Lightfoot pushes back on claim that Invest South/West more talk than action

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday pushed back hard against the notion that her signature plan to rebuild 10 South and West Side commercial strips is more talk than action.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for Englewood Connect, a $13.9 million reuse of a landmark firehouse at 6204 S. Green St., fueled Lightfoot’s fiery defense.

The historic building that "refused to be demolished," as Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox put it, once housed Engine Company 84. Now, it will be transformed into a "culinary food hub" and business incubator that includes a commercial kitchen and community event space.


"Folks, there are many out there who are skeptical. Who think that we’re not actually doing something. And someone actually had the audacity to say and write, ‘Invest South/West — interesting vision but not materializing,’" Lightfoot told a crowd at Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony.

"I’m gonna invite that writer to come to this community. I’m gonna invite him to come to Auburn Gresham. To Bronzeville. Because if you sit down on Michigan Avenue and you write something, you better know what you’re talking about. Because we are seeing tangible, concrete evidence that Invest South/West is changing the fortunes of communities that have been disinvested in for far too long."

A rendering provided by the city shows the inside of a rehabbed Chicago Fire Department station in Englewood. The former home of Engine 84 is being turned into a culinary hub. (City of Chicago)

Lightfoot challenged the reporter from Crain’s Chicago Business who portrayed her showcase initiative as more show than go to "come out to this community and tell them … that we aren’t doing anything."

The "truth is far different, and you all know that," she told the crowd. "Englewood shouldn’t be a community with 30% unemployment. We can change that around. But we’ve got to be intentional about doing it and unapologetic about building Black and brown wealth. We deserve it. We’ve been left out for far too long. And we are not gonna turn around. Not now. Not in this time. We’ve got to keep forging forward, and we will do just that."

A $6 million tax increment-financing subsidy — and a $1 price tag for the nearly century-old firehouse and city-owned land valued at $417,000 — made Tuesday’s Englewood groundbreaking possible.

Lightfoot described the project known as "Englewood Connect" as a "culinary center" that will offer "healthy food options" and "create a community living room where neighbors can meet and mingle."

A rendering of what the culinary hub called Englewood Connect will look like when complete. In the background is a former Chicago Fire Department building that once housed Engine Company 84 and will be part of the new development. (City of Chicago)

"Better yet, this project will offer fresh, healthy food year-round by repurposing vacant land with hoop houses to provide year-round farming operations," she said.

Cox said he is happy the project will bring new life to an old building.

When the Green Street firehouse "with all of this Tudor detail" was completed in 1929, it would have been "very hard for them to imagine the neighborhood’s challenges and opportunities" nearly a century later, Cox said.

But neighborhoods like Englewood have an "incredible capacity to bounce back," he said.

"You know what’s also resilient? Buildings are resilient. And despite the waves of demolition, there are certain buildings that remain. They’re like silent witnesses that are looking at history and saying, ‘I’ve served you for generations. I survived. I’m still here. Reuse me,’" the commissioner said.

"So what’s amazing about the story of Englewood Connect is that this is a story of resiliency. Of a building that refused to be demolished," he said.

A rendering of what the culinary hub called Englewood Connect will look like when complete. In the background is a former Chicago Fire Department building that once housed Engine Company 84 and will be part of the new development. (City of Chicago)

The project is expected to soften what Lightfoot has called the "gut blow" from Amazon’s decision to close the Whole Foods store in Englewood just south of the firehouse.

The store was famously lured to the neighborhood by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a grand experiment that Lightfoot claims was doomed from the start. The store is slated to close for good in mid-November.

Developer Leon Walker will then have six months to find a replacement grocer, as required by his redevelopment agreement with the city.

"As I … reflect on the last three years and so many challenges that we have faced — not only as a city, but in Englewood — I really think and know that today confirms just how resilient we are," said local Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th), whose mother and predecessor was in attendance and recognized by the mayor.

"As I look at the store that will be leaving, I am hopeful for the future of Englewood Connect being built by someone who looks like me and being developed by a man who looks like me as well," she said.