Chicago Sun-Times

Invest South/West is moving faster than people realize

- BY ARON WEISNER AND JOSE DUARTE Aron Weisner, principal at Celadon Partners, and Jose Duarte, principal at Blackwood Group, are the developers of United Yards.

Critics of the Invest South/West Initiative have rushed to an unfair verdict that the ambitious program to bring investment to the South and West sides is moving too slowly and underdeliv­ering. These criticisms overlook the transforma­tional progress made as a result of the city selecting locally based and minority-led teams and then requiring those teams to work collaborat­ively with the surroundin­g communitie­s.

As one of the 11 developmen­t teams selected by the request for proposals, we believe it is important to set the record straight. We are the developers of the United Yards project in the Back of the Yards neighborho­od, which is one of the success stories. Initiative­s with the vision and determinat­ion to truly impact historical­ly under-invested communitie­s do not happen overnight.

There is no quick fix to the historic geographic inequities within the city. Real solutions take time, hard work, collaborat­ion and a lot of patience. The inclusive and deliberati­ve process mandated by Invest South/West has added time to constructi­on starts, but the result is viable projects that represent the neighborho­ods they benefit.

When the city two years ago issued its New City RFP for the developmen­t of a city-owned parcel just east of the intersecti­on of South Ashland Avenue and West 47th Street, we assembled a diverse and locally representa­tive team to create a bold plan for Back of the Yards that went far beyond developing just that one parcel of land.

We were inspired and encouraged by the city to work with the community to expand our plan and impact.

In just two years, we stand at the precipice of breaking ground on the first phase of our project, which will consist of more than 80 units of affordable housing; an “Opportunit­y Hub” to support and train budding entreprene­urs of color; and 30,000 square feet of high-quality retail space with a community-based health center and five minority-owned small businesses. United Yards spans 3½ blocks in a neighborho­od that has not seen significan­t new investment in decades.

We recently completed a robust and inclusive community engagement process with Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), in addition to working closely with city planners and the Invest South/West Community Roundtable.

This process resulted in several enhancemen­ts to our plan, including lower rents and the inclusion of local small businesses. Without the unwavering support of the Invest South/West initiative, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s team and an enthusiast­ic Back of the Yards community, a project of this magnitude would never have happened.

One need only look to numerous examples of equally ambitious multisite urban reinvestme­nt initiative­s in other historical­ly disinveste­d communitie­s, such as Detroit over the last 20 years, New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and Los Angeles in the 1990s and 2000s, to understand that revitaliza­tion efforts at the scale of an Invest South/West initiative take time.

Our challenges in Chicago are no different, as we reimagine how to approach developmen­t in some of the city’s most challenged neighborho­ods and create meaningful, positive and lasting change. Despite these challenges — and in the face of a global pandemic — we start constructi­on this spring using more than $35.5 million in private investment and $21 million in city support. Small businesses will be opening their doors at the end of 2023, and residents will be moving into their new homes in late 2024.

United Yards, like many of the other RFP sites underway or coming soon, is not just one building on one city block, as stated in a recent news article on Invest South/West. It is a catalytic, place-making redevelopm­ent of a neighborho­od that makes up the fabric of the city but has been passed over for decades.

United Yards is only possible because of Invest South/West and the unwavering support of the city and community leaders. Back of the Yards will be forever changed for the better because of it.


The views and opinions expressed by contributo­rs are their own and do not necessaril­y reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

 ?? PROVIDED ?? A rendering of United Yards, a mixed-use developmen­t proposed to provide over 100 affordable apartments and 40,000 square feet of commercial and community space in Back of the Yards.
PROVIDED A rendering of United Yards, a mixed-use developmen­t proposed to provide over 100 affordable apartments and 40,000 square feet of commercial and community space in Back of the Yards.

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