Shops and Lofts at 47: Transforming Bronzeville or an Unlikely Solution?

Shops and Lofts at 47, Cottage Grove, 47th Street, Chicago, Bronzeville
This commercial and residential construction project, The Shops and Lofts at 47 in Bronzeville, is expected to be completed in 2014. It will feature a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market and mixed-income housing units. (photo/Ali Trumbull)

By Ali Trumbull and Sadé Carpenter

After seven years of changes and setbacks, The Shops and Lofts at 47 at the corner of 47th Street and Cottage Grove in the Bronzeville neighborhood have broken ground.

The project should be finished sometime in 2014 with a 41,000 square-foot Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, 14,000 square-foot local retail space and 96 rental apartments.

An effort to improve and transform the Bronzeville neighborhood, the rental apartments will be mixed-use with 28 units receiving both Chicago Housing Authority and Low Income Housing Tax Credit subsidies, 44 units receiving low-income tax credit subsidies, and 24 units will be market price.

“From a community perspective the deeper question is, was there or is there a community benefit from the agreement that in fact empowers the lower income community from a bottom-up perspective,” Harold Lucas, the President and CEO of Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council said. “I assure you that was not there.”

Lucas is also the Director of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center. He’s thankful that something is happening to improve the Bronzeville neighborhood’s housing and retail options, but does not think this project is empowering the lower and middle class.

“For the city of Chicago to put an anchor project on Cottage Grove that doesn’t tell us how it fits more broadly with the other things that are happening west of there, it is to me like putting a Trojan horse into a community and taking that community over,” Lucas said.

Dr. William Sampson, a DePaul University professor who specializes in educational policy, urban studies/poverty, housing and race, thinks the project will not be successful.

“If I had to bet, I’d bet it can’t work,” Sampson said. “Particularly the housing piece of it, I don’t see the market for the housing piece, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Bronzeville has “changed vastly,” Sampson said, because of a population increase in the 1960s and early 1970s. He said that with more people in the community, they had to divvy the brownstones built for one family and accommodate a couple families, deteriorating the housing market rapidly.

The biggest issue for Sampson is the idea of the mixed-use housing. The Shops and Lofts at 47 would have units for people with a lower income but also units for people that can afford market price housing.

“I just don’t see the demand for that kind of housing there,” Sampson said. “If you look around just a couple blocks north and east of there, that there are developers that put up new housing, a lot of that still stands empty.”

Dr. Adrienne Holloway, a DePaul University assistant professor in the School of Public Service, agreed with Sampson that filling those units will not be easy.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge to fill those units with anything other than CHA tenants,” said Holloway, who teaches public policy and began her career in community development working in South Bronx in New York City; 5th ward in Houston; and East L.A with a focus on building affordable housing in poor neighborhoods, assisting non-profit organizations with housing development, and resident services.

Sampson said he believes that Wal-Mart, the main retail attraction for The Shops and Lofts at 47, will not help the Bronzeville community flourish.

“For the current population, yes, that works,” Sampson said. “It does nothing to improve the quality of life in that community. It’s designed for poor and working class folks and I guess the developers are figuring that’s what we have now and that’s what we’re [going to] have, but if it were me, I’d be thinking about how do I restore Bronzeville.”

Norman Montgomery, a former Bronzeville resident and the Chief Information Officer of Board of Directors at the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, thinks the Wal-Mart is a problem for local businesses in the area.

Bronzeville, Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, Chicago, Norman Montgomery
Norman Montgomery, of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, grew up in the Ida B. Wells homes in Bronzeville, and lived there until 1961. He is concerned that the opening of Wal-Mart will lead to the closure of local businesses. (photo/Ali Trumbull)

“Once you bring a Wal-Mart into that scenario, you’re going to kill every small business up and down 47th street that has any product in competition with Wal-Mart,” Montgomery said. “The Save-A-Lot across the street will be gone in two years.”

Mayor Emanuel’s new program, Chicago Neighborhoods Now, is designed to improve seven communities in Chicago—including Bronzeville. He has said the development is the beginning of working toward a better community.

“Neighborhoods are the fabric of Chicago,” Mayor Emanuel said in a press release from the mayor’s press office. “Communities need anchors, and these ‘Shops and Lofts’ will create an important foundation for more jobs, more housing, and more goods and services along 47th Street and beyond.”

Sampson argued that these jobs are not fulfilling.

“The people hired to work at the retail store are (going to) get minimum wage and non-union jobs,” Sampson said. “Now, is that better than nothing? Yeah, but not a whole lot and that’s what those kinds of places pay. And the construction job is (going to) be over in a couple of years. They’re gone, then what?”

Dr. Holloway is worried about future employment opportunities beyond the construction project. The Shops and Lofts at 47 are expected to provide 144 temporary jobs and 100 permanent jobs.

Said Holloway: “It sounds nice that they’re bringing jobs to the community, but it’s always a matter of what type of jobs are we bringing to the community? Are these jobs that are going to help people improve their financial and socio-economic status?”

Lucas encourages the conversation about inclusion and breaking the cycle of poverty among the masses with remedial-level jobs that prevent people from turning to crime to support their family. Montgomery supports that conversation.

“Today, with the amount of people fighting recidivism and prison, fighting poverty, they are basically left to their own devices and fewer and fewer of those devices are legal,” Montgomery said. “If you can honestly stand back and in the name of economic development take one opportunity after another and give it to someone that is already successful and take it away from those who are still struggling for that success, you leave them no tools, you leave them no boots, you leave them no bootstraps.”

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