Like many residents of the Woodlawn community on the South Side, Lola Gray has waited a long time to see the community come back up — 19 years, in her case.
And on Tuesday, when the city is expected to announce it has lured a new Jewel-Osco grocery store to fill the long-blighted area of 61st and Cottage Grove — further eradicating city food deserts — she’ll be saying, “Hallelujah.”
The 48,000-square-foot grocery with a drive-thru pharmacy is expected to open in late 2018, in an example of the kind of redevelopment radiating in close proximity to the Obama Presidential Center to be built just to the south in Jackson Park.
“I’m very excited about it. We need it. We haven’t had a major grocery store chain here since I moved in, and that’ll be 19 years in July,” said Gray, a senior citizen, who is president of the 6500 South Rhodes Block Club.
“So I’ve been waiting a long time for this area to be up and coming. I didn’t realize it was going to take so long, but it’s turning around,” she said.
The new grocery store targeted for this community, which has long suffered disinvestment, follows the arrival last fall of major grocery chains in two similar communities: Englewood, which saw the historic opening of a new Whole Foods store at 63rd and Halsted, and Bronzeville, which saw Mariano’s open at Pershing Road and King Drive.
And like with its sister communities, it took an influx of public-private investments in Woodlawn in recent years to finally lure a major grocer to the food desert.
“We’ve invested in housing, transportation, infrastructure, street lighting, activity centers for the youth. I’ve always said, if we put public investments in, the private sector will see them as a major economic engine for growth,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“And that’s what you see happening in all of these neighborhoods where we’re implementing this template. The grocers do what businesses do: Evaluate, and realize that with all these things coming, there’s a critical mass that works for their bottom line,” Emanuel said.
As with Englewood and Bronzeville, the new grocery is expected to help lift up a community experiencing revitalization, and bring jobs.
Each store followed new business and residential development in their neighborhoods. The 74,000-square-foot Mariano’s opened in October, replacing a lot vacant about a decade, and the 18,000-square-foot Whole Foods opened in September, built on land barren longer than that.
Woodlawn is a community on the rise, growing for the first time in decades, and experiencing a slight drop in crime. U.S. Census data showed Woodlawn outpacing its fancy neighbor, Hyde Park, in growth between 2010 and 2015.
Data shows young black families returning to the neighborhood that is anchored like Hyde Park by the University of Chicago, accessible to the lakefront, and offering quick transportation to the central city.
“It’s just a testament to the commitment of the people, and what we’re trying to do in Woodlawn. Our goal is to make Woodlawn a desirable place to live, and attract individuals who will actually take concern of their neighborhood,” said Malcolm Williams, one of those new residents.
Williams, 41, who heads the Woodlawn Southeast Quadrant organization, bought a home near 66th and Stony Island two years ago.
“I’ve seen a major shift in the past two years, and I’m really impressed. The first year I moved over here, we had seven shootings and two murders on my block. Not in the neighborhood. On my block!” he said.
“And then the community came together with C.A.P.S., and that following summer, we had maybe one shooting. I’m very excited to be within walking distance of the new Jewel. Hopefully, it’ll offer a place where the community can convene, have a cup of coffee and talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood.”
And a lot has been going on. Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., on Monday announced conceptual plans to revitalize and renovate CTA’s 63rd and Cottage Grove Green Line station and its surrounding area, with visual, architectural and lighting treatments.
Last week, Emanuel and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., celebrated the ground-breaking for Woodlawn Station, a four-story, mixed-use, mixed-income housing development going up adjacent to the L station. It’s being built with $30.5 million from the federal Choice Neighborhood Grant Fund that helped leverage more than $400 million in private sector investment. It’s a program President Donald Trump seeks to eliminate in his budget blueprint.
And two years ago this month, Emanuel, Rush and Ald. Willie B. Cochran (20th) celebrated the opening of the MetroSquash Academic and Squash Center at 6100 S. Cottage Grove, a $7 million, 21,000 square-foot facility providing area youth with squash and wellness programming, academic tutoring and mentoring.
About a dozen new housing developments now pepper the area, including the 101-year-old, 80,000 square-foot Strand Hotel at 6321 S. Cottage Grove. Built by architects Davis and Davis, who also built Wrigley Field, it got a $23 million facelift and opened as new rental housing November 2015.