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Report outlines foundations for ‘resilient’ Chicago neighborhoods

The Urban Land Institute Chicago calls for policies to promote housing diversity, job growth and infrastructure spending, particularly in Black and Brown communities.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces in June 2021 a program for new homes in North Lawndale. More affordable housing is one recommendation for improving neighborhoods in a report from the Urban Land Institute Chicago.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announces in June a program for new homes in North Lawndale. More affordable housing is one recommendation for improving neighborhoods in a report from the Urban Land Institute Chicago.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Offering a prescription for building “resilient” Chicago neighborhoods, a real estate-aligned think tank Thursday called for a long-term focus on addressing racism, promoting diversity in housing, increasing jobs citywide and investing in public works.

A report by the Urban Land Institute Chicago tries to focus policymakers’ attention on issues it said stem from decades of disinvestment in Black and Brown communities. Chicago’s “legacy of a divided city” has created vast gaps in health and wealth, creating a “city that works” only for some, the report said.

“As a result, far too many Chicago neighborhoods are defined by negative news rather than actual experience and an understanding of the community,” the report said. “When the focus is primarily on reports of violence and vacancies, positive community attributes such as strong community networks, thriving local entrepreneurs and untapped spending power can go unnoticed. The perception of risk becomes greater than reality, dampening interest from potential residents as well as lenders/investors.”

The report urged support of programs that interrupt cycles of poverty and violence, put vacant land back to use and support community-based developers and small businesses. Another recommendation was that City Hall create a “deputy mayor for infrastructure” to prioritize projects such as water and sewer projects and expanding digital access.

The report draws on input from more than 60 participants in fields such as real estate, community development and local government. It is supposed to feed into a three-year planning initiative of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration called We Will Chicago, intended as a guide as the city recovers from the pandemic. ULI Chicago began the work last year.

“ULI really wanted to bring people together and ask, ‘How do we lift this city up?” after the shutdowns and violence of last year, said Scott Goldstein, principal at the design firm Teska Associates and a co-chair of the report’s section dealing with infrastructure. “It’s really a starting point, a way to put some ideas out there,” he said.

Entitled “Our City, Our Future: Recommendations for Building Chicago Neighborhoods,” the report emphasizes Chicago’s history of discrimination in lending through the past practice of redlining, which some argue persists in different forms. It said the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago has shown formerly redlined areas still suffer today from disinvestment. “Low-income, formerly redlined neighborhoods are also more likely to have poor air quality and face disproportionate impacts of climate change,” the report said.

Participants suggested creating a government-owned bank in the Chicago area to correct inequities left by private commercial banks that prioritize shareholder profits.

The report cited several examples of community programs as positive models. They include the development of the Englewood Square shopping center at 63rd and Halsted streets — a Whole Foods-anchored plaza designed with residents’ input — and a job-training program of the North Lawndale Employment Network that helps ex-offenders improve their lives.

Missing are cost estimates for various ideas, but the report highlights proposals its contributors believe can be implemented more quickly.

It raised a politically fraught issue, the control Chicago’s 50 aldermen have over development projects, sometimes making citywide coordination tough. But it declined to recommend that aldermanic power be scaled back.