Rentable commercial kitchens could add spice to South Side restaurant scene

We like the city’s plan to turn a former Department of Streets and Sanitation building into a rental commercial kitchen supporting the South Side’s fledgling culinary rebirth.

Dubbed “Soul City Kitchens,” the effort announced this week would turn the single-story brick building at 5021 S. Wabash Ave. into a variety of kitchen spaces with coolers, freezers and food storage space — all rentable to start-ups.

The rehabilitated and expanded 8,000-square-foot building would also include a private dining room.

“This new hub will allow us to deepen [Chicago’s culinary] reputation while giving food entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds an incredible opportunity to grow their businesses right in their own neighborhood,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement this week announcing the move.

The plan is more than just a good idea for the South Side and the city as a single project, on its own. It’s also potentially a great example of how to bring new choices to neighborhood retail areas — and a fresh idea for reusing vacant, city-owned buildings on the South and West sides.

A kitchen for start-ups

Urban Equities Inc., is set to get the building for $1 and spend $4.6 million to repurpose the structure.

The Black-owned real estate development firm won the project by submitting the winning bid to a March 2021 city Department of Planning request-for-proposals to redevelop the century-old brick building on the border of the Washington Park and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods.

Urban Equities was one of four bidders for the site.

Once built, the kitchens can provide jobs and assist “chefs of all kinds by minimizing barriers to entry, helping them to focus on their food creations, and enabling them to continuously recalibrate in our so-called ‘new’ normal,” Urban Equities CEO Lennox Jackson said.

If done right, the kitchens would be a fitting addition to the emerging food corridor along East 51st Street in the shadow on the CTA’s Green Line stop. The corridor includes a handful of cafes, restaurants and pop-up spots during warmer months.

The deal awaits City Council approval, but has the support of the area’s Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

New life for old city buildings?

Just to the south of the Soul City Kitchens site, the University of Chicago has helped turn a long-closed Green Line station at 319 E. Garfield Blvd. — it was built for the 1893 World’s Fair — into a beautifully restored business hub for upstart entrepreneurs.

These projects make it a little easier to see new futures, other than abandonment and demolition, for the vacant firehouses, police stations and municipal gas and electric buildings scattered about the city.

Chicago often judges itself on its ability to pull off both public and private billion-dollar mega-projects. But smaller efforts like these are also impactful — and much needed — particularly in areas of Chicago that are starting to awaken after generations of disinvestment.

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