SOUTH CHICAGO — For years, South Commercial Avenue in South Chicago served the area's steelworkers with locally owned restaurants and mom and pop service shops.
It still serves as South Chicago's commercial corridor, but like the area's three steel mills, Commercial Avenue has seen many of its small businesses disappear.
Now, community leaders and the University of Illinois at Chicago are working on a plan to revitalize the business district along Commercial Avenue. Those involved in the plan hope not only to revitalize the district, but also to turn the lakefront neighborhood into a destination on the Far South Side.
"We had theaters, dining, entertainment," said Dan Lira, president of the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce. "When the steel mills closed, we lost all that. Now, we're asking, how do we create the incentives to bring people out to South Chicago?"
The neighborhood, one of the city's oldest, is celebrating its 180th birthday this summer, Lira said. With that, he said the neighborhood needs to think of the future and consider what Commercial Avenue should look like in the years to come.
"Do we want niche [stores]? Anchor stores? An entertainment district?" Lira said. "We're creating a blueprint for what we want the area to look like."
A meeting is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at 9204 S. Commercial Ave. to discuss the plan and for residents to give feedback.
Last year, Lira reached out to Jack Rocha, research specialist at the UIC Great Cities Institute. The two began putting together a plan that would help the community strategically plan for the future of Commercial Avenue, roughly between 83rd Street and 93rd Street.
Today, Commercial Avenue is still clearly the heart of South Chicago. Six bus routes run down the stretch of Commercial, with a Metra electric stop two blocks away.
But more than a few storefronts are empty, with their buildings looking downtrodden. Lira said the area's existing problems include loitering, panhandling and littering. The first step of the community's redevelopment plan is to physically clean up the business corridor, Lira said.
Some of these issues stem from the loss of industrial jobs at the area's three steel mills, the last of which closed in 1992. Like other South and West side neighborhoods, the exodus of well-paying jobs has hurt out the community. South Chicago's median income is now $29,453 — more than $17,000 less than the city-wide median income.
Community leaders, with input from the public, have been working for a year to reverse Commercial Avenue's fortunes.
Included in the group's working plan is what the community would like to see come to Commercial Avenue. Among the recommendations is a brewery — a bit of a lofty goal, but one the group is dedicated to achieving.
"I was surprised, too," Lira said of the brewery choice. "We got some good feedback from [brewers] groups."
Other recommendations from the community include a movie theater, cafe, bakery bike shop and toy store. The group is also thinking about establishing a "business incubator" to help small business owners looking to invest in the area.
Community leaders also want to increase the housing stock along Commercial Avenue near 87th Street, including the construction of a new mixed use-development featuring apartments and first-floor retail space. More density will help boost the small businesses, according to the group's plan.
There are existing businesses and attractions the group wants to highlight and further develop, including a host of small Mexican grocers.
"The community likes that they have niche, ethnic, mom-and-pop stores," said Rocha, the UIC researcher. "They would like to build on that."
Much of the redevelopment will include a branding effort to help spread the word about South Chicago's culture and existing businesses. Lira said the neighborhood already has the oldest Mexican Independence Day parade, though Pilsen's parade gets more recognition.
Pilsen and Lakeview are used as examples throughout the group's plan for their efforts to brand the neighborhoods. Branded bike racks, like those found in East Lakeview, could go a long way towards fostering alternative transportation modes as well as build a sense of community, the plan says.
So far, businesses in the area are on board, Lira said. He said the McDonald's at 92nd and Commercial has already pledged to renovate by 2017.
"We have a plan and we want buy-in from building owners," Lira said. "I think a lot of them have been waiting for that."
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