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‘Come Home,’ Chicago says, in bid to bring people back to city via program to develop thousands of vacant lots

Maurice Cox, commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, discusses community development grants during a news conference at the Kehrein Center For The Arts on the West Side, Monday morning, July 18, 2022.

Maurice Cox is commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday launched the “repopulation phase” of her signature plan to rebuild 10 long-neglected commercial corridors on Chicago’s South and West sides.

To stop what Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox calls “the bleeding of Black and Brown families” leaving Chicago, the plan calls for three strategies to spur “in-fill development” on 5,600 city-owned vacant lots in Invest South/West communities of Austin, Auburn Gresham, Bronzeville, Greater Englewood, Greater Roseland, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, New City, South Chicago and South Shore.

The first strategy is appropriately titled, “Come Home.” The goal is to promote construction of single-family homes, townhouses and smaller, multiunit buildings on residential blocks just off the reviving commercial corridors. It’ll launch with “a nationwide, Chicago Architecture Contest” aimed at establishing “modern design typologies” to be built by emerging development firms and made available for affordable home buyers.

The second strategy is called “Ready Build.” It’ll make “custom concept plans” available for redevelopment of corner lots with ground-level stores and homes above. The cookie-cutter plans will include “conceptual architectural drawings, cost estimates and other pre-development” work to make it easier and less costly for “emerging minority-led development firms” to launch projects that “anchor the corners of key South and West side intersections.”

The third and final strategy is called, “Chicago Block Builders.” It’s an online portal tailored to streamline the sale of thousands of vacant, city-owned parcels to private buyers, starting with 2,000 vacant lots that will be made available this year in the 10 Invest South/West neighborhoods.

Cox talked about what he called “Invest South/West: The Second Act” after joining the mayor at a celebratory news conference that marked the third anniversary of a program that has already generated “$2.2 billion in public, private and philanthropic commitments.”

“Hundreds of thousands of families ... left the South and West side because they could not go to a corner store. They did not have safe parks. So, it made sense for us to start on the commercial corridor. But now, it’s about going into the streets and blocks where people live and filling in the gaps with new opportunities for housing,” Cox said.

“We’re gonna in-fill development on the corridors, then move into the city blocks to promote construction on the thousands of vacant lots throughout this community to create the rooftops that are so vital for these businesses to succeed and thrive.”

The name, “Come Home,” is aimed at reversing the Black exodus, Cox said.

“We want all of those who love the South and West side to come on home. Come back home to the communities that you love, and we’re going to provide new housing options. The initiative will be to find the two-flats and the three-flats that people have been able to build family wealth by living in it and renting out another,” Cox said.

“Not everybody can do ... a $40 million development. But what about a corner store with six or 12 units above it? ... We’re gonna look at those vacant corners and begin to create smaller, in-fill opportunities for developers who are working in these communities but are looking for a ladder to greater prosperity.”

For a city that “championed urban renewal” by “tearing down everything” or doing “megaprojects that take forever” to complete, Invest South/West is a “very different way to operate,” he said.

“How do we grow equitably? How do we do it inclusively without displacement? You do it very incrementally,” Cox said.

Several mayoral challengers have argued that Invest South/West is more show than go.

But that didn’t stop Lightfoot from celebrating the anniversary with a double groundbreaking — a $47 million mixed-use project at 5200 W. Chicago Ave. and a $26 million streetscape project.

“We cannot be a great global city if we do not look at the root causes of violence and understand that there’s a different recipe for solving these problems than just throwing law enforcement on every corner,” she said.

“With $2.2 billion in investment commitments, we are spurring tangible, positive and long-lasting changes forevermore on the South and West sides. Let it never happen again that another mayor, another administration turns their back on the South and the West side. We can’t have it. You can’t have it. And never let it happen again.”

A surprise attendee at the celebration was former Gov. Pat Quinn, who will announce Thursday whether he will join the crowded race for mayor.

Quinn cautioned the Sun-Times not to “read anything” into his appearance “other than celebrating something good for the West Side, where I live.”

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