dollar TIFs. Could you imagine what we could do with a billion dollars in the South Side just doing 100 little projects? I’m interested in unleashing hundreds of little development projects that incrementally build these neighborhoods one lot at a time,” the commissioner said.

“Our first obligation is to stop the exodus out of Chicago because Chicago needs a strong black middle class. That means we have to pay attention to the neighborhoods where they live. If we tackle this in a comprehensive way instead of a scatter shot way, we can stop the bleeding.”