August 12, 2016

Industry rediscovers the other Chicago

JOE CAHILL ON BUSINESS
 
Chicago-industry-rediscovers-impoverished-neighborhood.jpg
Photo by Ware MalcombA rendering of the proposed a development at Roosevelt Road and Kildare Avenue

A budding industrial renaissance in Chicago is taking another step forward, reaching a neighborhood that really needs a boost.

As my colleague Alby Gallun reported, developer Clarius Partners is proposing a $43 million industrial/retail project for 21 acres of vacant city-owned land in North Lawndale on the West Side. According to plan documents, the 380,000-square-foot complex at Roosevelt Road and Kostner Avenue would bring 380 jobs.

This is the latest in a series of recent industrial initiatives in communities hungry for jobs and investment. Earlier this year, Whole Foods announced plans for a warehouse employing 150 people on a former Ryerson steel site in Pullman on the South Side, alongside a newly opened Method soap factory. Online retail giant Amazon last year leased a warehouse on the near Southwest Side not far from a 317,000-square-foot warehouse Panattoni Development recently built.

The Clarius project advances this trend in important ways. First, it signals that industrial redevelopment in outlying Chicago neighborhoods has more room to run. That's good news because such investments can put a dent in Chicago's social and fiscal problems. Industrial jobs paying decent wages open a path to middle-class life for people in areas where opportunities have been diminishing for decades. And as business activity picks up in depressed sections, new streams of tax revenue will flow into depleted city coffers.

It's good to see a project of this scope on the West Side. Many of the other major redevelopments lately have been on the South or Southwest sides. But West Side neighborhoods like North Lawndale need job-creating investments just as much, if not more. Hammered by a double-whammy of 1960s riots and deindustrialization in the 1970s and '80s, North Lawndale has seen its unemployment rate rise to 25 percent, according to a city planning department report on Clarius' proposal.

REVISING 'TALE OF TWO CITIES'

A successful project on the Roosevelt Road site also would demonstrate the potential of other large open tracts around town. Just two miles north lie 30 acres where a Brach's candy factory once employed 3,500. Today it's an expanse of gravel waiting for somebody to capitalize on its proximity to the Eisenhower Expressway, downtown and the western suburbs. An even bigger opportunity is the vast lakefront tract near South Shore where U.S. Steel'sSouth Works plant once stood.

Abandoned years ago as too small, outdated or far from a consumer base fleeing for the suburbs, old industrial properties are looking more attractive as people and jobs return to the central city. Many are well-positioned to serve as distribution hubs for shippers like Amazon offering same-day or even one-hour delivery to customers in and around downtown. You can't do that from Romeoville or Kenosha.

Projects like the Clarius development also can help rewrite the “tale of two cities” narrative that has spun out of the downtown revival. Many emphasize that large areas of Chicago have seen little benefit from an economic resurgence concentrated in a cluster of neighborhoods around the Loop. Outlying neighborhoods struggle to attract jobs while we celebrate McDonald's headquarters move to the West Loop.

Yet we're starting to see a spillover effect. Whole Foods wouldn't have built a warehouse in Pullman if it didn't have several stores in gentrified areas ringing downtown. And growing numbers of relatively affluent consumers in those areas make the Southwest Side an excellent distribution base for Amazon.

There's a long way to go, and no guarantee that Clarius will succeed. But at this stage of the game, Chicago needs industrial redevelopment projects more than big-name headquarters moves.