Traffic was unusually heavy along 63rd Street in Englewood the morning of September 28, 2016. Students were trying to get to school and residents were trying to get to work, but a large number of the community was going to the grand opening of the Whole Foods Market on 63rd Street and Halsted. The light drizzle did not stop the line from growing as the crowd gathered to enter the store.
For years residents have talked about what it would take to get the desolate corner, that once boasted the busiest retail district outside of downtown Chicago, to thrive again. Leon Walker, founder of DL3 Realty, LP, was the backbone of the movement to bring higher-quality retail into Englewood. His mother grew up in the community and has fond memories of it, but now Englewood has been portrayed in the news as a community of poverty, crime and abandonment.
Mr. Walker understands the community better than the media and used his business savvy as an attorney and developer to build a network to help his company develop the property at 63rd and Halsted and attract national retailers to Englewood. This task was not an easy one given that the median income of a household is less than $29,000 compared to the area median income for Chicago which is at $61,600 for a family of two (2016 City of Chicago, Economic Development).
Besides the Whole Foods, Walker attracted Chipotle and Starbucks to the shopping center. How did this happen?
Alderman JoAnn Thompson of the 16th Ward was a champion of the effort, and she convinced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to get behind this movement. The Mayor made a phone call to the CEO of Whole Foods, and Walker was challenged with putting the financing in place to develop the property.
Chicago Community Loan Fund was one of many financers that provided capital to get this project completed. CCLF provided a predevelopment loan of $500,000 using U.S. Treasury CDFI Fund Healthy Food Financing Initiative dollars and other funders included PNC, Chicago Development Fund and Fundrise. Walker also secured New Market Tax Credits and Tax Increment Financing for the deal.
The Grand Opening yielded a number of tents offering samples of healthy products now available to the community. Healthy food at affordable prices was a major concern of the residents, and Whole Foods responded with a pricing structure and products that are specialized to meet the needs of Englewood families. Together the retailers in the Englewood Square center will be providing 200 new jobs for local residents. Starbucks and Whole Foods are proving a training center for opportunity youth. Teaching the youth about healthy eating is an important goal of Alderman Toni Faulkes, who took over the 16th Ward after the untimely death of Alderman Thompson. “67% of the students at Harper High School never stepped into a grocery store. They will now learn how to cut a whole chicken and identify a strawberry,” she explained during the “Breaking of the Bread” ceremony. Mayor Emanuel commended Whole Foods for answering the call and working closely with the community to design a store with their input. As a result, Whole Foods will have a Community Room with a bust of Alderman JoAnn Thompson as an ever present reminder of the goodness that is present in Englewood.
With the opening of the Whole Foods and Starbucks, Walker stated this project meant coming back home for him. “We broke 50 years of disinvestment in this neighborhood,” he said. “This is about restoring hope back to Englewood!”