Chicago mayor’s Invest South/West initiative gets slow start

Neighborhood-focused real estate investors credit Invest South/West with boosting Black-owned developers and construction firms that rarely get larger downtown work. Bigger-name developers including Related Midwest and Farpoint Development have also taken on Invest South/West projects, something planning officials hope will spark more private investment in the neighborhoods. But several developers that declined to speak on the record for fear of political retribution say they have explored Invest South/West projects solely to score political points, not to make money.

Chicago Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, who leads Invest South/West, says the 41 bids submitted for the first 11 city-solicited sites proves developers will take on projects in blighted corridors if the city provides various financial incentives and dedicates more staff from multiple departments to shepherd them forward. He also notes Patton’s Chicago Avenue project and a $31 million mixed-income housing project in Englewood proposed by veteran community developer DL3 Realty weren’t selected for city-solicited Invest South/West sites, but were hatched during that bidding process and are now seeking city approvals.

“Most developers would tell you that if it were not for the city’s menu of financial incentives, these deals would simply not happen,” Cox says.

Projects have also benefited from factors entirely separate from Invest South/West. The Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus program—a Rahm Emanuel creation that pooled fees from downtown development projects and redirected them into the South and West sides—has funded small businesses that are populating storefronts in some Invest South/West corridors.

Even the pandemic, a brutal setback for many neighborhoods, armed the city with federal relief money for development grants. Lightfoot recently announced a $13.5 million grant for Cleveland-based retailer Yellow Banana to revive a half-dozen South and West Side Save A Lot stores, including one just steps from the Auburn Gresham project.

The city’s spotlight alone on neighborhood investment has given local businesses a noticeable boost, says Elizabeth Lockhart, whose family has run a series of small businesses in Austin for the past 45 years and owns 18 properties there today, most of them along Chicago Avenue.

Plans to redevelop the Laramie Bank building—where her family had accounts before Citizens National Bank shut down in 1991—are helping Lockhart raise money for a 20-unit senior housing project she wants to develop four blocks east.