Construction on the Austin Blvd. and Chicago Ave. bus turnaround last year. The turnaround's renovation is part of a more comprehensive redevelopment of Chicago Ave., which area businesses envision as Austin's central business district. | File

West Side community leaders, residents, elected officials and businesspeople gathered at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake Street, on May 24 to discuss what 29th Ward Ald. Chris Taliaferro described as a unique moment in the community’s history.

“This is the first time in a long time that the City of Chicago an economic interest on the West Side,” Taliaferro said to a chorus of affirmative hums and head nods. “We’ve seen years and years without any funds coming to the West Side of Chicago. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but to an extent I’m happy because they’re finally committing to a couple of projects and to bringing development on the West Side.”

Taliaferro was referencing the long-planned revitalization of Chicago Avenue, from Austin Blvd. to Central Ave. into an African American central business district, similar to a Chinatown; and the redevelopment of several blocks surrounding Austin Town Hall into an Austin Arts & Culture Campus.

Taliaferro said that, although numerous redevelopment projects compete for his attention, he’s decided to make those two his priority. He said he selected the two projects because they were already deeply evolved, before urging anyone with competing proposals to rally around the two projects.

“One of the things I think is important is that we continue to work on these projects together, so we’re not overstepping one another and causing [the city’s Department of Planning] to run away,” he said. 

“Many of our consumers … are going out to Oak Park and Cicero and Elmwood Park to do their weekly or daily shopping and that’s something we have to turn around,” the alderman noted. “We have to keep our dollars within our community,” while inviting residents from other communities into Austin.

Amara Enyia, the executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the meeting’s facilitator, helped create the concept of a central cultural campus. She said she envisions the campus becoming a central destination for residents across the city.  

“We have all of the space and the real estate, the question is, ‘How do we leverage this for the Austin community?'” Enyia said, referencing the site area on which the campus would be located.

The campus, Enyia noted in her presentation, is a form of transit-oriented development, which is designed to leverage its proximity to the CTA Green Line stops along Lake Street, particularly between the Harlem/Lake and the Conservatory stops. 

The anchor locations in the campus include the Austin Family Community Center, Austin Town Hall, Chicago Public Library’s Austin branch, Frederick Douglass School and the former Francis Scott Key School.

“I think that Amara’s vision and leadership is really critical to showing that there are assets and resources that are beautiful in Austin, but really looking at it from the standpoint of community empowerment and economic job growth,” said Yolanda Richards, a business development associate with World Business Chicago, the nonprofit economic development group headed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and that helped with the development of the cultural campus concept.

“We’re looking at schools that have been closed down as opportunities to really bring assets within the community and shine that and help it grow and expand,” she said, adding that WBC would help market Austin’s assets to businesses and residents.

Taliaferro, referencing plans for Chicago Avenue, noted the city’s redesign of the bus turnaround at the corner of Austin Blvd. and Chicago, possible plans for a Divvy station and public art installations, and the marketing of the strip as a central business district.

“We’re working with the planning department so you’ll feel when you walk through that corridor stretch it will have a particular look like when you go into Forest Park and Oak Park,” said Chairmaine Rickett, the principal of the Uncle Remus Saucy Fried Chicken Brand and chairwoman of the Austin African American Business Networking Association Inc.

Rickett said AAABNA, which has spearheaded the Chicago Avenue project endorsed by Taliaferro, said the organization is looking to recruit a diversity of businesses to setup on the corridor, which she said boasts one of Austin’s lowest crime rates and bustling commercial traffic.

Malcolm Crawford, AAABNA’s president, said that numerous restaurants are looking to lay down roots in the corridor, including one owned by Gospel music recording artist Kim Stratton, who Crawford said owns a restaurant in Palatine and is seeking to come west.

Some attendees, however, like Austin resident and 7th sub-circuit court judge Marianne Jackson, noted that the planning department should be considering more than just two projects, so when the two projects the alderman is endorsing “come to fruition,” other projects are ready to be executed.

“I certainly believe that the community ought to get behind those two projects, but we should be very vigilant with them in terms of saying, ‘This is not all we’re interested in,'” she said. “There are other things that need to be done. Look at Madison Street.”

“We should not just limit ourselves to a couple of projects,” said Morris Reed, the CEO of the Westside Health Authority, whose organization, he noted, owns parcels and has invested along Chicago Avenue.

“I don’t want elected officials to be so segregated and so isolated in the projects they’re doing,” Reed said. “[They should] make sure that everything complements each other. There may be a lot going on in Austin, but it’s not up to planning to shut it down.”

Reed, who said that he was inspired by the work AAABNA has done between Austin Blvd. and Central Ave., argued that his organization’s work, and that of AAABNA, on the Chicago Ave. corridor could co-exist and complement the other.

“We can’t just let Austin begin at Central, because it doesn’t begin at Central,” Reed said. “Austin begins before Central, so the gateway ideas and cultural ideas are what we think should happen all along Chicago Avenue and not just in the Central area and we should not let the planning department off the hook and say their job is finished at Central.”

Reed added, however, that his organization would be willing “to stand down, whatever we have to do to make sure we see this happened,” he said, referencing the two projects endorsed by Taliaferro.

“This has to happen,” he said. 

A building breakdown of the proposed Austin Arts & Culture Campus

  • Austin Community Family Center | Human Capital Development Center: Focus on workforce development initiatives, a café, reception and gallery space plus gym and meeting space
  • Francis Scott Key Building | Food Industry and Culinary Arts Hub: Community kitchen, food business incubator, food tasting hub, urban Agriculture center
  • Austin Town Hall | Community Arts Showcase Center: In process to be designated as Chicago historical landmark; host of local theater, music, dance, and other performing arts showcases, outdoor music and café space on patio in spring and summer, arts workshops.
  • Douglass School | Center for working families, literacy programming
  • Chicago Public Library Austin Branch | Literacy and arts education-based programs for youth

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