City adds twist to Invest South/West approach

It’s similar to the Invest South/West strategy employed over the past two years, in which planning officials laid out their vision for redeveloping blighted commercial corridors in 10 South and West Side neighborhoods, offered up a menu of public incentives available to make them happen, then solicited bids from developers to bring them to life.

The new RFQs take a different tack. Each focuses on a more ambitious, larger assemblage of properties than the individual sites targeted under Invest South/West. And instead of asking developers to work with designers to fine-tune ideas before pitching them, planning officials are instead short-listing two groups: Developers that can provide examples showing they could pull off such projects, and architects with a track record proving they could design them. Once those pools are finalized, members of each can choose who they want to work with to present project ideas to the city and community that could be selected to move forward.

The framework is meant to lower the barriers to entry for real estate developers and investors in South and West Side neighborhoods, a focal point of the planning department under the Lightfoot administration. City officials have sought ways to induce new affordable housing and commercial projects in areas of the city that few developers will touch because of their history with disinvestment, poverty and population loss.

Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said the revised tactic was born out of feedback from developers that bid on Invest South/West projects over the past couple of years and lamented the time and money they had to put into proposals that weren’t selected to move forward.

Under the new approach, developers “know they’re in the running and they can allocate the resources they need to win the commission,” Cox said. “This allows the development team to know who they’re competing against and show up with their A game,” Cox said.

The RFQ process also brings neighborhood residents into the discussion earlier. Once developers and design firms from the shortlisted pools team up, the planning department will host workshop sessions for them to gather more input from the community before spending their resources on pre-development work like architectural renderings and engineering studies.

Planning officials ran into pushback with Invest South/West projects from some residents who had a different vision for what was needed on a block. In Auburn Gresham, the winning bidders to redevelop a property alone on 79th Street with affordable housing ran into resistance from vocal residents who wanted to see more commercial development on the site.

The East Garfield Park and Woodlawn sites are far different from the Invest South/West properties, which were mostly single, vacant parcels on blocks that were already established as neighborhood commercial corridors. The two new sites are close to areas of substantial investment but are wholly unproven as commercial corridors themselves. Cox envisions them becoming what he dubs “15-minute neighborhoods,” or mixed-use developments that provide retail, dining and neighborhood amenities within a 15-minute walk of residents’ homes.

“This is a demonstration that we can create a neighborhood main street that we know makes living in a neighborhood worthwhile,” Cox said.

The Kedzie CTA station is next to the Hatchery, a food and beverage business incubator, and two miles west of the United Center and in the path of development that has surged west from the Fulton Market District and the West Loop.

The bids will target three sites along Kedzie, one of which is north of the station and two of which are south.

In Woodlawn, the RFQ includes a series of properties on either side of 63rd Street that are less than a mile from the future Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The RFQ envisions as many as six buildings being developed on the vacant sites.

Both sites are in existing tax-increment financing districts that are going through a process to be renewed for another 12 years after their impending expiration dates. TIF money and low-income housing tax credits are among the incentives the city is promoting as available options to help developers finance projects.

Responses to the RFQs are due by Sept. 14, according to a planning department spokesperson. Cox said he aims to announce by the end of the year the development-design teams selected to move forward with projects on the sites.

The planning department is hosting pre-development information sessions on Aug. 15 for the Woodlawn RFQ and Aug. 16 for the East Garfield Park RFQ.

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