November 22, 2020

Woodlawn Residents Approve Proposed Health Center Ahead of City Council Vote

Hyde Park on a sunny day.

Hyde Park on a sunny day.

Matthew Lee / The Chicago Maroon

A proposal for the development of a health center at the intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue was approved by Woodlawn residents and Chicago’s Community Development Commission over the past two weeks, and will be incorporated into the City of Chicago’s budget for the fiscal year of 2021. The proposed budget passed the City Council Budget Committee with a 26-8 vote on Thursday.

In late October, 20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor held two town halls over Zoom to address the proposed development. The plans were developed in a joint effort between Friend Health, a non-profit community health clinic that serves low-income, uninsured, and undocumented patients; DL3 Realty, a real estate agency local to the South Side; and several other firms, including Moody Nolan, a black-owned architectural company.

Friend Health currently rents space from the University of Chicago at 55th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, and partners with the University to provide patients access to specialized medical personnel, including doctors involved with the asthma program at UChicago Medicine. 

When asked about the healthcare provider’s relationship to the University, Friend Health CEO Verneda Bachus said, “We are a totally separate organization that is self-governed.”

The proposed development includes two facilities, each on opposite sides of Cottage Grove Avenue. The main facility will occupy the currently closed Cosmo Beauty Supply building at 6250 South Cottage Grove Avenue, and will feature 45,000 square feet of medical space, including 56 exam rooms, an imaging suite, waiting areas, and a restaurant that will serve “white box” to-go/takeaway meals, as a precaution against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The opposite side of Cottage Grove Avenue will feature an annex building and a parking garage. Alex Sparhawk, director of acquisitions and development at DL3 Realty, said that part of the annex will be used to house Friend Health administrative personnel. The annex will also include a 1,500 square foot community center, intended to serve as a “gathering space.” Leon Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty, said that the cost of parking will be high enough to offset operating costs, but not high enough to draw a profit.

When asked why this specific location was chosen for the new development, Luke Mich, a city planner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said that the proximity of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Green Line Station at Cottage Grove, which is on the same block as the proposed main facility, played a role. “There has been a lot of talk of transit-oriented development for densification in that area,” Mich said.

Sparhawk also said that the southwest side of the main facility will feature a mural. During the Q&A portion, when Walker was asked whether black artists would be hired to paint the mural, he replied, “Obviously, artists are going to have to be sensitive to what the community wants.” 

“You might get artists from other counties, other parts of the city, but it will be people who understand the community,” Walker continued.

According to a presentation given at the community meetings, the proposed project is expected to create 43 new jobs. Bachus added that Friend Health would hire personnel from within the community for these positions. 

The project will cost just under $37,500,000, with most of the funding already secured. Just under $8,500,000 comes from the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program, which covers around 22 percent of the total cost, while just above $20,000,000 will come from a variety of other sources, including debt financing. However, the project still requires $8,000,000 in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) from the City of Chicago to proceed.

TIF is a special funding program based on property tax revenue that finances small and large-scale projects throughout the city, including cleanup, infrastructure repair, and private investment

Chip Hastings, managing deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said that the investment would use a significant portion of the TIF fund for the Woodlawn Community Area. “It wouldn’t drain the fund, but it would significantly reduce the amount available for the next few years,” Hastings said.

Taylor expressed concern about the amount of money that would remain in the TIF fund for Woodlawn residents to use on personal projects such as home improvements. However, she also mentioned that the proposed development is popular. “Most people who call me tell me they want the project,” she said.

During a Q&A session, one audience member asked why a proposed budget sheet for TIF funding was earmarked for $8,000,000 for Friend Health between 2021 and 2024. The questioner implied that this funding had already been secured without any input from the community.

James Harbin, Deputy Commissioner of Neighborhood Development at Chicago Bureau of Economic Development, replied that the budget was only a proposal. “That budget has not been passed yet,” he said.

To gauge the project’s popularity, Taylor opened her office to any Woodlawn resident and allowed them to vote either in favor of or against the project in the days following the November 3rd general election.

“Too often, people want to come to our community, but don’t want us to be part of [the process],” Taylor said. “I can’t sign this without asking my community.”

According to reporting by the Hyde Park Herald, the proposal was approved in the vote by community members.

“While I did have some reservations about the amount of TIF dollars this project is asking for, my community voted to have this and my community votes to make the decision,” Taylor said at a Community Development Commission meeting.

Having gained approval from both Woodlawn residents and the Community Development Commission, the project will be able to proceed once ongoing negotiations about the Chicago budget conclude. Construction work for Phase 1 of the project, which primarily involves raising the main complex, is projected to begin as soon as this month and the estimated opening date is January 2022. Meanwhile, construction for Phase 2, which includes the annex and parking garage, is slated to begin in July 2021 and is estimated to finish in July 2022.

Work on the mural is projected to begin early next year, with a call to artists planned for the spring of 2021, a community design process organized for the summer of 2021, and the installation scheduled for the fall and winter of 2021, prior to the opening of the main complex.