"Our commercial corridor reflects who we are as a community and I don't want to look like someone vomited."--5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, Hyde Park Herald, 2005"Every day, grown men come into my office on 71st Street looking for jobs that don't exist ... Before I vote to dictate the wages that big box retailers should pay, I need to have those retail jobs in the 5th Ward. You can't pay a living wage or any wage for that matter if you don't have businesses."--5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, Hyde Park Herald, 2006
When Leslie Hairston assumed the position of Alderman in the 5th Ward back in 1999, there was great expectation that Stony Island Avenue would experience the kind of commercial renaissance that was occurring along North Side corridors such as Clybourn and Elston. As the Tribune reported the sentiment at the time, "Between 60,000 and 90,000 cars travel through the intersection of 71st and Stony Island daily. The [new Starbucks at 71st and Stony] is close to Metra's Bryn Mawr station, while Stony Island leads to Lake Shore Drive about a mile away."
Expectations for development were very high, and Hairston kept them there.
Over a decade later, the reality of development on Stony Island falls far short of the hopes that came in with Hairston. It is therefore useful to ask whether, after all this time, Hairston has the ability to get commercial development done in her ward.
While Hairston made headlines early on with the opening of the first Starbucks south of Hyde Park and in a black neighborhood at 71st and Stony, the commercial redevelopment of this major corridor has visibly stalled.
By our count, Hairston lost two bids for a Target Store at different sites along Stony Island: one at Stony and 71st, and a second at Stony and Marquette Drive. Meanwhile, during the time that she has been alderman, a Target Store opened in Chatham at 85th and Cottage Grove (2002), a Target Store has opened in the 34th Ward at Marshfield Avenue and 119th (2008), and another recently opened in "downbeat Uptown" (July 2010), an event so improbable and significant as to catch the attention of the New York Times.
Back on Stony Island, however, no Target, no IKEA, mo Kmart, no Bed, Bath, & Beyond -- all names that were bandied about at a 5th Ward meeting 1999. Hairston's failure to make any of this happen has been partly due to an unwillingness to take firm positions -- for or against use of eminent domain to clear land for a project (Target on Stony); for or against organized labor (Target on Stony, the Marriott at Drs Hospital) -- and amounting to an inability to do what needs to be done to close a deal. Her flip-flop on the 2006 Big Box ordinance, which she supported before she rejected, probably helped to kill whatever chance she still had for landing a Target Store at Stony Island and Marquette.
And, if ever deals were to be done in Chicago, it was during the first two terms of Hairston's office, (1999-2007) when real estate was booming nationwide. A TIF District was created along 71st Street and Stony Island just a year before Hairston took office, in 1998. According to the planning firm contracted by the city to draw up the TIF District, S.B. Friedman and Company, "Stony Island Avenue appears to have the potential to become a significant, modern big-box commercial center, which would build on existing Sears and Jewel stores to create the necessary critical mass to establish Stony Island Avenue as a major shopping destination for South Side residents."
At a community meeting shortly after taking office, the buzz was palpable. As the Hyde Park Herald reported at the time (July 1999),
""We want to turn Stony Island Avenue into the Clybourn Avenue of the South Side," JYZ Development president Zeb McLaurin told a crowd of more than 300 people at Ald. Leslie Hairston's Fifth Ward Community Meeting.
National chains like IKEA and Kmart are being targeted to fill the street's prime retail location at 79th Street and Stony Island Avenue and other local and national stores could fill in spots along Stony Island Avenue up to 67th Street, developers said.
Although the shape of the first proposed Target project was never made public, a source close to the deal in the early 2000's reveals that the company was interested in a site in the newly-created TIF district at 71st Street, as part of a mixed retail-residential development that would have required some property condemnation. Hairston was not enthusiastic about the prospect. Parties to the deal kept the idea alive, however, at least as late at 2005, when Hairston herself announced that "Target is making serious plans to build a store ... on Stony Island Avenue, either at 67th or 71st Streets."
No more was heard of a Target at this location, however, and the deal fell through. It is now only another of many legends in the sad annals of South Side crypto-development.
That same year, Target's interest in Stony Island again touched the written record when Hairston claimed to hold in her very hands "a letter of intent from Target to build a new store at Marquette and Stony Island." By then, she had changed her mind about property condemnation, and was reminding her audience of property speculators that "People should be compensated, but this is not the lottery," so look out.
Cue the national media attention stirred up by Chicago's Big Box ordinance. At that time, Hairston supported the ordinance that would have required large-scale retailers to pay a certain minimum wage. She was clearly sanguine about constituent support for her position on wages, and Target's tolerance for uncertainty in its business environment.
As the Sun-Times reported back in 2006:
[T]he developer [Target] has told her the store is "on hold" and that Target may close existing Chicago stores if the big-box ordinance goes through. Hairston called it [Target's threat to scrap its planned store on Stony Island] little more than a scare tactic. And even if the threat turns out to be real, she's standing firm in support of organized labor.
As it turned out, Hairston misjudged reality on both counts, later changing her position on the Big Box minimum wage ordinance, and losing the Target at Stony and Marquette, despite the precious letter of intent. It all went much as it would in 2009, when she failed to judge the stretegic positions of various parties, especially labor, during the Drs Hospital/Marriott Hotel controversy.
After all this -- the disappearance of a Target deal at 71st, and the implosion of another on on Marquette after Hairston's Big Box flip-flop in 2006 -- what does the Hyde Park Herald conclude? "Give Hairston another term," its editors wrote on 21 February 2007, well after both plans had fallen through. "Hairston is also working on bringing a Target to the area."
So, after 12 years in office, where does Stony Island stand? Approximately one Starbucks the richer. This is apparently all that is needed. After all, as Leslie Hairston herself put it, "You are officially a neighborhood when you get a Starbucks."
Might as well stop there.