Filmore Center project to create 300 jobs on Chicago’s West Side

By Igor Studenkov for Chronicle Media

The future Fillmore Center building, with the Altenheim freight railroad line in the background. (Photo by Igor Studenkov/for Chronicle Media)

The Chicago-based Steans Family Foundation is looking to rehab an 110-year-old,168,000-square-foot, five-story industrial building at 4100 W. Filmore St., in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood to create jobs and eventually generate a revenue stream for community development. 

In its heyday, the industrial corridor that grew around the Altenheim Line railroad created thousands of jobs in the North Lawndale neighborhood. The 40-acre Sears, Roebuck and Company Complex was the most famous example, but there were plenty of other businesses, such as the Filmore building’s original owner, the Calumet Baking Powder Company. As suburbs grew and North Lawndale underwent white flight in the mid-20th century, many of those companies left.  

Now, Steans Family Foundation is trying to do its part to try to revitalize the corridor. It is already working on turning the one-story, 45,000-square-foot loading docks and storage annex into a commercial grade laundry for the Illinois Medical District hospitals. The main building will house minority-owned businesses, including a construction company and a packaging business.  

Forest Park-based Kribi Coffee, which already rents storage space in the building, is in the talks to use about a quarter of the fifth-floor space for a new roastery, employee training center and corporate offices.  

In the long run, SFF plans turn the building to a Community Benefit Trust — a group of North Lawndale stakeholders who will decide what happens to the building in the future and how to use the revenue the building will generate.  

To help cover the costs of rehabbing and renovating the building, SFF asked the City of Chicago to provide $10 million in Tax Increment Financing funding. The city agreed to provide at least $7 million, with the remaining $3 million set aside just in case the state and federal funding the nonprofit is expecting to get comes up short. Chicago Community Development Commission signed off on the plan on March 5. The application now needs to clear the Chicago City Council, but projects that already cleared CDC and got a letter of support from the local alderman are usually quickly approved.  

Steans Family Foundation was established in 1988 to help kids living in Lathrop Homes, the since-shuttered public housing development in Chicago’s Lincoln Park community area, get to college. Since then, it shifted to a more placed-based approach, focusing its philanthropy on issues that affect the community as a whole, such as the lack of educational and job opportunities. It began working in North Lawndale in 1966 and in The City of North Chicago in 2016.  

According to the staff report submitted to the Community Development Commission, by the time the Foundation bought the building in November 2022 for $3.35 million, it was “predominantly vacant” and faced a significant maintenance backlog. Most notably, the report mentioned “roof decomposition,” “old electrical wiring” and “lack of working heating/cooling systems,” 

The foundation already began renovations and buildout for Filmore Linen Service. According to the report, SFF owns 49 percent of it, and resident Elizabeth Forgea owns the remaining 51 percent. It is expected to create 175 jobs. 

Reginald Jones, a SFF senior fellow, said that, for the main building, they’re looking for tenants who have around 25 employees and are able to provide living wages and good benefits. The staff report listed Kribi, Weisfeld Construction, Rich Paul Packaging and Southside Blooms, which will use the building for the wholesale flower distribution business. Together, they are expected to generate about 125 jobs. 

The project represents a significant expansion into Chicago for Kribi. The coffee roastery and coffee shop chain was founded in Forest Park, and it has since added three locations in the neighboring Oak Park. Juan Munoz, the company’s vice president of development, said they plan to move their roastery from Elmhurst to Filmore Center. 

“It’s’ going to be a much larger space,” he said. “Our plan is to be a wholesale roasting facility. We’ll have a number of air roasters, that are higher capacity air roasters. It will be our central distribution facility.” 

Social justice has been a major priority for Kribi since the beginning. Most notably, it works directly with cocoa farmers to make sure they get higher-than-average profits. Munoz said that, while investing in a historically disinvested community is part of it, it also came down to simple logistics. North Lawndale is physically closer to wholesale distributors they’re working with to get their beans to stores and coffee shops.  

While Munoz said Kribi hasn’t ruled out establishing a coffee shop somewhere in Chicago further down the line, they are currently focusing on the four west suburban coffee shops they already have.  

North Lawndale has seen several major redevelopment projects launched through Chicago’s Invest South/West initiative and through nonprofit organizations such as the Foundation for Homan Square. At community meetings about those projects, restaurants consistently raised concerns about how many jobs will go to local residents. 

Jones said that the nonprofit is “prioritizing hiring local residents from the North Lanwdale neighborhood,” including those who may have trouble finding jobs after serving time in person. 

“We will be working with social service employment agencies — Skills of Chicagoland, North Lawndale Employment Network and West Side United — to link to potential community hires,” he said. 

Munoz said that Kribi will be working with NLEN and Steans Foundation to hire locally. He said that the number of employees will depend on how much space they will be able to rent — something that his employer is still hashing out with the foundation.  

According to the presentation to the Community Development Commission, Filmore Center redevelopment will cost $40.5 million — a number that includes what SFF already spent to buy the building and do some renovations. While the foundation requested $10 million in TIF money, the city found this to be an “over-subsidy” because the foundation didn’t take the rent revenue and business returns from the laundry into account and argued that $7 million “would be a more appropriate figure.” SFF responded that they asked for $10 million just in case they don’t get state and federal grants they’re applying for. 

The city agreed to set aside $3 million on top of the $7 million. If SFF doesn’t get any grants, it would get the full amount. If it does get grants, $300,000 would get subtracted from that for every $1 million the project receives.  

SFF expects to complete the renovations by the end of 2024. 

Yolanda Knight, managing director of the foundation’s North Lanwdale program, said that their long-term goal is to transfer the building ownership to a Community Benefits Trust. Because of the rules regarding using TIF funding and the New Market tax credits the foundation has applied for, that won’t happen for at least another seven years.  

“[Filmore Center] will have a board comprised of majority, qualified community stakeholders who will be responsible for ensuring the success of the building, tenants, revenue and expense control,” she said adding that the board will also be able to shift some profits “toward community-determined projects aimed at furthering neighborhood improvement.”