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BRONZEVILLE — A long-delayed plan to bring a grocery store to former public housing land in Bronzeville appears to have stalled once again.

In 2018, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) announced plans for a Pete’s Fresh Market on the former site of Stateway Gardens housing project and the now-demolished Crispus Attucks Elementary at State Street and Pershing Road.

After three years of no movement, the plan seemed to get new life when developer Zeb McLaurin announced his company was finalizing a development schedule with Pete’s, bringing a 60,000-square-foot store to the former public housing land.

That was more than two years ago. There have been no community meetings or updates since then.

Parcels of land on and near the proposed grocery store site are owned by the the city, the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Schools. A land swap necessary to facilitate the deal has not happened, according to the city's Department of Planning and Development.

“Plans for a grocery store are still under consideration in the Brandon Johnson administration,” Dowell told Block Club. Asked whether another grocer and developer were being considered, the alderwoman replied, “No.” Dowell did not answer follow-up questions.

McLaurin did not return several requests for comment, and officials won't say if he is still part of the project. He previously said the project has been caught in a logjam of pandemic-related delays and transitions among multiple mayoral administrations.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office and Pete’s Fresh Market did not return multiple requests for comment.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks to Mayor Brandon Johnson at a City Council meeting on Oct. 11, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

News of Pete's opening a Bronzeville outpost had been met with enthusiasm on social media, with neighbors excited at the prospect of another brand-name supermarket coming to a part of the South Side known for being a food desert. A Mariano's at 38th and King Drive opened in 2016.

Bernard Loyd, founder of Urban Juncture and entrepreneur behind the restoration of The Forum, still hopes Pete's will come to the neighborhood. He would venture out of Bronzeville to shop at the Brighton Park Pete's location, he said.

A location easily accessible by the Dan Ryan Expressway and public transit would be a boon for the area, Loyd said.

“I think they would be a great addition to Bronzeville because they're quite different from Mariano's,” Loyd said. “Mariano's is, I think, targeted more towards sort of a slightly higher end clientele, which certainly has its place and I shop there all the time. But Pete's is a bit it's a bit more competitive. They have a much broader selection.”

Though the future of the Bronzeville store is unclear, Pete's is growing, recently opening an Ashburn outpost and announcing expansion plans in the south and west suburbs.

Buildings and vacant land in Bronzeville, as seen from above 40th and State streets on April 13, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

How Did We Get Here?

Once upon a time, the grassy plots of land abutting the Metra tracks in Bronzeville bustled with life.

The State Street corridor was home to several mid- and high-rise public housing developments, all with auspicious beginnings.

The Robert Taylor Homes were named for the housing advocate and banker who served as the first Black member of the Chicago Housing Authority.

The Harold Ickes Homes honored a celebrated politician and lawyer who championed Black causes.

And Stateway Gardens, named for the street the eight high-rises were built upon, took three years and $22 million to build.

Stateway Gardens buildings viewed from the (now) 35th-Bronzeville-IIT stop on the CTA Green Line. Taken in February 1979. Credit: Downtowngal/Wikimedia Commons

While all the projects had their own reputations, Stateway had the distinction of being one of the most dangerous and one of the poorest. News reports chronicling life there are unforgiving for the most part, the rare glimmer of humanity saved for the occasional feature. One of the more shocking headlines came in the development's earlier years, when an 8-year-old boy was charged with murder after shooting a 6-year-old in a stairwell in March 1967.

Crispus Attucks Elementary, the school built to serve the hundreds of Stateway families along the State Street corridor, opened 10 years earlier during the second wave of the Great Migration amid a population boom on the South Side. It was erected on one of the 39 parcels of land bought by the city's Board of Education two years prior.

Despite the school's “larger than usual” design to accommodate the rapidly growing student body, it became overcrowded by 1967, forcing the Board of Education to buy mobile classrooms to handle the overflow, according to a Historic American Buildings Survey conducted by the state in 2019. Such persistent overcrowding of schools in Black neighborhoods would lead to a federal consent decree to desegregate Chicago's public schools.

Stateway Gardens was razed in 2007 as part of the CHA's Plan For Transformation, an initiative designed to take a more holistic approach to public housing but which has fallen decades behind in its promise to rebuild that housing. Crispus Attucks was closed in 2008 and demolished in 2018.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks at the last City Council meeting presided over by Mayor Lori Lightfoot on April 19, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

Dowell was starting her inaugural term as steward of the 3rd Ward when the Stateway Gardens building came down.

The former city planner had decades of experience when she assumed the role, having served as deputy commissioner of Planning and Development under Mayors Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley.

Dowell's vision for Bronzeville was one of rebirth, one that would return Bronzeville to its former glory: bustling development, plentiful housing stock and a supermarket that would bring relief to a community known for being a food desert.

The proposal for the Pete's dates back to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, Dowell said. While the project didn't get off the ground during his term, community meetings were already underway, with Dowell thanking attendees of a November 2018 meeting in her weekly newsletter. The alderwoman was joined by McLaurin, attorney Langdon Neal, a development team led by architect RaMona Westbrook, city officials and representatives from Pete's, who shared renderings of the 60,000-square-foot market that was to serve as an anchor for the commercial strip.

When former Mayor Lori Lightfoot eyed the land for a casino in hopes of building the city's first casino on the South or West side, Dowell quickly nixed the idea. The land was already committed to the Pete's Fresh Market, she told Lightfoot.

“A Pete’s Fresh Market is exactly what my community needs at this location,” she told The Daily Line in 2019. “The Bronzeville community has a great need for additional retail and jobs, which this commercial development brings.”

Zeb McLaurin, CEO of McLaurin Development Partners, speaks at the groundbreaking for Englewood Connect on Sept. 27, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

The initial effort around the store stalled after a few community meetings. More than three years passed before McLaurin — a well-regarded Black developer behind South Shore's first Starbucks and the West Side Target that replaced Cabrini-Green — became attached to it.

McLaurin told Block Club in January 2022 he was working with the Pete's Fresh Market team to “finalize a development schedule” while conducting environmental studies for site remediation.

“Our goal is to be in the ground this year to start the Pete’s construction so that they can be open by early next year,” McLaurin said at the time.

Proposals for the former Stateway Gardens site had been submitted during Emanuel's administration, but the transition to Lightfoot's administration and pandemic-related supply chain issues that halted construction plans across the globe further added to the delays, McLaurin previously told Block Club.

Complicating matters is ownership of the land.

The CHA still owns the parcel near the intersection of Pershing Road and State Street on which the Bronzeville Pete's Fresh Market was to be built. The planning department has no documents on file related to the project, said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the city's Planning and Development Department.

An illustration of a proposed land swap between the city, Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Schools to facilitate the construction of a Pete's Fresh Market in Bronzeville. Credit: Provided

According to a November 2018 presentation, officials planned to build the story on the northeast corner of Pershing Avenue and Federal Street, which was owned by the CHA. A land swap was proposed where that land would be traded for city-owned parcels on the southeast corner of that intersection and at Pershing and State Street.

As it stands now, the CHA “does not have active development plans for the site,” nor has it received any proposals, said spokesperson Matthew Aguilar.

“We will continue to work with the Alderman and the community to support vibrant mixed-use, mixed-income housing communities,” Aguilar said.

In an August 2022 interview with the Hyde Park Herald, Dowell pointed to the neighborhood's population and commercial growth as a sign of her success, a result of her work to make Bronzeville a “go-to community.” Though she didn't mention Pete's by name, Dowell shared her ongoing wish to bring another supermarket to the “western end of the ward,” a major grocer to join the two Mariano's locations on the South Side.

While Plans Stall, South Side Stores Close

The grocer would provide competition for the neighborhood Mariano's and Jewel, which are a half-mile away, and provide more options for nearby food deserts. But in the six years since the initial announcement, grocery options have largely shrunk instead of expanding in already underserved neighborhoods.

On the South Side, those include:

A WBEZ and Sun-Times analysis showed the number of Chicagoans living at least 1 mile from a major grocery store has jumped 63 percent in the past decade, making access to fresh food and products more difficult.

Other pledges to open new stores have stalled, as well.

Riverdale neighbors on the Far South Side are still waiting for news on a grocery store to replace Rosebud Farm Stand, which closed in 2018.

Ohio-based Yellow Banana has pledged to overhaul numerous Save A Lots on the South and West sides boosted by millions in pledged city funding. But progress on those stores has been slow, and shoppers still complain about poor food quality.

In Kenwood, neighbors have been divided over the future of a longtime grocer, which had been temporarily closed because of poor sanitation. Some neighbors have argued for the business to stay, noting it's among the only locally owned businesses to serve the area.

Buildings and vacant land in Bronzeville, as seen from above 40th and State streets on April 13, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Ecoglobalsociety

Rod Wilson, executive director of the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, has mixed feelings about the future of the store, he said.

Wilson's organization — along with South Side and Chinatown organizers — fiercely pushed back on a plan to open a $150 million Near South Side high school on former Harold Ickes Homes land. That plan also appears to be on hold with no clear next steps.

So while Wilson agrees another supermarket is definitely needed, placing it on another former public housing site is a bad idea, he said. Ten city blocks of former public housing land along South State Street, including the site of the grocery store, are still empty and waiting for new housing and development.

Any of the closed CPS sites within the ward would be a better option, Wilson said.

“We keep doing this with CHA public housing land. [They] keep doing these piecemeal deals and one-off type of things,” Wilson said. “I think we need to really stop all the land swaps and land sales of public housing land and take an assessment of our resources. What do we have as far as land and money from CHA, debt, bonds, whatever.

“Then let's look at what the need is for housing and come up with a plan to meet that need before we started talking about using that land for other purposes.”

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