Outside of Chicago’s downtown, Greater Chatham is the primary destination for African-American shoppers who live on the city’s South Side. Similar in size to a mid-size city, Greater Chatham is a 15-square mile area that includes the Chatham, Auburn Gresham, Avalon Park and Greater Grand Crossings communities and boasts 122,000 people. Our residents are comprised of low, moderate and middle-income African-American families. We are also home to over 4,500 businesses which generate $712 million in annual sales. These firms employ 51,000 people of which 19% live in Greater Chatham. Greater Chatham is host to many big-box stores including Walmart, Lowes, Target, etc. Our retail sector generates $234 million in annual sales. While 80% of theses retail sales are at the big-box stores, the remaining 20% are at the small retail and service providers located on our local strips. To retain and expand our small businesses and increase the number of local merchants located on these strips, development plans must be devised and implemented to siphon traffic from the big-box stores. Failure to support these merchants will place them at ever-greater risk as big-box retailers continue to expand.
Greater Chatham lost 15% of its population from 2000 to 2015. The area is experiencing the hollowing out of the middle-class and professional residents to other communities that have robust and rich arrays of consumer businesses located on vibrant retail corridors.
Downtown Chatham Project
To retain the destination shoppers who already frequent Greater Chatham, and to attract the revenue of middle-and upper-income African-American consumers who reside outside of our communities, the Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI) is creating Downtown Chatham, a destination retail corridor with an up-market identity and unique array of consumer products and services with a distinct, African-American vibe. Destination merchants including Soul Vegetarian, Lem’s Barbeque and Brown Sugar Bakery currently attract customers to Greater Chatham from across the City, the Midwest and the nation. Patrons believe the Chatham location gives these merchants and their foods ethnic authenticity.
Downtown Chatham’s boundaries include: 75th Street between Wabash and Cottage Grove Avenues, Cottage Grove Avenue between 75th and 79th Streets and 79th Street between Michigan and Maryland Avenues. Downtown Chatham has 166 active business licenses, (an unusually high number for a commercial corridor), and a substantial concentration of vintage character buildings along its streets, including Chicago Landmarks and properties listed in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS).
The creation of the Downtown Chatham retail corridor will be a significant resource in the economic stabilization and expansion of the Greater Chatham community. The Whitney M. Young, Jr. Library, a current attraction on a 3-block portion of the retail corridor extending east along 79th Street from King Drive to St. Lawrence Street, draws an average of 75 children per day during the academic year and 225 youths per day during the summer months from Greater Chatham and nearby neighborhoods. This strip has two early childcare and education centers supporting local and nearby residents. Despite the daily traffic of families entering the community for these destinations, there are few retail merchants nearby to attract and retain the interest of families with children. 25 real estate parcels are located along the same 3-block strip. These buildings house 54 storefronts of which 17 (30%) are vacant. Many of these vacant storefronts are marginally habitable and must be improved, to attract the best merchant mix. To meet this end, we are engaging the Greater Chatham communities and other stakeholders to plan a new, creative identity for an ethnically distinct Downtown Chatham retail corridor similar to Chicago’s Chinatown and Pilsen downtowns.
Research into upgrading the facades of private mixed-use buildings with signage, decals, banners, outdoor furniture, planters, plants and sculpture is underway. We have partnered with Harvard Loeb Fellowship Program and the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD), who subsequently engaged the Congress for New Urbanism, the Driehaus Foundation, Chicago Transportation Authority’s Make Way for People and Farr & Associates to establish design guidelines for Downtown Chatham. The guidelines include:
- Improvements to existing buildings, including historic restorations;
- Canopies, awnings, and other signage standards showcasing a Chatham identity;
- Best practices in retail space layouts;
- Best practices in universal design standards supporting children and senior interests;
- New signs and the removal/replacement of intrusive signs;
- Incorporation of streetscape elements such as street furnishings, planters, trees, and Parklets;
- Ideas for vacant sites and infrastructure improvements;
- Best practices for defensible spaces and safe routes.
Downtown Chatham’s retail corridor is the beneficiary of several City of Chicago initiatives aimed at stimulating economic growth and fostering residential, commercial and mixed-use development investment opportunities. These initiatives include:
- Designation of two (2) Tax Increment Financing Districts;
- Establishment of a Special Service Area #51 (SSA);
- Designation of the Chatham Retail Thrive Zone and the Chicago Neighborhood NOW;
- Micro-Market Recovery Program;
- Designation as a Chicago Landmark District;
- Creation of a Kids Zone (Summer 2017);
- Creation of Commercial Design Guidelines for Downtown Chatham (Summer/Fall 2017)
- Installation of a Boom Box (Fall 2017); and
- Mid-Century Commercial District (upcoming).
During the summer 2017, Chicago Neighborhoods NOW and Retail Thrive Zone business and property owners along the retail corridor began collectively receiving >$1 ¼ million grants to improve their commercial properties and lower taxes for up to ten years. Awardees will comply with the Commercial Design Guidelines for Downtown Chatham. These beneficiaries include:
FIR – 79th & Evans, LLC
Larry’s Barber College
Steve Thomas’ property
7852 Eberhart, LLC
Original Soul Vegetarian
740 E. 79th St.
701 E. 79th St.
431 E. 79th St.
436 E. 79th St.
7856 S. Eberhart Ave.
8145 S. Cottage Grove
203 E. 75th St.
Brown Sugar Bakery
Looks and Styles
The Fashion Revival Boutique
328 E. 75th St.
332 E. 75th St.
405 E. 75th St.
312 E. 75th St.
460 E. 75th St.
209 E. 75th St.
Downtown Chatham is a Safe Zone for younger families, older residents, local customers, employees, and tourists alike. In addition, by design, the project will support an improved merchant mix for family-friendly Kid’s Zone, where brick-and-mortar businesses attract a citywide consumer market, whose online retail presence attracts customers nationwide and all participate in the concept of “Buying Chatham.” As vacant storefronts are occupied, Downtown Chatham becomes a destination. As consumer traffic increases and existing businesses expand, there is the reasonable expectation that employment opportunities will increase along the corridor and within the nearby communities. The >4,500 employers have more reasons to stay in the area that has more dining and shopping. Synergy is created when this project is connected to the City of Chicago
- Retail Thrive and Chicago Neighborhood NOW which provides grants to merchant and property owners to improve their storefronts; and
- the City of Chicago Micro-Market Recovery Program, a neighborhood stabilization initiative that incents homeowners to reoccupy blighted properties that are in two small geographic areas that experiencing higher-than-normal vacant and troubled properties problems. These MMRP areas include a portion of Downtown Chatham’s retail strip and an area just north of the strip that, if improved, can enhance the Downtown experience.
Therefore, retail entrepreneurs, along with the Greater Chatham communities, located in a well-branded, effectively marketed and revitalized Downtown Chatham will realize significant economic benefits while contributing to Chicago’s growing economy.