Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives impacting Pullman

By Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul
Assistant to the Editor

Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI), a non-profit community development organization, has been behind a wave of recent commercial expansion and preservation activity in the South Side’s Pullman neighborhood.

Despite its namesake and involvement in other neighborhoods, CNI has had a disproportionate impact on Pullman. Headquartered at the U.S. Bank building standing alongside 111th St. and the Bishop Ford Highway, CNI, which also provides small business loans and tax credits, has refurbished area homes and planned the development of Pullman Park, a multimillion dollar retail and residential complex scheduled for completion this year.

The reason for CNI’s activity in Pullman lies in the group’s history, says president David Doig, an Austin neighborhood resident and the superintendent of the Chicago Park District before arriving at the organization in 2007.

“It’s our own backyard,” Doig said.

CNI began as Pullman Bank Initiatives, incorporated in 1999 by Pullman Bank and Trust Company, according to a Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago brochure. The organization was later rechristened as Park Bank Initiatives as a result of Park National Bank’s acquisition of Pullman Bank and Trust Company.

Park Bank Initiatives was renamed again months after U.S. Bank’s 2009 purchase of Park National Bank, and CNI was born in July 2010 as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Preserving homes in Pullman’s depressed northern section has been a recent focus of CNI’s, according to Doig.

“A lot of our activity in the last three years has been in North Pullman,” Doig said, adding that it “was developed by Pullman at the same time, but the area’s gone under much more of a decay and deterioration and higher levels of disinvestment and foreclosure.”

Despite being in a designated a Chicago Landmark District, those areas in Pullman that lie north of 111th St. — often called “North Pullman” — were listed as one of the city’s seven most threatened neighborhoods in 2011 by Preservation Chicago.

“Particularly within the 10400 and 10500 blocks, many of the row houses built for the workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company stand vacant or are in the grips of foreclosure,” the organization says on its website. “Deterioration and desolation plague this once vibrant area, as windows are boarded and much needed repairs go ignored.”

CNI has restored row homes in North Pullman with $2.8 million in funding from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), the group says on its website. The federally-funded initiative, established in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, subsidizes the rehabilitation of foreclosed homes for purchasers making an income no more than 120 percent of the area’s median.

According to the City of Chicago’s website, the NSP has funded more than $153 million worth in such home improvements intended for families with incomes of, for example, $90,000 or less in the case of a four-person household.

CNI gutted the North Pullman homes and renovated them while preserving their facades, Doig said. This accomplishment was recognized by the Hyde Park Historical Society (HPHS) at its annual dinner Saturday with the organization’s annual Marian and Leon Despres Preservation Award.

“Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives’ recent restoration efforts have made a significant contribution to North Pullman and demonstrate how historic preservation can be a significant part of breathing new life into our urban neighborhoods,” HPHS said in a prepared statement.

CNI has also played a leading role in the development of a more ambitious project, albeit a controversial one: the Pullman Park commercial complex promises to transform Pullman’s economy by introducing as many as 1,100 housing units, according to the group’s website, along with a slew of big box retailers, including Ross Dress for Less, Planet Fitness and anchor tenant Walmart.

The site is being developed by Pullman Park LLC, and will receive $11 million in tax increment financing for infrastructure-related costs. U.S. Bank subsidiary Pullman Transformation, incorporated in Delaware, maintains a 40 percent interest in Pullman Park LLC alongside CNI’s 60 percent, according to the city.

A sign of the times and the economic change it brings, the city’s first Walmart Supercenter store will stand at 720 E. 111th St., where a Ryerson Steel plant was shuttered in 2006.

A wide range of community leaders and politicians have expressed support the Pullman Park project — which is predicted to create 1,000 new retail jobs — including Gov. Pat Quinn, second congressional district candidate Ald. Anthony Beale (20th), and pastor James Meeks, of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which is located in Pullman.

Doig sees the site’s development as a step toward breathing life into the neighborhood’s commercial sector. He says the community expressed a need for grocery options. Gov. Quinn recently referred to Pullman as a “food desert,” a term pastor Meeks has also used to describe the area.

“We’re a food desert. If you live in Pullman you have to drive … four, five miles to get to a full-service grocery store. And so people were really calling for not just groceries in particular but more generally just retail.”

Mike Shymanski, president of the Historic Pullman Foundation and a neighborhood resident since 1967, emphasized that big box retailers are “very competitive and price conscious.”

“We don’t have any!” Shymanski exclaimed. “We have to drive to all of that stuff.”

“And while people will argue about some of Walmart’s employment practices, the reality is that people shop for the best price typically,” Shymanski said, adding that “it’ll bring a lot of jobs in and a lot of a convenient facilities.”

Walmart’s move into Pullman, however, was mired by political and labor wrangling until 2010, four years after the company’s first Chicago store was built on the West Side. The Chicago Federation of Labor, an organization which currently represents 320 city unions, agreed to letting Walmart into Pullman only after the company agreed to pay store workers $8.75 – or 50 cents over the state’s minimum wage – followed by later increases.

South Pullman resident Arlene Echols is still concerned about Walmart’s pending arrival in the ninth ward. Although she supports the development of Pullman Park, she opposes the presence of the world’s largest retailer as its anchor tenant.

“My hope was that, if they came, that we could get an agreement that they would pay a living wage at the store,” Echols said, adding that “It’s not that I’m anti-development or even necessarily anti-Walmart, but I am definitely anti-poverty.”

Echols, who attends church in Roseland and is a member of the Pullman Historic Foundation and block captain for the Pullman Civic Organization, does not plan to patronize the new store. She also expects that Walmart will undercut the small businesses that lie along nearby South Michigan Avenue.

“I would imagine they’re going to lose a lot of business when Walmart opens up.” Echols said. “I can’t see that my area here in Roseland or Pullman Park would be any different any other town or neighborhood that [Walmart] opened in.”

But CNI’s transformative work — both the subject of criticism and praise — shows no sign of slowing down.

“Our goals over the next five years are to to continue the development of Pullman Park, obviously, that’s kind of our charge,” Doig said, and to “continue to see these buildings get rehabbed.”

Doig also said CNI is currently seeking to develop housing for artists, a project he expects will comprise 40 to 50 units. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development group, says it has given CNI a $20,000 loan toward this end.

“I think think in a lot of ways Pullman represents what a lot of Chicago neighborhoods can be,” Doig said.

Related story: Pullman resident praises CNI rehabs