The Back of the Yards project is converting historic buildings into housing, a health center and a coffee roastery

Jesse Iñiguez grew up in Back of the Yards and remembers the stores on 47th Street and Ashland Avenue as where his family bought everything.

“That’s where all the action was,” said Iñiguez, 41.

Everything was included from clothes and electronics to cardboard boxes he used for school diorama projects.

Since then, the hustle and bustle has faded to vacant lots and empty storefronts. But a long-awaited transformation through the city’s Invest South/West program is finally getting underway, promising to create affordable housing, a health center, and retail opportunities — including a coffee roastery led by Iñiguez.

The project, called United Yards, combines two site proposals targeted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s signing plan to bring investment to underserved communities.

A depiction of the United Yards project, an initiative of Invest South/West at 47th Street and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards.

A depiction of the United Yards project, an initiative of Invest South/West at 47th Street and Ashland Avenue in Back of the Yards.

The first proposal from Celadon Partners and Blackwood Group focused on residential construction. The second of Iñiguez’s group, Back of the Yards Works, focused on locally owned retail.

Stores that are owned and staffed by neighborhood residents are critical to the project’s longevity, Iñiguez said.

“The secret is that when people show up, they see people they know,” he said.

The first phase of the project — a $60 million investment, about a third of which will come from the city — began Tuesday with a groundbreaking at one of the apartment buildings. There were also speeches from officials, including Lightfoot, in upcoming retail spaces.

“Every time we’re in one of these Invest South/West communities, I hear, ‘It used to be, but now it’s…'” the mayor said.

“It’s going to be something that’s thriving now,” she added. “Yes, we too have deserved the support and investment in every neighborhood that has been lacking for far too long.”

Lightfoot called the investment the first of its kind in decades and also promoted a neighborhood road project.

The room on the first floor of the historic Goldblatt building at 4700 S. Ashland Ave. is where Iñiguez and his partners – a bakery, clothing store and barber shop – will set up shop. Developers anticipate opening in late 2023.

The stores will occupy a 9,000-square-foot space overlooking 47th Street — a space they will take over in a few years, according to Celadon Partners, the current owners.

The 15,000-square-foot health center, operated by Friend Health, will be located on the Ashland-facing side of the ground floor.

After that, the housing developments are scheduled to open, including a new 45-unit residential building at 1515 W. 47th St. with an incubator on the first floor. There will also be two new modular three-family homes on the 1600 block of West 47th Street.

The three apartments will be affordable for those earning up to 60% of the area’s median income and will be available later this year. The apartment building is scheduled to open in 2024.

The group will also build a community space on a vacant lot at 47th and Marshfield Avenues, expected to open in 2024. The developers hope it will house a local brewery.

The next phase of development involves the conversion of 4701 S. Ashland Ave., known as the Rainbow Building, into senior citizen housing. This project is expected to be completed around 2025 or 2026.

The expected total cost for the two phases is approximately $95 million, with a grand total of 100 affordable housing units and 60,000 square feet of retail and community space.

“The people there are bringing the neighborhood alive with outdated buildings and facilities,” said Scott Henry of Celadon Partners. “So our vision was to see what the community can do” with updated structures.

Henry said the group’s initial interest in the area was sparked by the development of a senior living community in the Gold Leaf building and that they will continue to expand in the neighborhood once the Invest South/West plan is complete.

“It’s a historic community with great structure and a lot of room for expansion,” Scott said. “And our intention is to continue that expansion.”

Michael Loria is a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa nonprofit journalism program aimed at increasing the newspaper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

A rendering of the updated Rainbow Building at 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, part of the United Yards project.

A depiction of the updated Rainbow Building at 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, where the United Yards Project, an initiative of Invest South/West, is set to begin revitalizing the historic trade corridor.

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