In 2015, the Great Cities Institute (GCI) provided data and performed preliminary work for a planning process for revitalization of the West Chicago Avenue commercial corridor in Chicago’s Austin community. In collaboration with neighborhood-based community organization Austin Coming Together, GCI assisted with the beginning stages of a community-based planning process with key neighborhood stakeholders such as residents, business owners, additional community organizations, service providers, and elected officials. The process was carried forward by Austin Coming Together in partnership with LISC Chicago and released as the Austin Quality-of-Life Plan in December 2018.
Like many Chicago neighborhoods in recent decades, the Austin community has experienced rapid social and economic shifts including population decline, job loss, economic restructuring, and a declining economic base, which has left the community with issues of poverty, unemployment, institution loss, and scarce resources to deal with these challenges. Chicago Avenue, once a thriving corridor serving the community’s upwardly mobile middle and working class, today reflects the social and economic transformations of the neighborhood. The disinvestment on Chicago Avenue is evident by the corridor’s business vacancies, boarded-up storefronts, neglected vacant lots, and an unhealthy business mix. What were once largely locally-owned businesses catering to the everyday needs of the local residents are now mostly chain stores (fast food restaurants, discount stores, check cashing businesses), that offer limited goods and services requiring residents to leave the neighborhood to meet their everyday needs.
Commercial revitalization efforts attempt to foster the resurgence of commercial activities through a variety of strategies aimed at establishing and sustaining economic activity. Utilizing a participatory planning process enhances the potential for the commercial corridor plan to make strong and long-lasting impacts in the community. Identifying the challenges (potential or actual) small business owners’ face and gaining resident’s insight into their views and desires for the corridor can go a long way towards formulating the strategies that enhance the economic activities on the corridor. One aspect of the participatory planning process, a design workshop, gives stakeholders a forum to discuss the implementation of a unique identity for the corridor. When the corridor is redeveloped according to the input and desires of the community stakeholders, residents are more likely to utilize the corridor, patronizing the businesses of the corridor, and positively identify with the corridor that was created with their own vision.
The enhancement of the business environment is a key intervention point that can catalyze further positive change in the social and economic life in the community that has to be part of a holistic effort to address the systemic problems facing Austin. Proper implementation of the plan can have a spill-over effect in the community and enhance the great work done by Austin community organizations to stabilize the housing market, and enhance the skills of and job opportunities for the local workforce.