Building Stronger Communities Through Placemaking

Commercial and residential real estate is critical to the fabric of vibrant communities, but it takes more than just a home or a storefront to bring a community together. Placemaking is a vehicle through which key stakeholders, residents, businesses and others can work together to make their community a better place to live, work and play. Placemaking initiatives can be straightforward, like working with an artist and building owner to install a mural reflecting the community’s personality or transforming an empty lot into a community garden, or more involved, like funding a transit study or transforming multiple blocks of alleyways into an accessible park. Concepts like placemaking can sound overly technical or frivolous to those first encountering them. But conversations can begin with a simple question: what do you like most about where you live? “People often talk about things like trees overhanging a roadway creating shade or loving a park where they BBQed with their kids, or a festival where they have local cheeses or breads made in the community,” Christopher Coes, Smart Growth America (SGA)’s Vice President of the LOCUS Development Group, said. “People often identify things that are created by ‘placemaking’ as the parts of their neighborhoods they love most — the places where they can go on a date, the places they can sit down on a park bench to people watch or gather together at a festival.” Placemaking is a key part of “smart growth” — the idea that entertainment, shopping, housing and jobs/livelihood are closer together, enabling people to get from home to work to amenities without a car. It’s a very simple notion that we have a comprehensive way to build our communities in a healthier and economically vibrant  way, and we achieve that equilibrium one domino at a time through a  series of placemaking activities and strategic investments. The strongest argument for smart growth initiatives is an economic one. For developers and REALTORS® alike, metrics like “walk scores” which track proximity of housing to local businesses, schools and transit, have become clear indicators of real estate value and desirability. And when the community takes an active role in guiding development, the best outcomes are often realized. “Working together, we can give developers the notion that we’re not just building builders; we’re building places and we’re adding  to the culture and vibrancy of a place that contains the buildings,” Coes said.


The National Association of REALTORS® is a Platinum Partner of SGA’s National Complete Streets Coalition. As a non-partisan, not-for-profit 501(C)(3) organization dedicated to “improving lives by improving communities,” SGA provides technical assistance, thought leadership, and advocacy support to empower communities and aid them in developing walkable communities with thriving business corridors and multiple transportation options. SGA defines smart growth as “an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement.” Holly Moskerintz, NAR’s Community Programs Outreach Manager, uses these principles to guide her daily interactions with association staff and membership. “If you’re selling a home, would you rather it be across the street from a vacant lot with activity you may not like, or a community garden?” she said. “When you think of it this way, it’s easy to see why we do need to work to transform underutilized public spaces into destinations.” NAR’s community outreach programs are designed to activate those underutilized spaces, making neighborhoods better places to live and creating a desire for people to buy homes and invest in commercial real estate. Moskerintz views placemaking as grabbing the low hanging fruit. “These don’t have to be big, multi-million-dollar projects that take forever,” she said. “They could be as simple as transforming a field of weeds into a pocket park.” Coes agrees. “Oftentimes placemaking can’t happen at the city level because elected leaders can get distracted by citywide issues,” he said. “It happens at the neighborhood level with community groups and REALTORS® who recognize the chief outcome is to enhance housing stock, maximize business retention, and support economic growth.” And who knows what a neighborhood needs better than REALTORS®? When we adopted our new mission to unite all facets of the industry as a leading advocate for real estate, driving REALTOR® business success and economic development of our communities, we identified placemaking as an innovative opportunity for us to better engage, develop strategic partnerships and help activate meaningful community investment and change in the North, West and South Side communities our members call home. We applied for and were awarded a two-year NAR “Mega-Board Grant,” which will provide CAR with $150,000 total dollars to spend on smart growth, diversity and placemaking initiatives and relationships with elected officials. We intend to — and are already — leveraging these Mega-Board Grant funds towards several projects, with more to come.


  1. COMPLETED: Partnered with DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development on a transit study of the bus terminal located at the intersection of Austin and Division in the Austin neighborhood, with the goal of working with community partners in 2020 to make upgrades to the station.
  2. COMPLETED: Partnered with Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI) and members of the South Side Community Investors Association to highlight an up-and-coming retail corridor with a mural of longtime Chatham resident Gwendolyn Brooks, located on the 300 block of East 75th Street.
  3. ONGOING: Contributing to Phase Two of the Lakeview Low-Line project in support of the West Lakeview Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to create an ‘art walk’ in the space beneath the Brown Line tracks connecting the Southport and Paulina stations.


In collaboration with DePaul’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development (DCIMD), CAR used “Mega-Board Grant” funds to sponsor a study designed to determine usage, engagement and accessibility for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus terminal at the intersection of Austin and Division in the Austin community. The goal of this study was to establish recommendations for improvements to the Division Street bus line terminal using a blend of rider volume data from the CTA going back to 1995, community demographics and the existing blend of residential and commercial real estate flanking the bus terminal. CAR plans to use these recommendations to design a suggested plan for capital improvements to the terminal, as well as enhancements to walkability and access in the area abutting the station. These recommendations can be enacted in years two and three of a plan funded by future NAR grants and invested members of the Austin community. Maurice Hampton, 2020 president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®, believes placemaking efforts focused on transforming a rundown station into a point of community pride could pave the way for it to become a true amenity to adjacent homeowners as well as office and retail tenants. “Some of our communities like Austin have very strong transit lines but don’t currently reflect the same housing prices as other communities with the same kinds of transit and infrastructure,” he said. “I believe REALTORS® can have an active role in bridging this gap. REALTORS® see and understand what happens in communities every day and many work with clients who depend on transit oriented development to raise property values where they may have been decimated by the downturn and subsequent loss of jobs.” For Hampton, this is an effort worth making, and one he is eager to see through to the finish. “Placemaking improves communities and communities impact homes,” he said. “We want to help in whatever way we can to spark growth and strengthen neighborhood attributes so Chicagoans can feel pride in their communities because they see the best of themselves reflected back.” C. Scott Smith of DePaul’s Chaddick Institute sees a similar return on investment resulting from this placemaking venture. “A combination of upgrades may be a great way to activate the surrounding neighborhoods,” he said. “The terminal appears to see a fair amount of activity as is.” Smith and a team of graduate student researchers identified vocational characteristics, political geography, including city ward, state legislative and community area boundaries, and other key assets — like an inventory of community groups, while drawing from local, regional and federal data sources to characterize the area’s population, housing composition and trends, and other key aspects of concern, including crime and safety. The goal of this deep dive into the community was to highlight the changing character of urban transportation in the area over time, emphasizing key trends in mobility over the past decade that should be considered in any local public transportation investment. “We hope our research can provide a starting point towards effective and equitable community-based change within the community surrounding the Austin Terminal by providing informed and strategic placemaking processes that will help broaden the horizons of opportunities and support collective learning and knowledge-sharing, more broadly,” he said. “Further, through creative and transformative placemaking processes, the Austin & Division bus terminal has the potential to provide a roadmap for other communities as they reimagine their own bus turnarounds and terminals, of which there are more than 100 throughout the city.”


Another placemaking activity we are currently involved in is our investment in Phase Two of the Lakeview Low-Line Project, spearheaded by the West Lakeview Chamber of Commerce (WLCC) and the Friends of Lakeview (FoL). The Low-Line project was first introduced in the 2011 Lakeview Area Master Plan as a means of connecting the neighborhood’s unique sub-districts by re-envisioning the half-mile space beneath the CTA ‘L’ tracks between Southport and Lincoln avenues as an exciting Chicago art destination and a fun and dynamic path connecting the greater neighborhood. As a unique attraction, the Lakeview Low-Line not only beautifies and greens the neighborhood, but also strives to become a landmark attraction, encouraging both visitors and residents to explore Lakeview’s business districts. CAR’s investment will fund a small art wall along the walkway, which will ultimately play host to rotating art exhibits, creating a larger than-life outdoor gallery. An interactive light installation along the length of the path will playfully celebrate the ‘L’ structure, creating a quintessentially Chicago experience. “The Low-Line Project was conceived from the notion of creating a public space out of an area that was underutilized,” Dillon Goodson, executive director of the West Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, said. “The Low-Line activates a half mile portion of Lakeview, making it smaller than “rails-to-trails” projects like the 606. It is designed to connect two high-performing retail sectors and will help all portions of Lakeview benefit from the same kind of vitality we see around Wrigley Field or along the Southport Corridor.” The Low-Line’s goal of connecting park space with commercial real estate spaces makes it a unique initiative. Once Phase Three is complete, it will provide ample benefit for commercial spaces and create good outcomes for commercial real estate professionals working with retail and office clients. “Even though it resides in Lakeview, we feel it will draw engagement from all over the city because it is a project conceived out of an idea of connecting people and places by revitalizing a part of our neighborhood that was overlooked and underutilized,” Goodson said. “As a result, it’s bigger than a single community and represents the best of the more forward-thinking ideas that can result from placemaking.” Chris Irwin, Senior VP of Retail Sales & Leasing at Colliers International, already sees the benefit of programs like the Lakeview Low-Line and its ability to enhance property values by connecting walkable commercial corridors. “From my standpoint as a retail specialist, I love the notion of engaging in a space below the ‘L’ tracks,” he said. “This area below the Brown Line wasn’t being developed to its highest and best use. If you go walk the Low-Line and explore those streets, you see how they really are the place to be for retailers.” Ultimately, the Low-Line can increase foot traffic and neighborhood engagement. It’s a prime example of smart growth as a forward thinking strategy. “We’re really going back to the way things were pre-car and being forward-thinking on this issue,” he said. “You look at a sixteen year old today vs a sixteen year-old 40 years ago, you’re seeing far less car ownership and licensing. CAR’s decision to get involved and bring knowledge, guidance, and potentially financial investment brings good benefits for REALTORS® in the eyes of a community and for elected officials.”


The final project we’ll highlight here is our collaboration with Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI) and the South Side Community Investors Association (SSCIA). We leveraged Mega-Board Grant money to fund a mural of noted Chicago poet and Chatham native Gwendolyn Brooks. The mural, completed in November, is painted on the eastern exterior wall of a mixed-use multi-family/retail property located on the 300th block of East 75th Street. The mural will serve as a legacy item in Chatham and a physical pledge of CAR’s support of our vibrant south side communities. The goal of this placemaking venture is to support GCI’s emphasis on fostering community improvements designed to spur real estate investment while avoiding displacement. The mural is one in a series of enhancements to Chatham’s existing commercial real estate assets, including a dozen restaurants, an annual food festival responsible for increased retail activity and the hanging of new banners on streetlights designating the Chatham Community. The bright, eye-catching mural was painted by Statik, a muralist with projects spread all over Chicago’s South Side, and is designed to inspire onlookers by providing visual evidence of a poet from the Chatham community who changed the world with her words. “A few years ago, we held a community charette and asked what type of art residents wanted to see,” Nedra Sims Fears, executive director at the Greater Chatham Initiative, said. “Our community stakeholders enthusiastically responded that they want to see  large-scale murals that were bright and colorful and added verve and vibe to the area. CAR’s funding of this mural signals the continued investment in the corridor in terms of both new and improved restaurants and other retail establishments, as well as creative placemaking.” Fears is grateful to CAR and CommercialForum for investing in her community and hopes for continues partnership in the years to come. “It is always wonderful when a partner not only ‘gets’ the vision for the neighborhood, but is willing to collectively work together with the community to make it happen,” she said. “The creation of the Gwendolyn Brooks mural reinforces that this community has always been home to creatives—literary, musical and visual artists. Being able to honor one of our own who lived around the corner from the mural reinforces that there are great people among us—both past, present, and future.” The project was kickstarted by Tony Hardy, senior broker at Marcus and Millichap and CommercialForum’s 2020 Chair, who felt it was important to do more than broker commercial real estate deals involving multifamily properties in his communities. “I’m very proud of the mural project and bringing it to the South Side,” he said. “This project is one small way to shine a spotlight on a retail corridor by beautifying a building adjacent to a vacant lot and transforming it into a point of community pride. And…hopefully [it will] inspire people living there today to change the world around them with their creativity and passion.”


Our placemaking activities are expected to also positively impact our reputation and perception with elected officials in our communities. As lobbyists engaging with a wide spectrum of elected officials and tasked with assessing an assortment of policy proposals and ballot initiatives, Adriann Murawski, director of government affairs, and Kristopher J. Anderson, director of external and government affairs, are advocating for REALTORS® at the city and county levels. Placemaking affords us the opportunity to be seen as an ally with elected officials in the Chicagoland region. “Placemaking gives us a chance to tell a different story of community engagement,” Murawski said. “We are not on the defense when we are turning a vacant space into a productive use. We aren’t pushing back against a piece of legislation, but rather demonstrating leadership at a very granular level.” “Goodwill is a currency you can never have too much of as a lobbyist,” Anderson said. “CAR’s placemaking activities allow us to be at the forefront of investments in communities starved for economic development and create the goodwill needed to better our relationship with their elected officials.” Our renewed engagement in community building gives us a foot in the door with lawmakers by serving up a political win in front of the people they value most: their constituents. “The end goal of all of this is to position REALTORS® as community building collaborators, reinforcing the need for REALTORS® to have a seat at the table when decisions are made that will impact commercial or residential real estate,” Murawski said. “REALTORS® aren’t just selling homes; we are building communities, beautifying brown fields, and transforming urban areas that are underutilized and quite frankly dangerous,” Anderson added. At the end of the day, placemaking is an excellent way to show local elected officials that REALTORS® really do care.


Given the successful launch of these concerted placemaking efforts in 2019, CAR will continue working hand-in-hand with community groups, elected officials, developers and REALTORS® to implement further smart growth strategies in 2020. Our hope is that our placemaking activities will help to break down divisions between Chicago’s 77 different communities and connect neighbors to one another. But, continued success begins and ends with members like you. Do you see an opportunity to turn a vacant lot into a farmer’s market? Is there an over-emphasis on cars over foot traffic in your community? Would you like to see public art or an extensive cleanup and restoration of a gathering space in your ward? Let us know! Reach out to us with your ideas for placemaking activities — we’re eager to lean on your knowledge and expertise to spearhead change in our communities.