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Bringing retail nourishment to a South Side Chicago food desert

August 6, 2019

Chicago-based DL3 Realty has just helped bring yet another badly needed grocery store into a food desert on the city’s South Side.

This 48,000-square-foot Jewel-Osco, which opened in March at 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, is the first full-service supermarket to come to the Woodlawn community in some 40 years. And the project is anticipated to become an economic engine for the entire neighborhood, through the creation of some 300 jobs and a commitment from Jewel-Osco to stock items from local vendors on its shelves, alongside those of regional and national sellers.

“That’s how we really further the ripple effect in a community — which is not [merely] stopping at the four walls of the store or once [the] construction is complete in terms of jobs and economic development, but also making sure that we are providing opportunities for local vendors to participate,” said Leon I. Walker, managing partner of DL3 Realty, which he founded in 1999. The firm developed the project in conjunction with Wilmette, Ill.–based Terraco Real Estate.

This supermarket is only the latest in a series of South Side developments in which Walker has had a hand since returning to Chicago two decades ago from Los Angeles, where he had been living and working. Indeed, by all appearances, he is more than adequately prepared for his real estate development mission, which involves investing and development in urban revitalization without displacing local residents or businesses. Having grown up on and around Chicago’s South Side, where his father was an entrepreneur, investor and educator, Walker is a graduate of both the University of Chicago Law School and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and his résumé includes stints at Citicorp Securities and JLL.

The new Jewel-Osco’s 3.5-acre site was originally part of a larger project spearheaded by nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, which acquired and razed the Grove Parc Apartments, a 1960s-era public-housing project, and then leveraged some $30 million to build roughly $300 million worth of mixed-income housing in the neighborhood.

Bringing in a major grocer was an important part of the original development plan, but the negotiations dragged on for several years before finally stalling out. DL3 Realty was just coming off the successful completion of a Whole Foods in the nearby Englewood neighborhood, in 2017, when Walker stepped up and offered to help deliver a grocer.

“You have to talk about that ‘hidden gem’ in a way that encourages people and gets them excited about the opportunity”

One of the biggest challenges in moving this project forward, notes Walker, was a negative perception of Woodlawn that raised fears about whether it was even possible to operate safely in that type of urban environment. Thus, the task including convincing Jewel-Osco and investors and lenders that there was indeed good market demand and momentum in the area, and that it had a sustainable future as a safe and livable community. Walker concedes that this required no small amounts of persistence and toil: both analytical (preparing the market data) and at times even physical (actually driving people around the neighborhood to let them observe for themselves the current improvements and future possibilities). “You have to talk about that ‘hidden gem’ in a way that encourages people and gets them excited about the opportunity,” Walker said.

Going forward, DL3 Realty has several projects in the pipeline that are aimed at continuing to revitalize these Chicago neighborhoods. The firm is working to reposition two closed Target stores, for instance, and also collaborating with a partner on the site of a vacant bank building at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue for a project intended to house some co-working and business-accelerator space.

“Our focus and mission is not only on these neighborhoods,” Walker said, “but [also] to encourage others across the country to consider investing their time, talent and resources back into opportunities in these disinvested communities.”

By Beth Mattson-Teig

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today