Neighborhood transformation does not happen overnight. In Austin, the health of corridors like Chicago Avenue is instrumental to the community’s chance of sustaining positive change.
As a main east/west thoroughfare that connects all main north/south thoroughfares, it has great promise to become a thriving business and entertainment district.
In 2013, Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, worked with the Department of Planning and Development to create a commercial thrive zone initiative called the “Soul City Corridor.” Since then, the 1.5-mile stretch of Chicago Avenue between Austin Boulevard and Cicero Avenue has been growing into a center for commercial development, and for celebrating African-American food, culture, and art.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot established the INVEST South/West equitable community development strategy in 2019 focusing on driving resources and advocacy to Austin and nine other areas traditionally overlooked by investment. The strategy reviewed community plans and feedback to establish a list of twelve key commercial corridors in these communities that when improved, would impact the nearby residents and businesses as well as those in surrounding community areas. Chicago Avenue from Kilpatrick Avenue to Austin Boulevard was chosen as Austin’s priority corridor because it had historically been a center of activity, amenities, and services for residents and with the recent efforts around the Soul City Corridor. It is on its way to being that hub once again.
INVEST South/West took existing work and plans into consideration and in Austin, that also meant Austin Forward. Together. (AFT), the community’s first ever quality-of-life plan which was initiated in 2019.
In addition to the Issue Areas, AFT includes several focal projects that are specific geographic sites where large-scale physical redevelopment projects would catalyze and attract more investment and development throughout Austin. During the planning phase of AFT, an obvious section to include was the Chicago Avenue corridor.
LISC Chicago and Teska Associates worked with Austin Coming Together (ACT) to lead the community through visioning sessions to generate ideas while considering the built environment and craft AFT. “Through generations it has been seen as a significant building in the neighborhood. Its presence on the street is symbolic of what the street was and what Austin wants it to become,” said Jack Swenson, former consultant and program officer for LISC.
CHAMPIONS OF AUSTIN
Countless residents, non-residents, and organizations have been working tirelessly for years to make this moment possible. Transforming such a noticeable landmark, like the Laramie State Bank into a usable, safe space open to the community is a key part of Austin’s vision. It would mean acknowledging the community’s voice as valuable and worthy.
From her travel agency on Chicago Avenue, longtime Austin resident Crystal Dyer often watches architecture tours stop in front of the bank on their way west to Oak Park. Just as she hopes traveling will inspire the kids she impacts through her nonprofit Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures, she hopes Laramie State Bank’s international reputation as an architectural gem will inspire Austinites to take pride in their community’s history and respect the assets that still stand today. Dyer was part of the Steering Committee who helped create the AFT quality-of-life plan and remembers conversation about highlighting Chicago Avenue as a way to give the corridor the second chance it deserves.
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
The culmination of all these efforts has unlocked opportunities that are already making an impact. The June grand opening ofPOPcourts!, a vacant lot turned outdoor plaza at Chicago and Lockwood, was standing room only. With a mural of prominent black figures, shaded seating areas, a basketball court, and even gravel parking for food trucks, the colorful corner is a visual representation of the vibrancy of Austin and the growth that is coming. Over 20 projects are currently in various stages, including a cafe, restaurants, grocery store, and fitness club. Streetscape enhancements are also planned and will include a public discussion to get the community’s thoughts on the specific elements.
Through the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), the City of Chicago continues to offer qualified development teams and nonprofit organizations the opportunity to submit proposals for opportunity sites in the INVEST South/West neighborhoods. This Request for Proposals development initiative selected Laramie State Bank in spring 2021.
Even just the start of construction will help the entire city see Austin as it really is: full of history, culture, and potential. The Laramie State Bank project is a reminder that Austin is on the right path — a path to a more prominent future.
Seven teams submitted proposals to develop the iconic bank site, and Austin United Alliance was announced as the chosen bid at a press conference in March. Austin United Alliance is a partnership of Heartland Housing and the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, whose executive director is Athena Williams, a longtime Austin resident and an AFT plan leader.
Many of the specifics of the project are still being worked out, but what cannot be denied is the significance of the reactivation of this important site. As work moves forward, it will be critical for community stakeholders to do their due diligence and hold Austin United Alliance accountable to make sure the benefits of the bank project come in ways the community expects and needs.