On Oct. 5, Chicago City Council quietly and unanimously approved a pilot program to establish “economic thrive zones” at 10 city retail corridors that haven’t seen much investment in recent decades.
One of those zones is the stretch of Chicago Avenue, between Austin and Laramie avenues. But just what exactly would be invested in the area is not entirely clear. The ordinance itself merely said that the zones were “established for the purpose of receiving targeted support to in order to spur economic development,” and that, unless renewed, the program would automatically lapse on Dec. 31, 2019.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s 29th Ward includes the west half of the corridor, the section between Austin and Central avenues. The remaining half falls within Ald. Emma Mitts’ 37th Ward.
Taliaferro said that many details of what the improvements would like like are still up in the air.
“The city will be working with [aldermen], community organizations and businesses to discuss and implement improvements,” he said. “We already had several meetings with the city about what we’d want to see.”
Taliaferro said that he had conversations with the officials from the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, as well as the Austin African-American Business Networking Association. He said that he is going to be soliciting ideas from businesses and property owners.
“From there, we’ll look at what we would like to bring to [the corridor] from the economic and business perspective,” he said, before adding that he has some ideas of his own for developing the area.
“I’d like to see new lighting along Chicago Avenue, curbside renovation and also decorative trash cans,” Taliaferro said. “There’s a strong possibility that art will be at the CTA bus turnaround at Chicago and Austin.”
He made it clear that the Economic Thrive Zones don’t come with their own funding mechanism in the way Tax Increment Financing districts and Special Service Areas do. But he said that he would able to take advantage of existing funding from the Austin TIF and that the City Council will look into additional funding it can allocate to the areas.
The Westside Health Authority and the Austin Chamber of Commerce are currently working with the city to establish an SSA that would include the 37th Ward portion of the zone. Taliaferro said he was looking into establishing an SSA in his ward, too.
“I’ve been meeting with community residents in regard to [creating] an SSA in the 29th ward, but it’s all preliminary,” he said.
When an SSA is created, the city levies a special tax on all of the properties located within it. It only lasts for a certain period of time, but an SSA can be renewed.
Taliaferro said he’s also considering taking advantage of the new funding program proposed as part of the next year’s budget. If approved, it would help aldermen fund art projects. If the alderman commits $10,000 in aldermanic menu money for it, the city would pitch in the same amount.
“Along with infrastructure work that is needed in the ward, I certainly believe that we can [enhance] the Austin community and the 29th Ward through arts, so I’d be happy to participate,” Taliaferro said.
The alderman said it was too early to discuss the timeline, but that he would like to see improvements done as soon as possible.
Amara Enyia, head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and an Austin Weekly News columnist, said that, at this point, she didn’t have enough details to have an opinion on Economic Thrive Zones; however, she said, simply having the designation could help the areas, because it could attract businesses and developers that would otherwise avoid them.
“We’re 100 percent in support of it if it’s bringing additional resources we can leverage,” she said.
During the Oct. 27 City Council budget hearings, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) asked City Treasurer Kurt Summers about the status of the thrive zones. He echoed Taliaferro’s comments, saying that it was still in the planning stages. Like Eniya, he said he believed that it would help him attract investors to under-served communities.
Earlier during the hearing, Summers told the aldermen that banks have been historically reluctant to underwrite projects in such communities, but that the reluctance has more to do with perception then reality.
He used the recently opened Mariano’s grocery chain in Bronzeville to illustrate his point. The building, which Mariano’s leases, was sold on Oct. 24 to a New York based real-estate investor for $34 million.
“[This] tells you that if you have courage to see through the existing underwriting bias, you will see rewards,” Summers said.