Our Pledge To You

News

A renaissance in Austin? New plan hopes to improve quality of life on West Side

Austin Town Hall, CTA Green Line Central stop

Austin Town Hall is next to the Central Avenue stop on the CTA's Green Line. | Sun-Times staff photo

A new blueprint to be unveiled Saturday hopes to bring a “renaissance” to Austin by improving the lives of West Side residents.

Austin Coming Together will release the Quality of Life Plan at Michele Clark Magnet High School, 5101 W. Harrison St.

The new report, completed in partnership with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, outlines some grand visions but offers no cost estimates.

LISC has helped produce 27 Quality-of-Life Plans for other Chicago communities since 2005. Besides Austin, LISC partnered this year with groups in North Lawndale and Hermosa/Logan Square. Logan Square and North Lawndale were the subject of similar plans over a decade ago, but this is the first such report for Austin.

The report focused on six issues: economic development, education, housing, public safety, youth empowerment, civic engagement.

A seventh area of the report, called the “community narrative,” looked at how to “revitalize the image and spirit of Austin.” To do that, it suggested, among other things, investing in local arts, creating a social-media campaign and increasing local healthy food options. The report noted that nearly half the independent grocers in Austin don’t sell fresh produce.

Meanwhile, the report estimates, Austin residents spend $159.5 million every year at retail stores and restaurants outside their neighborhood.

The report suggests improving Central Avenue, which it called “a unifying and supportive spine,” to turn it into “Austin’s Main Street.” It also outlines ways to beautify and enhance Chicago Avenue, with new lighting and sidewalks, among other upgrades.

As for housing, the goal is to decrease the number of vacant properties and turn more residents into homeowners; about 40 percent of Austin households own their homes now. About 60 percent rent, and in Austin, 16 percent of all rentals are leased using a housing voucher; in Cook County overall, the number is 7 percent.

In the area of education, the report suggests increasing school enrollment, which has declined since 2013, when Chicago Public Schools closed a record 50 elementary schools; four of those were in Austin. From 2013 to 2017, neighborhood schools lost a quarter of their student population, and now, according to the report, there are nearly 87,000 vacant seats in the remaining schools — costing local schools about $41.5 million in funding, LISC estimates.

Valerie Leonard, a community organizer, fought against school closures on the West Side in 2013.

“We warned people that closing these schools would be devastating to our community,” said Valerie Leonard, a community organizer.

Darnell Shields, director of Austin Coming Together, said other factors also play a role in the dwindling enrollment; he points to decades of disinvestment and a lack of jobs. The seven areas studied by the report are all connected, he said.

“It’s only through the simultaneous achievement of the goals … that you are going to be able to start to gain some momentum,” Shields said.

The actions outlined in the report will take money, and the report doesn’t provide any cost estimates. Details may come Saturday, but
the MacArthur Foundation did award Austin Coming Together a $1 million grant earlier this year for implementing many strategies in the plan.

Jake Ament, director of LISC’s Neighborhood Network , said quality-of-life plans provide a blueprint for how a community could look, but since the issues facing each neighborhood vary, the measures of success vary, too.

However, since LISC started doing Qualify-of-Life plans, “over $872 million has been invested in those communities” in Chicago, Ament said.

Ament said plans like the one in Austin are normally designed with a three-to-five year period in mind, but this plan includes no specific deadlines.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.