Friend Health

A view of the shuttered Cosmo Beauty store on the northwest corner of E. 63rd St. and S. Cottage Grove Ave. in Woodlawn, which is to be demolished for the construction of Friend Health’s flagship health center. Friend Health, formerly known as Friend Family Health, has seven locations across the city (two of which are temporarily closed), including its current flagship center at 800 E. 55th Street.

A low-income health care provider is looking to build its new headquarters in Woodlawn, and asking for the community to approve $8 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funding for the project. 

Under 20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor, new developments that require a letter of support from her must be voted on by people living near the project. To that end, she held two community meetings on Oct. 22 and 29 so residents could hear information about the new proposal from the developer and city officials. 

In this case, Friend Health — which currently has locations in Hyde Park and Woodlawn — wants to build a flagship medical center and administrative building at the corner of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. 

The project will cost around $37.5 million in total. Friend Health and its developer DL3 Realty, are asking for $8 million in TIF money to finish funding the project. 

Founded in 1997 by the merger of two University of Chicago clinics, Friend Health is a federally qualified health center, meaning it receives federal funding and must provide treatment to uninsured and undocumented people. Across its seven city sites, 96% of its patients are Black or Hispanic, while about three-quarters are under the poverty line. 

The planned 45,000-square-foot main medical building, slated for the northwest corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove, will contain an expansion of Friend Health’s existing acute care, family medicine and OB/GYN services, as well as an imaging suite offering ultrasounds and mammograms. There will also be a grab-and-go restaurant. 

The 3,000-foot building immediately to the west will contain a community center, retail space and 140 parking spaces open to the public after hours. 

Friend Health will hire 43 new staff, and said during the community meetings they were planning to hire locally. The organization’s current Woodlawn location at 63rd and Harper Avenue will eventually close. 

If the funding goes through, Friend Health will acquire the building in November and begin construction the same month. The medical center building is scheduled to open in January of 2022, with the adjacent building following in July of the same year. 

The developer, DL3 Realty, has been a key player in the development of the corner at 63rd and Cottage Grove over the past several years, and won the Cook County Land Bank’s bid for the Washington Park Bank Building project in March of 2019. The company is also behind the Jewel-Osco a few blocks north that opened last year

“Our overall goal is to make a big investment here, and to create the conditions and climate such that we will have (more) investment in the neighborhood surrounding this project,” said Leon Walker, managing partner at DL3, during last week’s meeting. 

Walker added that the Cosmo Beauty building that will be renovated is currently not “bringing a lot of life” to the neighborhood. 

“Many of us don’t know that it is actually a medically underserved area, which is oftentimes interesting for residents and others to grasp at a basic level, given they’re in the shadows of the University of Chicago Medical Center,” said Walker. “We just don't have the primary health care access that we should have in our community, and this project is an effort to complete and change that.”

Among residents there was some wariness, particularly at Thursday’s meeting, about the use of $8 million in TIF funds to pay for the project. Some people expressed concern about the potential for gentrification and displacement, while others wondered if too much money would be taken out of the TIF. 

While the project straddles two TIF districts — Woodlawn and West Woodlawn — the funding would be drawn solely from the former, which contains about $11.5 million, according to the city’s 2019 annual report

Chip Hastings, a deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), noted that the project would “significantly reduce the amount of money available for the next few years.” But DPD officials also said that there are other funding sources, like tax credits and Opportunity Zone money, available if other projects in the neighborhood need it. 

Both Taylor and other officials from DPD also said there are no other developments in Woodlawn asking for TIF funding right now. (Some money is allocated for remediation testing of some of the neighborhood’s closed schools.) 

Walker noted that TIF funds go back into the citywide general fund when the designation for a particular district expires — the Woodlawn TIF expires in 2023. 

“So a lot of us are sort of focused on what I call the vicious cycle and that's the downward spiral side of it and what we see happening when we lack investment,” he said. “This is an opportunity to reverse that cycle, and try to get to the virtuous cycle whereby success builds on success.”

In response, Taylor emphasized the need for a community-involved process. 

“This is a way of being transparent and honest,” she said. “So I said to the community that I would not spend any of their money without their permission and without them knowing.”

“So it’s not about people not wanting this project — we do want development, we do want better investment, investment that doesn’t cut out the community.” 

Voting will take place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of next week at the 20th Ward office, 5707 S. Wentworth Ave., from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. All Woodlawn residents who wish to vote must provide proof of residency, such as a government-issued ID or a piece of mail. If you can’t make those times, schedule an appointment to vote at 773-966-5336.

Editor

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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