On a mild winter afternoon on Chicago's Far South Side, David Doig toured the soon-to-be home of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, now an empty lot stretching the length of 2 1/2 football fields.
The lot is a small portion of a 180-acre site that has sat empty since theRyerson Inc.steel processor closed its coil pickling line in 2006. And it's where Doig, president of the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, hopes to spark a community revival and spur new kinds of job growth.
Doig pointed at a cluster of trees near the last standing Ryerson building , which he hopes to transform into a community center. That's where he saw a deer before construction scattered the wild creatures. Jokingly, he said he has instead used his binoculars to supervise workers from his office in the U.S. Bank building on the site's southeast corner.
"They hate me," Doig, 46, said with a chuckle.
Even those who have opposed Doig in his more controversial roles, including handling the Soldier Field renovation as head of the Chicago Park District under MayorRichard M. Daley in the early 2000s, describe him as a nice guy, but one who can get things done.
"(Doig) knows the city and knows it well," said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, who has worked with Doig on the Pullman Park project, which is in his ward.
If something was not getting done by the city, Doig would push to get things moving again.
"That's what I mean by aggressiveness: on top of stuff," Beale said. "If there is something slowing (the project) down, he would call the appropriate people so that it would not sit at somebody's desk."
Over the years, Doig earned the respect of the community. "There is no reason not to trust him when sitting at the table," Beale said.
His proposal to bring Wal-Mart, a retailer hated by unions, to Chicago's inner city drew another wave of civic upheaval. There were angry rallies inside City Hall and a debate over whether union jobs were more important than other neighborhood needs, such as the access to fresh produce that the Wal-Mart superstore would provide in one of the city's food deserts. His project, backed by Daley, was ultimately approved by aldermen in June 2010.
Key to that victory, Doig said, was securing community support from the beginning, a lesson he learned early in his career. He hosted and attended meetings and discussions about the project with various local organizations. People still disagree on some details, he said, but overall the neighborhood's priorities were reflected in the final plan.
This, he said, is where government often misses the boat.
"They start with a problem: 'Well, we need to fix this problem.' So they develop a program without really understanding what's really behind that, what's really the issue, and listening to people in the community," he said.
Wal-Mart is expected to buy the lot in Pullman Park for $7 million in the spring and start construction of the store, scheduled to open the spring of 2013. Meanwhile, Doig's construction crew will move to the lot north of the Wal-Mart, where he hopes to bring in a clothing store, a fitness center, a big-box home-improvement store and smaller retailers such as a shoe store.
Doig's learning curve in community building began in North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood struggling with crime and poverty, where he landed as part of Wheaton College's summer program to help underserved communities. His tasks as a university student were to mentor children at Lawndale Community Church's summer camp and help rehab a car dealership the church hoped to turn into a community center.
His experiences there were a rude awakening about inequality in urban America. Growing up in Clarendon Hills, an upper-middle-class west suburb, he "never had to worry about where I was going to play." In contrast, Lawndale sits in the shadows of Chicago, he said, where "you can see the Sears Tower, you can see all of downtown, and it's like a completely different world. We were working with kids that had never been downtown, they'd never been to the lakefront, they'd never been to Lincoln Park Zoo, they'd never been to Grant Park."
His first night there, about 1 a.m., he woke up to a loud crash: A car had plowed into the front doors of the church. Doig ran to the car, which was riddled with bullet holes, and saw a man slumped over the steering wheel. He called police. The man, who later died, was a suspected drug dealer, Doig said.
Later that night, as he and another student guarded the building, two church caretakers started stripping the car. Police returned to find Doig standing in front of it. "This Chicago cop jumps out and pulls a gun right on my face and yells, 'Freeze!'" Doig said. He sheepishly explained that he was a student.
"I called my mom the next day, and she's like, 'I'm going to come down and get you,'" he said. "That was my introduction to Lawndale. And then, nothing else that dramatic happened the rest of that summer."
Doig returned to Wheaton to finish his bachelor's degree in history, but he didn't forget Lawndale.
"I fell in love with working with the kids, working with people in the community," he said. "I guess at that point I decided this is something I really love; I don't know how to make a living doing it, but I want to pursue it."
That last year of college, he met an education student named Tami who had spent a summer in Bolivia through the same program that had sent him to Lawndale. Though in different countries, they had shared similar experiences. She was interested in working in Latin America, but he persuaded her there was important work to be done in Chicago too.
"What I found interesting about him was his passion for justice and his real commitment to be part of a solution to American urban issues," she said.
They married in 1987, the same year Doig enrolled in the University of Chicago to pursue a master's degree in public policy. He continued to attend Sunday services at the Lawndale Community Church.
"I am a strong Christian," Doig said. "I believe that our works really should flow from our faith, that what we do should represent who we are and what we believe."
When he graduated in 1988, he told the Rev. Wayne Gordon that he wanted to help at the church. It was good timing because the pastor, Doig said, was thinking about starting a development corporation. Doig's help would be welcome, though there was no money to pay him.
Tami Doig had a teaching job in the suburbs that would cover their bills, so the couple moved to Lawndale, and Doig became development director of Lawndale Christian Development Corp., which focused on buying vacant buildings, renovating and reselling them.
He also started a couple of businesses, including a welding company and a dry cleaner, that were run by the church. But contracts eventually ran out, congregants came and went, and the businesses failed.
"That taught me a lesson that, if it is going to be sustainable, it has got to be something that it is owned by someone within the community," Doig said.
In 1994, after working in Lawndale for six years, Doig was ready for a change. He said his plan had always been to get the corporation started and then turn it over to someone with more roots in the community. In his job there, he had developed his connections with city officials, and he turned to then-Housing Commissioner Marina Carrott. She offered him a job as deputy commissioner of real estate for the city's department of housing, he said. He took it.
Two years later, he became the first deputy commissioner of what was then the city's Department of Planning and Development. It was a time of growth for the city. During Doig's time there, the department created about 70 of the controversial tax increment financing districts, he said, which gave him insight into the use of the incentive to encourage development.
In 1999, Doig landed the top spot at the Chicago Park District, amid efforts to distribute the agency's $300 million-plus budget more widely across the city, especially in communities that had been neglected for decades.
With that mission in mind, he oversaw beautification projects in neighborhood parks, such as the restoration of Humboldt Park and the Garfield Park Conservatory. He also tackled nontraditional projects, such as building a roller rink and bowling alley in Hawthorne Park and a skate park in Uptown, which drew some criticism because he replaced the tennis courts.
Erma Tranter, president of the advocacy group Friends of the Parks, said overall, "a lot of good things" were accomplished in neighborhood parks during Doig's years. However, her group battled him over the $690 million project to renovate Soldier Field.
A Tribune analysis showed the public portion of the bill was $432 million. Daley insisted it was necessary to keep the Bears in Chicago. Friends of the Parks challenged the plan in court, claiming the deal illegally funded a private project with public funds. They lost.
Of that time, Doig said: "I learned that sometimes, as a leader, you have to make hard decisions. They might not be popular. They might not be something that everyone is going to embrace."
In early 2004, with the Soldier Field reconstruction behind him, Doig announced that he was stepping down from his $145,000-a-year post to spend more time with his children, Clarke, then 8, and Olivia, 11. The family had appeared in a National Geographic reality show, spending 14 days living with a family in Morocco. The traveling was an adventure for the family, but when the show aired, Doig watched himself talking on the phone in the background while Clarke told the world, "Yeah, my dad is never around."
"It kind of broke my heart," Doig said. "Being at the Park District, I was gone all the time. I worked 70, 80 hours a week, and I always had meetings at night, and I missed part of my kids' growing up." The experience "gave me a chance to reflect and prioritize."
Doig formed development company GenOne, which focused on rehabbing and selling buildings on the city's West Side, where Doig still lives. He later formed a partnership with the late Michael Scott, a longtime friend and at the time president of the Chicago Board of Education, to develop residential projects in the Austin neighborhood.
Soon after they began their business, the housing market went "off the cliff," Doig said. He started looking for new opportunities.
Pulling for Pullman
In 2007, Doig took over Park Banks Initiatives, the nonprofit arm of Park National Bank, a now-defunct community bank. The nonprofit was redeveloping historic row houses in Pullman and building new homes in Roseland and Englewood.
A year later, Park National bought the 180-acre Pullman Park site, tucked between 114th and 111th streets, with the Bishop Ford Freeway to the east and an industrial park to the west.
Park National ran into financial trouble after the 2008 federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wiped out some $855 million in assets. It was seized in 2009 and acquired by U.S. Bank. The nonprofit was spun off in July 2010 and became Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, with Doig as its leader.
His next step was securing financing for the first phase of the Pullman project: rerouting Doty Avenue, creating water retention ponds and laying Wal-Mart's foundation.
Doig got a $9.5 million loan from U.S. Bank and $10 million from Wal-Mart for the foundation. U.S. Bank also provided $7.5 million in equity through a federal program. In return for the equity, the bank will receive $10.3 million in federal tax credits over seven years.
Once the Wal-Mart opens, Doig hopes it will anchor other retailers and create jobs and consumer traffic, making it easier to secure financing for future phases: additional stores, family restaurants, a 10-acre park, a community center and affordable homes.
Some of Doig's contacts showed up at a September event in Pullman to announce the state's contribution of $4.6 million from a federal program. Attendees included Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Warren Ribley, director of the state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
The Pullman Park site sits on what was on the outskirts of George Pullman's industrial town, founded in 1880 with the idea of creating a model working-class society. Some families now living in those homes have mixed feelings about Doig's project.
The historic Pullman houses south of 111th Street are owned by a mix of black, white and Hispanic families. They are excited about the possibility of more retail, restaurants and coffee shops, but they mostly hope the new project will help showcase their neighborhood as a great place to live.
North of 111th Street, the mostly poor, black families say that Wal-Mart's 350 to 400 jobs and promised wages of 50 cents above the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour won't get the neighborhood back on its feet, but it sure will make a difference to have the superstore nearby.
"David is a very integral part of the community," said resident Melva Jean Tate. "He's a warrior."
As the recent tour of the site came to an end, the last rays of sun highlighted the immensity of the project. Afternoon commuters began to fill the Bishop Ford Freeway, Pullman's main connection to the downtown high-rises shimmering in the distance.
A year from now, Doig hopes, that same artery will bring shoppers to Wal-Mart and pump life into the neighborhood.
"There is not a single thing that's going to change the world; it's got to be all of it working together," he said. "You need Wal-Marts and you need hospitals and health centers and all of that working together."
President, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives
Family: Married with children, Olivia, 19, and Clarke, 16. Lives in the city's Austin neighborhood.
On being "the white kid from the suburbs": "We still have racism in our society, and I think that it still creates barriers for people. But the longer you are in a place ... the less that that becomes an issue."
Why he raised his children in Austin: "I remember feeling I lived a pretty insulated life." His wife grew up that way too. "So pretty early on, we decided that we wanted our kids to be much more complete in terms of having friends with different ethnicities and having broader kinds of experiences."
Soldier Field feedback: "It met or exceeded expectations for what I envisioned. People can debate the architecture; that kind of goes with the territory. It's definitely something bold and different. … Some people love it, and some people hate it."
Aiming to bring entrepreneurship to Pullman: "That's kind of my mission. I don't know if we are going to get there, but that's my hope. I feel like in a lot of ways, this phase, the Wal-Mart and stuff, it's good. It's meeting a need. But it's not that kind of indigenous, local, grass-roots, entrepreneur kind of thing."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times