Auburn Gresham project heralds progress for Invest South/West developments

Real estate projects due as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program have until now been a matter of design reviews and promises. Wednesday, the promises start turning into construction.

City officials and developers were expected to break ground Wednesday on a $43 million improvement to a stretch of Auburn Gresham at 79th and Halsted streets. The mix of affordable housing with commercial space is the first of a dozen developments tied to the program to get started.

Groundbreakings for others are expected at an approximate rate of one a month for the rest of the year, said Maurice Cox, the city’s commissioner of planning and development. Others expected to begin construction soon are in Englewood and Austin.

Developers were chosen for the three neighborhood sites in March 2021. “The speed to market has exceeded my expectations,” Cox noted. He said developers, working with tax credits and city incentives, have secured financing despite inflation swelling the costs of construction.

The progress, he said, shows the city has made a good bet to encourage development along busy but neglected commercial corridors. “I think we basically had to dispel the myth that you can’t make a profitable development on the South and West sides. It’s been quite the opposite,” Cox said.

Maurice Cox, Chicago’s commissioner of planning and development

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Working with community groups, the city designated developers for the Invest South/West sites using a competitive process. The planning department picked proposals for the sites, which often included city-owned land, after judging such factors as design quality, financing and community needs. Officials prioritized redeveloping corner properties, hoping other investors would look at parcels nearby.

“We continue to see interest in secondary sites along these corridors,” Cox said.

The Auburn Gresham project is a venture of Evergreen Real Estate Group and Imagine Real Estate Group, working with architectural firms Ross Barney and Nia. It calls for a 28-unit apartment building at 838 W. 79th and 30 new apartments at 757 W. 79th. The buildings will include a K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center, a supper club and AYO Foods, which sells West African fare. The sites are currently vacant.

The project is expected to be finished in spring 2024. Officials said apartment rents will start at about $800 per month.

The deal was made possible by a donation of city land, $18 million in tax-increment financing payable from property taxes and $18 million in low-income housing tax credits.

Cox said that after criticism from nearby residents, developers revised their plan to include two smaller buildings rather than one larger one. He said the smaller buildings were seen as better suited for the area.

He said the developers also listened to the community in deciding the kind of operations to bring into the ground-floor commercial space.

Cox said the next Invest South/West groundbreaking, expected in September, will be in Englewood at 6204 S. Green St., where developers want to refurbish a landmark former firehouse, turning it into a commercial kitchen with public meeting space.

The Austin project, due to start construction in October, is at 5200-24 W. Chicago Ave. Heartland Housing and Oak Park Regional Housing Center plan 78 apartments, most with rents tied to income levels under the city’s affordable housing rules. It calls for turning the former Laramie State Bank into a bank branch with a blues museum.

A separate project in Englewood, at 914 W. 63rd St., also should break ground late this year, Cox said. DL3 Realty Advisors is building 61 apartments near its Englewood Square at 63rd and Halsted, a plaza where Whole Foods has announced plans to close. Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3, has said he’s seeking another grocer to open in the space.

By providing apartments, Walker is “trying to build the rooftops that any grocery store needs to be profitable,” Cox said.

Other communities with Invest South/West projects approved but yet to start are North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Bronzeville, New City and South Chicago.

The North Lawndale site, 4300 W. Roosevelt Road, involves a $38 million redevelopment of 21 acres used for illegal dumping in the Silver Shovel aldermanic scandal in the 1990s.

Cox said the city soon will advertise for developer interest in property along Roseland’s Michigan Avenue.

A rendering of an apartment building planned at 757 W. 79th St.

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