The Chicago, IL Woodlawn neighborhood celebrated the grand opening of a new JewelOsco grocery store this past March, following nearly ten years of redevelopment efforts and $410 million of public and private investment, all catalyzed by a $30.5 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant. What initially began as the demolition and redevelopment of a troubled, Section 8 housing development, quickly became a springboard for community-wide renewal once the Choice Neighborhoods award was received in 2011. Leading this revitalization effort was Preservation of Affordable Housing, Inc. (POAH) partnered with the City of Chicago, LISC-Chicago, Community Investment Corporation, residents, and other community stakeholders who are rehabilitating more than 800 units of housing and transforming the surrounding neighborhood.
Early in the Choice Neighborhoods process, the community made establishing a grocery store a top priority. This charge was no small feat given that Woodlawn had experienced
Figure 1: Representatives of the Preservation of Affordable Housing, Terraco, DL3 Realty, the City of Chicago and members of the community cut the ribbon on a new Jewel-Osco in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood.
nearly fifty years of disinvestment and severe problems with crime, abandoned homes, poor schools, unemployment, and limited services. Negative perceptions of the neighborhood meant few grocers were willing to commit to the site. “Retail wasn’t going to lead the development, [investors] needed to see transformation of the neighborhood in action before owners made the investment in the neighborhood,” said Konrad Schlater, Vice President of POAH’s Chicago Region.
One of the first initiatives for the Choice Neighborhoods team was to address the neighborhood’s ailing housing stock and secure a mixed-income resident population that could support commercial investment. Leveraging Choice Neighborhoods Critical Community Improvement (CCI) funds, the team launched the Renew Woodlawn Homeownership Program. The program comprehensively reduced blighted housing and rebranded the neighborhood by redeveloping 59 abandoned houses and helping 36 firsttime buyers own homes. Meanwhile, the redvelopment of the distressed target housing site had a deeply transformative impact. In its place, POAH and their partners constructed and fully leased three new senior and family housing properties, a high-end apartment building with retail space leased to a daycare provider, and neighborhood amenities like MetroSquash, a year-round recreational facility that led to a $7 million investment. The stable income base, visible improvements, and growing sense of community empowerment drastically changed the image of the neighborhood.
Identifying a grocer was an additional challenge. The team contacted a private broker and retail consultants who conducted their own outreach to pitch the site. These experts connected retailers with the surrounding anchor institutions that would support patronage and confirmed the site’s food desert-adjacent status, solidifying a geographic demand. POAH originally attempted to develop the grocery store independently but after a failed effort to lure one grocer they recognized they would benefit from the expertise of an experienced retail developer. After almost five years of various outreach efforts, POAH sold the site to a retail developer who executed a lease with Jewel-Osco, a supermarket chain based in Illinois.
By this point POAH and their partners had managed to attract enough surrounding investment to the high-traffic corridor that they did not need to use Choice Neighborhoods dollars to underwrite the deal. Instead, the City’s support and a discounted land value was enough to attract this major investment. To push the deal to completion, POAH relied on key partners. The Mayor of Chicago was instrumental as he personally contacted the head of Jewel-Osco to emphasize how important it was to get a store in Woodlawn and to hire locally. Jewel-Osco’s commitment to Woodlawn included the complete development of the grocery store, support for local entrepreneurs by
Figure 2: The new Jewel-Osco in Woodlawn brings the first grocery store to the Chicago community in five decades.
shelving their goods, and the creation of a formal hiring process to prioritize local residents.
To facilitate resident employment opportunities, the Choice Neighborhoods team was strongly involved in the Jewel-Osco hiring and training process. The Woodlawn Resource Center (WRC), an employment center that was part of the Choice Neighborhoods initiative, served as an intermediary to connect residents to job training in preparation for the Jewel-Osco employee development pipeline. WRC made a commitment to prepare potential applicants for this robust job training program, helping reduce retailer concerns of high turnover rates and a delayed onboarding process. Since the store’s opening, WRC continues to host job fairs and offer social services for all residents of the neighborhood including computer readiness, resume writing, and interview preparation. As a result of these intentional efforts, Jewel-Osco has employed 370 full- and part-time Woodlawn residents out of 530 total hires.
The comprehensive Choice Neighborhoods community redevelopment effort successfully built an environment in which Jewel-Osco was willing to invest. Now, the grocery store has become a gathering place and draw for local residents, supporting neighboring businesses and establishing a sense of community pride that continues to push progress forward.
Photo: POAH Senior VP Bill Eager speaking at the markets announcement.