The Metropolitan Planning Council's recommendations on responding to the need for more grocery stores in Chicago’s low-income and minority neighborhoods.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony today. I am Peter Skosey, vice president of external relations for the Metropolitan Planning Council. I am pleased this committee is dealing with a vitally important issue: the location of grocery stores in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Access to fresh foods is as much an issue of economic development as it is one of health; indeed, both the health of local residents and the future economic vitality of the neighborhood depend upon the availability of basic necessities. Thanks to the good work of the Metro Chicago Information Center, we now know precisely the extent of the challenge before us. I believe the solution lies not in additional regulatory action by the City Council, but in better planning to stimulate retail and economic development opportunities.
First, I’d like to acknowledge and thank the City Council for enacting landmark legislation to regulate the use of restrictive covenants by grocery store proprietors. One of the most important things government can do to facilitate the free market is to allow it to be just that. Removing obstacles to development – such as restrictions on grocery stores – is one way government can facilitate a healthy economy. Government also can provide incentives that encourage desirable new development, as Chicago now does with tax increment financing and other tools with which this committee is very familiar. Most importantly, however, sound planning principles can be put to use to ensure the market is well informed of new opportunities, and to promote those communities where investment should be channeled.
In years past, the city’s Department of Planning and Development has analyzed and inventoried possible locations suitable to big box retail development, including grocery stores. Proactive zoning of such sites and marketing to organizations such as the International Council of Shopping Centers has been the focus of the department’s Retail Chicago program. These planning efforts represent appropriate responses to the need to improve access to grocery stores; however, even more can be done to weave retail development into other citywide efforts.
For instance, as the Chicago Housing Authority continues its Plan for Transformation, ensuring the development of adequate grocery resources near each of the 10 redeveloping sites should be a priority. Along with good schools, public transportation, and other retail, these mixed-income communities should be considered prime locations for new grocery facilities. Land for stores should be identified now as residential development proceeds, and parcels should be zoned appropriately to allow for streamlined development once enough homes are in place. These 10 locations, soon to be home to more than 8,000 people, will provide great opportunities for the free market to prosper in Chicago.
Another area where planning can play a role is in the city’s current efforts to reconcile industrial demand with available land. As this analysis of industrial corridors from the North Side to the South Side continues, I’d recommend the department also consider opportunities for retail conversion where industrial no longer proves viable. This is particularly important as obsolete industrial property represents some of the few locations in the city large enough to accommodate grocery store formats. Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that where viable manufacturing uses exist, they should be displaced for grocery stores; rather, where no viable alternative exists, consider retail use.
The Department of Planning and Development currently is engaged in many good efforts to promote retail development throughout the city. These additional suggestions may add to those efforts and provide further opportunities. I look forward to continuing the discussion on this topic in perhaps a smaller interdepartmental and intergovernmental task force, which could be formed to specifically address retail development. Such a task force should involve industry stakeholders, city leaders, and civic advocates.
Please allow me to make one final note before concluding. The role of the independent grocer needs to be better understood. There are many independent grocers filling the void left by the larger national chains in low-income and minority communities. These are not the corner store of the past; these are full-service grocers with fresh produce, butcher counters, and bakeries, all at competitive prices. Where appropriate, entrepreneurs ought to be encouraged to fill the void left by national chains, so Chicago not only can provide the appropriate services to all its residents, but simultaneously encourage competition and homegrown businesses.
Respectfully submitted by:
Vice President of External Relations
Metropolitan Planning Council