Central City – Economy
The first day’s focus on the Central City’s economy included a discussion on neighborhood business development, employment, training, and hiring.
Samir Mayekar, Deputy Mayor, City of Chicago, commented how Chicago has never shied away from difficult times. “After the Great Fire we had innovations,” he said. “We developed a new building code and that led to the advent of the first skyscraper. I think in the case of this pandemic, it’s going to really shape the way that we think about work. It’s going to shape the way that we think about open space, and really it’s going to shape the way we think about the amenities of urban living.”
Brad Henderson, CEO, P33, discussed the opportunities for the Central City, such as science and technology innovations. He listed several high-profile technology projects recently built in Chicago such as IIT’s Discovery Partners Institute and Northwestern’s downtown campus. “When we think about revitalizing these corridors downtown,” he said, “translating science into jobs will be part of that story.” He also talked about the success of start-up companies, and Chicago’s incredibly diverse workforce. He said, “Amazon was a start-up, and Amazon hired 400,000 people this year!”
Dawveed Scully, Burnham Council Leader, Associate, SOM, talked about lessons learned from other global cities fighting the pandemic. He discussed how in parts of the world where COVID-19 is not as big of a threat as in Chicago, their local economies have started to return to normal quickly. He shared examples from Asia and said, “Their hotel occupancy was where it was before the pandemic during their large national holidays. It reinforces that notion that we need to handle the pandemic to have the economic recovery.” He also discussed how CCAC can build a stronger relationship with the neighborhoods. He said, “[We are] trying to understand the dynamic where you can connect non-profits, small businesses, or university assets that may work better, or are more associated with community, and use that to then create a center, or a hub, that can not only supply and benefit the larger businesses and institutions, but also benefit the neighborhood and provide places where they can connect and grow the small businesses there.”
Mayekar also said the Lightfoot administration understands the value of the downtown and private sector’s role in the recovery. He said, “The city government doesn’t have a magic bullet, and I know that the private sector doesn’t either, and that you can’t recover without a strong partnership with the public sector. So in many ways the high degree of interconnectedness is one potential benefit coming out of this pandemic. It’s caused new forms of collaboration.”
O’Brien summarized the event by saying, “There is real opportunity for Chicago to be on the world stage in the futuristic areas of work. If we’re committed to embracing those, and creating the workforce, it will really be a legacy for Chicago.”
Central City – Destination
The second day’s focus on the Central City as a destination, and included a focus on retail, entertainment, hospitality, culture, and conventions.
Michael Fassnacht, Chief Marketing Officer, City of Chicago, who was coincidentally named the Interim Executive Director of World Business Chicago, just the day before, gave a presentation on the City’s plans for a recovery focused on embracing Chicago’s diversity. He first explained that it will be important that before we can work on a recovery, we must first deal with COVID-19. He said he had recently met with Mayor Lightfoot to work on that strategy, of which vaccination is an important part. He urged everyone to help spread the message to get vaccinated by saying, “We have to ensure that the vast majority of Chicagoans get vaccinated, and we do have some challenges, because only if people get vaccinated can we go back to what I call the ‘new normal’ in the third and fourth quarter. I urge everyone on this panel to get involved, to understand, and to be patient for the vaccine. It’s critical for the recovery.”
Moving to the topic of recovery for the Central City he commented on the benefits of the central business district by saying, “We always had an amazing Downtown, an amazing central business area with amazing experiences, and we will have an even better city when we bring more neighborhoods in it.” He predicted a change to the City’s tourism, saying, “There is a huge, huge demand for leisure travel, and we have to re-aim some of our efforts, including some of our private entities, for much stronger leisure travel demand.” He closed by commenting the City needs to do more to ensure people feel safe when they visit the City.
Lou Raizin, President, Broadway in Chicago, spoke at length about the Central City’s cultural opportunities. He explained how the convention business is much different than the business of cultural experiences. He said, “Culture differentiates Chicago from its competitors, and if we engage culture the way I know we can, there’s nobody that can be put up against us. Prior to the pandemic, there were 250 theatres on the City’s theatre scene. There’s no other city in the world that can say that.
Andrew Broderick, Burnham Council Leader, Senior Associate, Perkins and Will, focused on the public spaces in the Central City, saying, “There’s a real importance among local government, in partnership with the private sector, to expand open spaces and expand access, because it creates and further catalyzes the draw of coming to Downtown, coming to the Central City.” He went on to say that public spaces are a way to reinvent the downtown area to be more equitable and address social inequality or racial injustice. He said, “We can be more proactive and creative in using our street life, our sidewalks, and then our existing public spaces, through a programming alignment, and arts and culture celebrations, that can help in those key areas.”
Putting it all together, there was agreement that the City’s recovery plan needs to include both the Central City and the neighborhoods, with each complimenting each other. Broderick said it best: “I don’t think the future is going to look exactly the same as the past but recognizing that corollary between the neighborhood’s grassroots movements and the downtown institutions could be an opportunity moving forward.”
Central City – Livability
The third day’s focus on livability in the Central City addressed housing, public spaces, resident amenities, pandemic resilience, and public safety.
Bonnie Sanchez-Carlson, President, Near South Planning Board, explained that downtown businesses need to focus on health safety which is new to many of them. She said, “[We need] to make sure that we have that safe and secure feeling when we’re going back to business, and back into the businesses, back into our restaurants, and hotels. And our businesses are working through that, whether it’s filtration, ventilation, all of that. They’re taking those steps right now to ensure that this is a safe place.
Reporting on the downtown residential market, Alby Gallun, Senior Reporter, Commercial Real Estate, Crain's Chicago Business said, “A lot of the reasons to live downtown have kind of disappeared, temporarily, because people are working from home. A lot of people don’t need to be close to their offices, so restaurants and bars, and all the other fun places you want to go when you live downtown, are closed. That has a real impact on the market.” He added, “Jobs need to come back for housing demand to come back.” Gallun also commented on policy changes that may impact downtown development, most notably a change that is coming in 2021 to the City’s affordability requirements for new buildings.
Malek Abdulsamad, Burnham Council Leader, Real Estate Consultant, Compass, expanded on that by explaining downtown developers are still moving forward with their projects. He said, “If you look at all the projects that are two, three, five, or ten years down the road -- all these projects are going full force.” He then explained there will still be a supply of residents for those projects, but they may be a different market than what property owners downtown are used to. He said, “The [type of person] of who occupies downtown and who can afford to be downtown is going to change.”
Daniel O’Shea, Deputy, Chief Area 3, Office of Operations, Chicago Police Department, spoke at length about what the Chicago Police Department is doing to improve safety downtown by explaining a different staffing strategy is being implemented. Previously staffing was determined by seniority, with officers closer to retirement policing downtown. He said, “We really want to create a safe environment down there, and that takes everybody working together. “We’re recommending a lot of things, a lot of infrastructure changes, a lot of changes in the way people do business down there … [with] residents being more active within the police department.” O’Shea was also proud of the City’s eventual approach to protests, explaining, “We’ve probably done 100 or so protests since [the change in strategy] with minimal arrests. We’ve fared better than Oregon, Seattle, even New York.”
In closing, Gallun commented on the City’s affordability, saying, “It’s certainly a cheaper place to live than say, New York or San Francisco or some other cities. The cost of living I think is a competitive advantage for Chicago.” Sanchez also said living downtown may change to attract a different demographic. “[Before the pandemic], it seemed that every was micro-units, of co-living, so that they can bring more of the younger population. Obviously, the nightlife, and things to do downtown, and having wonderful views of the lake and the cultural institutions are a big reason why people move downtown.”
All of the speakers also agreed that a focus on transportation will be important for the future of downtown. People will need options to travel between the planned megadevelopments not through just transit, but also bicycles and newer pedestrian options such as scooters. O’Brien closed the event with a hopeful comment for the future, saying, “I share the enthusiasm that, when we are on the other side of COVID and safe together again, Chicago will come back quickly and strongly.”
CCAC will be updating the “Central City Strategy for All of Chicago” in 2021 and will be working closely with the Mayor’s office to coordinate working teams focused on the post-vaccination future of downtown.