How strategic retail strengthens neighborhoods

by Lyneir Richardson
October 24, 2016

A new retail store or restaurant can bolster a neighborhood in a surprisingly short time, cascading benefits on the residents ranging from access to healthy food and convenient services to increased property values and safer streets.

Early examples are found on the North Side of the city. Take the Lakeview neighborhood near the Ashland-Belmont-Lincoln intersection, where more than 20 years ago, residential apartment rent hovered around $500 a month, rings of barbed wire topped the old Paulina “el” stop and Brown Line riders groped their way down the stairs each night after graffiti taggers removed light bulbs so they could work under cover of darkness. CTA workers installed new lightbulbs each morning. The Lakeview section of Lincoln Avenue from Wellington to Roscoe that had boasted 50 retailers in its heyday had a 15 percent vacancy rate.

Then in February 1996, Whole Foods set its sights on the neighborhood and opened its second store in Chicago at 3300 N. Ashland Avenue.

The neighborhood of Polish, German and other European immigrant homeowners who competed for supremacy in snow removal and yard maintenance, now could walk down the block to a Whole Foods where 20-something grocery clerks sported purple hair, tattoos and nose rings. The juice bar sold wheat grass shots and non-GMO snacks just down the street from a 67-year-old German butcher shop, the Paulina Meat Market.

That was just the start. Local entrepreneurs started opening specialty stores. A laundromat made way for a bead and jewelry-accessory store. A runners’ shoe and apparel store and a high-end “Eye Spy” optical shop opened on formerly vacant lots. Soon after, Starbucks brought its first store into the neighborhood and the hippy-themed Kerouac Jack’s bar and restaurant became a dropoff site for e-commerce orders.

The transformation eventually sent demand for commercial spaces higher and resulted in renovated houses and rising property values. The neighborhood is now transformed from just 10 years ago, with townhouses taking the place of a former car dealership and repair shop, and a new Paulina el stop looking every bit like a Taj Mahal stop, with no barbed wire in sight.

On the West Side, a mostly commercial corridor was strengthened when the city’s first Wal-Mart store opened in 2006. Not long after, a CVS drugstore, a Starbucks, an Aldi grocery store and a Menards home-improvement store opened nearby.

This kind of development, filling vacant lots with household-name stores, reflects how retailers move in herds, so when a bellwether company such as Whole Foods, Wal-Mart or Starbucks moves in, others follow to take advantage of the foot traffic, knowing that the initial groundbreaker did its homework.

The South Loop shows how an industrial site centered around railroad tracks can be transformed into a retail complex that attracts multi-racial, multi-generational and multicultural customers.

Southgate Market, anchored by Whole Foods and the nearby Roosevelt Collection retail mall and 16-screen movie theater, lets local residents shop, eat and see a movie, all on formerly fallow land.

Indeed, after billions of dollars in investment, the South Loop, roughly bounded by Congress Parkway on the north (some say Van Buren), Cermak Road on the south, the lake on the east and Halsted Street on the west, the population more than doubled from 2000 to 2014, and a good local elementary school is bursting at the seams with nearly 900 students—nearly twice its built-for capacity of 580.

The growth has prompted Rush University Medical Center to announce a new outpatient health center at 1411 S. Michigan Ave., part of a 15-story residential/retail/office development slated for a 2018 opening, following similar medical clinics already opened by Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

And in Hyde Park, ask the president of University of Chicago how plans are going to boost the neighborhood and he’ll tell you to eat at A10. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he told the story of how the ivory-towered university recruited the fine-dining restaurant, along with other notable retailers, to Hyde Park as part of efforts to better compete with rivals nationwide offering retail amenities to students.

A10 is run by Matthias Merges, a Charlie Trotter-trained chef who also opened Japanese-inspired Yusho Hyde Park, patterned after Merges’ Yusho in Avondale. These restaurants (and a new Chipotle — with lines frequently out of the door) are part of a renewed Harper Court development, now thriving with new locally owned businesses, movie theaters and new residential developments.

There are big box stores, full service grocery stores, specialty shops and restaurants recently opened in Pullman, North Kenwood and Bronzeville. These retail development projects provide existing residents with convenient goods and services giving them a new reason not to move out of (or shop out of) their neighborhood. At the same time these new stores are helping to create more “choice” neighborhoods increasing population in the city.

All eyes are now on the Englewood, which has ranked as one of Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods, as Whole Foods, Chipotle and Starbucks have opened. The expectation is that this retail development, known as Englewood Square, will be a special place serving shoppers from a wide area and jumpstarting additional investment in residential and commercial projects. The developers are betting that this neighborhood will experience a near-miraculous makeover — starting with one substantial, reputable and trend-setting retailer staking its flag.

The city boasts big enough shoulders to attract quality stores and sit-down restaurants to neighborhoods. City Hall is proactively incentivizing neighborhood retail development and more private sector tools and resources are coming on line. Soon there will be more examples of how we can leverage demonstrative retail entry to retain and attract more middle income individuals and families, transform housing stock and encourage additional investment.

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