Mayor Lori Lightfoot last November celebrated the third anniversary of her signature economic development program Invest South/West with a groundbreaking in the largest neighborhood on the West Side, Austin.
“I cannot in good faith uphold the old status quo. The status quo of only investing in the downtown and the North Side, hoping that dollars would trickle down south of Roosevelt Road or west of Ashland,” Lightfoot said. “The best way to truly serve all 77 of our neighborhoods is finally committing to raising the fortunes and the vibrancy of communities on the South and the West sides that have been starved for resources for far too long.”
That’s a message Lightfoot often repeats and hopes will help propel her to a second term as she works to craft an image of a generational leader whose administration brought about historic spending for disinvested neighborhoods. This past summer, at a separate groundbreaking in the city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side, Lightfoot declared her administration is “doing things that no one else has ever done.”
But a deeper look at Invest South/West paints a much more complex and nuanced picture of what projects the Lightfoot administration has counted as successes, when those plans were conceived, how unique the projects have been compared with previous administrations and how transformative some of the ventures have been for the South and West sides.
Some of the largest investments were already on the launchpad when Lightfoot took office. Others were for standard repairs to existing buildings. And many of the projects are still in the conceptual phase and have not even begun to be built. Of the more than $750 million that the city counts as part of the public spend for Invest South/West, more than half has been allocated toward those kinds of expenditures rather than new or groundbreaking projects, the Tribune found.
Take, for instance, Invest South/West’s biggest project in terms of public cost — the $64 million development of a new headquarters for the Chicago Park District in Brighton Park on the South Side.
While Lightfoot’s administration has overseen parts of the still-unfinished project, the new headquarters was conceived, approved and announced by Lightfoot’s predecessor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who held an event there to celebrate the move from Streeterville in September 2018 — more than a year before Lightfoot unveiled Invest South/West.
Other Invest South/West success stories touted by the mayor’s office include $34 million for a Bronzeville housing development that broke ground before she took office, $30 million for a new firehouse in Roseland that was planned before she got elected, and $17 million for a development in North Lawndale that received key approvals in 2018 and closed in 2019, the same year Lightfoot was elected.
In addition, the administration has included smaller maintenance projects that are often part of the work city government tackles on a routine basis, such as $1 million to replace the heating and air conditioning and repair the exterior of the Chicago Center for Green Technology in Humboldt Park and $1.5 million to renovate stables used to house Chicago police horses in the South Shore neighborhood.
In all, the Tribune examined every Invest South/West project that cost $1 million or more — 108 out of 288 total projects — and found that of the $757 million the city and sister agencies have allocated for projects, at least $409 million was committed for projects that either launched before Invest South/West was unveiled, was for routine government projects such as maintaining field houses or replacing park turf, was for bureaucratic infrastructure such as fixing pipes in fire stations or the work at the horse stables, or was for broader city spending that wasn’t limited to the South and West sides.
The Lightfoot administration acknowledged many of the projects it highlights as Invest South/West success stories were begun before she took office and said that including those projects was always part of the plan it has shared with the public. Administration officials also defended including seemingly routine projects or projects that improved government infrastructure because the work benefits South and West Side neighborhoods.
But as Lightfoot campaigns in those South and West Side neighborhoods whose voters she needs to get reelected, the mayor has often trumpeted the projects as unique investments only she could deliver — claims that critics use to say she’s overstated the program’s achievements.
“I’ve been very intentional about, and unapologetic about, making sure that we infuse the South Side and the West Side with the resources that are necessary to bring to life the vision that so many people in communities all over the South (and) the West Side have had for decades but haven’t had a partner in the mayor’s office to bring them to life,” she said at an August groundbreaking.
To be sure, Lightfoot’s administration has spent millions of dollars in public funds and worked to spur both public and private development in neighborhoods that have experienced generations of disinvestment. But while the mayor regularly invokes Invest South/West as a top strategy, the tagline has become as much a marketing slogan as an economic development program.
“Invest South/West is supposed to be a project where they identified commercial corridors and they were going to pour an influx of money,” said South Side Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, a Lightfoot critic whose ward includes one Invest South/West community. “But what they’re doing is, anything that happens on the South and West Side, they claim as Invest South/West.”
Bernard Loyd, who leads the community revitalization organization Build Bronzeville, said Invest South/West is bringing “pennies on the dollar” compared with megaprojects like The 78, a $7 billion megadevelopment near the South Loop that aspires to be a new Chicago neighborhood. While The 78 is using private funding, the city is working with the developers to truly transform that area, Loyd said.
“The danger is, when we say we’re investing to transform our communities and we’re pointing to Invest South/West, people will say: This hasn’t changed the community and therefore you haven’t invested correctly or it wasn’t worthy. When the reality is, we haven’t invested anything close to what we need to change these communities,” Loyd said. “By not being clear and specific about the investments we’re making, we’re undermining the faith in the value of investments.”
In the South Shore community, where two-dozen Invest South/West projects worth more than $55 million have been promoted by Lightfoot’s administration, community activist Will Calloway, who endorsed Lightfoot for mayor in 2019, said he hasn’t seen tangible benefits from the program, especially for a community that continues to struggle with gun violence.
“Invest South/West, all that is fluff, it’s talking points, it’s propaganda,” Calloway said.
Lightfoot declined repeated requests by the Tribune for an interview about the Invest South/West program.
But Samir Mayekar, Chicago’s deputy mayor for economic development, defended how the city has categorized the program’s spending. He said many projects were launched by the Emanuel administration but that they were identified as Invest South/West initiatives because they could have been canceled by Lightfoot.
“A lot of that capital plan might have started under prior administrations but (the) mayor could have said: Hit pause on everything, redirect everything. But she didn’t,” Mayekar said.
“It’s completely fair to count many of these,” Mayekar said later. “Mayor Lightfoot chose to double down on some of the commitments that have been articulated before, which builds on community plans.”
In the case of the Park District headquarters, Mayekar said the project has cost more than the Emanuel administration first estimated. The Lightfoot administration has covered those added costs, he said.
“That Park District headquarters, that yes, was initially put in place by the prior administration. It’s now well underway on construction because we’ve allocated more funding to it because of Invest South/West,” he said. “There’s a difference between a press release and when someone says they’re going to bring an investment there, to when, you know, the project actually breaks ground.”
The idea behind Invest South/West is not new, but it is straightforward: If government puts money into developments in Black and brown communities where disinvestment is rampant, that can spur more cash from the private sector.
From the beginning, however, Invest South/West has been hard to define. The program was first announced in October 2019, when Lightfoot stepped into a packed house on the West Side to unveil a $10 million gift from BMO Harris Bank to United Way of Metro Chicago, much of which would be spent in the Austin neighborhood.
At the news conference, Lightfoot announced the city was taking $750 million in existing funds and prioritizing investments in 10 areas across the South and West sides, spending it on 12 commercial corridors in those 10 communities to boost development.
Lightfoot indirectly criticized her predecessors, Emanuel and former Mayor Richard M. Daley, for having ignored the needs of the South and West sides.
“As I’m standing here today and I look out on you, I’m reminded of a song we used to sing in church: ‘Pass me not, oh gentle savior, hear my humble cry, while on others thou are calling, do not pass me by,’” Lightfoot said. “And it’s with that thought in mind that I have come to the West Side on many, many occasions, both during the campaign, but also through the course of summer, and I heard the pleas of people on the West Side for once and for all not to be passed by, to be invested in.”
According to the Lightfoot administration, Invest South/West measures all public spending in Auburn Gresham, Austin, Bronzeville, Englewood, New City, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Roseland, South Chicago and South Shore.
In an interview with the Tribune in October, Mayekar said that a project is considered part of Invest South/West if it’s one of those neighborhoods “or directly adjacent.”
In totaling the program’s more than $750 million in investments, the administration included the full amount of costs for all the projects — including dollars allocated before Lightfoot took office — as well as anticipated dollars being allocated but not yet spent on projects for Invest South/West programs.
“It is a wide berth,” Mayekar acknowledged. “But I will say what this program has done successfully is showcase an unprecedented amount of investment commitments in these 10 neighborhoods that is generating follow-on investment and private sector interest in a way that we have not seen for a generation.”
Still, the city’s approach has occasionally resulted in even internal confusion about what is deemed an Invest South/West project.
One example is the renovation of the Dr. Conrad Worrill Track and Field Center at Gately Park, which Emanuel pushed for before he left office but was completed under Lightfoot’s term.
The Lightfoot administration doesn’t list it on a spreadsheet it provided the Tribune of all the city’s Invest South/West projects, according to Mayekar, because it was “kind of well underway,” and “there would not be intellectual fidelity to count it as such.”
Yet the mayor’s administration still issued a news release declaring Gately Stadium “one of the largest investments of the INVEST South/West strategy” and more than a year later, there’s still a sign in front of the building declaring “Invest South/West” above the mayor’s name.
The spreadsheet Lightfoot’s office provided was in response to a Tribune request for the administration to document every dollar spent on Invest South/West projects. The spreadsheet contained about 300 projects, and the Tribune reviewed every one that cost $1 million or more.
At $64 million, the Park District headquarters was the most expensive on the list.
But a review of city and Park District records shows the new Park District headquarters, which borders the Invest South/West neighborhood of New City, was set in motion by Emanuel’s administration in 2018 and that work was underway on it before Lightfoot was sworn in on May 20, 2019.
Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said it isn’t accurate for Lightfoot to take full credit for the headquarters project, which his group helped plan and spoke extensively about with Park District and Emanuel administration officials.
“These projects are years in the making and lots of people were involved in it that didn’t get credit or that weren’t recognized,” Brosnan said. “A lot of people don’t have faith in the system, and part of that is (the perception) that everybody does everything for politics.”
City officials argue that some fledgling projects would have failed without extra government help, even if the original plan was conceived before Lightfoot took office.
For instance, Mayekar said Lightfoot deserves to include the Park District headquarters because it “could have easily fallen apart completely” during a transition in administrations, and that the final cost ended up being more than anticipated.
“More than $10 million was missing from that deal because of construction cost overages,” Mayekar said. “Because of Invest South/West, we found that money to make that project happen.”
Lightfoot officials also include a $30 million Chicago Fire Department station on the Far South Side that Emanuel announced and that city records show his administration identified funding for in July 2018.
Asked why the new firehouse was also included even though records show full funding had been identified, Mayekar reiterated that the mayor could have canceled the project if she had wanted.
“If you’re a business, and you’re investing in Pullman, you are seeing a brand new firehouse that’s one of the largest in the city … and public funds made that happened,” Mayekar said. “I don’t think you’re getting into details about who originally announced it.”
One of the biggest developments Lightfoot included was a $34 million affordable housing project in Bronzeville that was a decade in the making and was partially funded by the city.
The 4400 Grove complex was finished in 2020, after Lightfoot took office. But public records show that local and federal housing officials signed off on the project years earlier and that the groundbreaking took place in February 2019 — before Lightfoot was even elected. At the ribbon-cutting, Lightfoot acknowledged the project was a “10-year journey” and called herself “an interloper in your joy, your hard work.”
Some of the biggest projects under Invest South/West are in Bronzeville but significantly predate her administration. Take 508 Pershing at Oakwood Shores, a nearly $25 million housing development that’s part of a project that began in 2009 and received approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016, according to Chicago Housing Authority meeting minutes.
Ald. Sophia King, 4th, who since 2016 has represented Bronzeville on the City Council and who is running for mayor against Lightfoot, criticized Invest South/West as “a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
“It sounds great to be investing in communities, it is something we should do,” King said. “I think people believe in that. But I think she’s overstating what she’s actually done.”
As part of the Invest South/West catalog, Lightfoot counts 12 streetscape projects with a total cost of $235 million, including a $27 million streetscape on Cottage Grove in Bronzeville. The mayor’s office said its planned streetscapes are more than double what has been in Invest South/West neighborhoods since the 1990s.
But, King noted, the Bronzeville streetscape work hasn’t even started yet.
In fact, none of the 12 streetscapes have been completed, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. The earliest any of them would be finished is 2025, leaving room for projects to change in scope or even be canceled.
Also included is a $1.7 million science lab at Kenwood High School. But, King noted, that isn’t in Bronzeville and was first announced by Emanuel in 2018. Invest South/West lists 17 other science labs at high schools, all of which were also announced by Emanuel.
“They actually had a list of schools and they had some type of metrics on who was getting labs and who wasn’t,” King said.
The Lightfoot administration originally sent the Tribune a spreadsheet listing $6.3 million for a new pedestrian bridge over Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive at 43rd Street as part of Invest South/West. That wasn’t new, either, as it had been in the works since at least 2009 and Emanuel had taken concrete steps in 2014 to make it happen. Emanuel pushed an initiative to rebuild bridges over Lake Shore Drive on the South Side.
Lightfoot’s office removed it from their list of Invest South/West projects later and did not address questions about why.
“We didn’t start with a blank canvas in the 10 Invest South/West neighborhoods — great work from local community leaders and past administrations already existed,” the mayor’s office said to questions about the dozens of projects that were announced or started before Lightfoot unveiled Invest South/West. “Some projects that started under the prior administration aligned with the mission of Invest South/West, so we chose to turbocharge them across the finish line.”
In addition to including projects that began before Invest South/West was started, Lightfoot’s office also has included work that the city routinely completes as well as projects that improved government infrastructure. For instance, Lightfoot’s administration included $1.5 million spent to renovate the stables in the South Shore neighborhood that are used to house horses for the Chicago Police Department. Mayekar said the administration counted the project because it helps beautify the area.
“Having it be improved and look better, you know, there’s a physicality to these projects that also does matter,” he said.
Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th, whose ward includes the horse stables, doubted the renovation was the sort of investment residents wanted when they thought of Invest South/West.
“If you asked the average citizen where they want to see investment, they want to see businesses. They want to see housing. They want to see things that pertain to the day-to-day life. I don’t know how a mounted patrol that serves on the North Side helps the people of South Shore,” Hairston said.
Hairston also noted some of the items in her ward that Lightfoot considers Invest South/West, such as a $1.2 million street resurfacing of Exchange Avenue from 79th Street to Yates Avenue, are “things that should be done anyway.”
The Tribune pressed Lightfoot’s office to explain why routine projects, like street resurfacing roads or repairing field houses, should be counted as Invest South/West projects or to demonstrate that her administration does more of it on the South and West sides than her mayoral predecessors. In its statement, the Lightfoot administration did not specifically address those questions but rather stressed the importance of that sort of work.
“These foundational investments that you call ‘routine’ make a large difference for whether a business or resident will invest in a neighborhood,” the mayor’s office said.
On top of the money the city has spent on various projects, Lightfoot’s administration also has issued 11 requests for proposals to encourage private businesses to redevelop vacant lots or empty buildings across the South and West sides.
In total, the projects represent $379 million in planned projects, on top of the $757 million. But even there, the story is not simple. In September, Crain’s Chicago Business noted that none of the Invest South/West RFPs had started construction.
Months later, none of those redevelopment projects have been completed, and most haven’t broken ground. Indeed, the mayor’s office told the Tribune this month half the projects won’t break ground until the first quarter of 2023 and the other half will break ground by end of the year.
Some residents have been frustrated by the slow pace of development. Others have complained about the city’s selection process.
While Lightfoot frequently says that Invest South/West has focused on listening to members of the community about what their neighborhoods need, the administration has faced criticism for some of its selections and for disregarding public comment. The Illinois Answers Project recently reported on the program’s public input process and numerous residents who feel shut out of any real decision-making.
The first project to break ground was in Auburn Gresham, where the city is working with developers to help construct a two-building, 58-unit, mixed-use complex on 79th Street near Halsted Street. According to the city, it won’t be done until 2024.
The second RFP project to break ground is called Englewood Connect. The project is an attempt by the city to convert an old fire station into a commercial kitchen, establish a business incubator to train startup businesses, and repurpose vacant land for year-round farming operations.
Asiaha Butler, co-founder and executive director of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, who also served on Lightfoot’s Good Government Transition Committee, attended the Englewood Connect groundbreaking and said the project is providing good momentum in the neighborhood. But, Butler said, she would like to see the city do more to help residents stay in their homes and stanch population loss.
“I don’t know if a project like Englewood Connect will lead people to live here,” Butler said.
University of Illinois at Chicago professor Rachel Weber, who studies development and planning, said the city’s requests for proposal projects are all positive developments that can help spur some growth and renewal in their communities. But, she noted, they’re “quite small,” especially compared with megadevelopments on the North Side and near downtown.
“Most of these projects don’t extend beyond a Chicago block,” Weber said, adding whether they’re successful will also take time to determine.
“I don’t doubt the buildings will be built and occupied but for me, the determining factor whether this will have been a successful venture will be what happens post-development to these neighborhoods,” Weber said. “By that time, the mayor is likely not to be there. How do you make sure this is not just a vanity project?”
Chicago Tribune’s Joe Mahr contributed.