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Frydland, Largely Beloved By CRE, Exits A Transformed Buildings Department

When Judy Frydland announced in June she was stepping down as commissioner of the Chicago Department of Buildings, she was praised by a wide array of players in the commercial real estate industry, including architects, developers, planners and trade union leaders.

“Commissioner Frydland is a true public servant and the best commissioner we’ve ever had,” MAP Strategies President Heather Morrison said.

Most city officials don’t receive such accolades when they exit government. But Frydland’s five-year tenure brought huge change to the industry, including a revamp of the city’s archaic building code, its first overhaul in 70 years, a move which finally brought Chicago in line with international standards.

Judy Frydland

It was the third time Chicago officials tried to rework the code since 2000, and success was not certain, Morrison said.

“Because it’s so technical, it’s a huge effort, and you need a lot of professionals working together, including architects, structural engineers, fire protection experts and union workers who can explain how they construct architecture in the field,” Morrison said.  

MAP Strategies helps developers navigate the thicket of regulations that govern Chicago’s development process, and Morrison helped run a volunteer stakeholders group that managed the years-long code revamp.

That gave Morrison a firsthand view of how Frydland operates. And it was her leadership style, which typically meant seeking cooperation and buy-in from everyone, rather than just issuing marching orders, that was key to the historic overhaul.

“Commissioner Frydland is an inclusive person who will sit down with anyone, whether it’s an architect or a union laborer, and be ready to learn from them,” she said.

“Before I make decisions, I talk to a lot of people, and I want them to tell me everything that could go wrong before we move forward,” Frydland told Bisnow.

She has spent decades in public service, starting in the 1980s when, as a newly minted attorney, she went after bad landlords in housing court. It was there she learned how to be a problem-solver.

“I’m not the super-academic type,” Frydland said. “I am more of a practical person.”

Her colleague Joe Romano advised her to just make offenders come back to court every day until they fixed whatever problems landed them in court, rather than imposing fines.

“Joe said, ‘Fines don't get problems fixed, they just fight the fines,’” she said.

One of her first cases involved helping two elderly women get their landlord to fix some broken windows.

“The owner of this building looked like a stereotypical slumlord, with a combover, but after the third or fourth day in court, those windows were fixed, and the women were so happy. I said to myself, ‘This is good.’”

That feeling persisted through more than three decades as Frydland rose through the ranks of various city departments.

“I just loved the work,” she said. “I felt a great sense of satisfaction every day.”

Both of her parents survived the Holocaust, and that provided additional motivation to stay in government.

“My dad’s entire family was wiped out, and I’ve always been grateful to this country, for the American and Allied soldiers who went in and saved us. I felt I had an obligation somehow to serve.”  

Marina Crossings under construction in 2018.

But when former Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped Frydland to lead the Department of Buildings in 2015, she had no intention of revolutionizing the vast building code.  

“I had a little PTSD from the first attempts to revamp it,” she said.

Both Frydland and Grant Ullrich, her future deputy at the buildings department, worked on the last overhaul attempt about 10 years ago when they were at the city’s law department. The task had seemed overwhelming, she said.

City officials started going through the maze of regulations and requirements built up over decades. But reaching agreements on what to change and what to keep proved impossible.        

“I remember Grant leaving the office with these big, thick codebooks, so I saw all the hard work that went into it, and it just fizzled,” Frydland said.

But from the beginning of her tenure as head of the buildings department, she realized the issue wasn’t going away. On her first day in 2015, Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of American Institute of Architects Chicago, paid a visit and made clear his community was ready to tackle the code revamp again. He wasn’t the only one. There was a groundswell of support for change, not just from architects but from other groups involved in construction.  

“The offers of assistance kept coming in,” Frydland said.

Chicago was the last major U.S. city to govern its construction process with a code not aligned with national standards, partly because of its bad history with deadly fires, she added. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, along with the Iroquois Theater Fire in 1903, which killed more than 600, and the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School on the West Side, which killed 92 students and three nuns, led officials to institute stringent fire protection standards and consider the city’s existing code a safeguard against further tragedies. Another reason stood out as well.

“People were used to it,” Frydland said. “Some just felt comfortable with the way things were and said it had served us well for years.”     

But as other cities began conforming to common standards, it sometimes led outside developers to scratch their heads in confusion when they tried to build here.

“We sometimes had to hold their hands through the whole process,” Frydland said.

Emanuel tipped the balance toward reform sometime in 2016, she said. He was attending an AIA event where architects told him about the need for reform. The next morning, he called Frydland and asked her to get underway.

“When the mayor calls you and says, ‘Work on this project,’ you definitely get to work on that project,” she said.

Judy Frydland and her mother, Estelle Frydland.

As commissioner, she absorbed lessons from the two previous failures.

“What we learned was not to have this be a free-for-all.”

This time, rather than diving straight into the details, Frydland, Ullrich and other key officials went through the code beforehand, agreeing in general what was antiquated and could be tossed out and which portions merely needed updates to match the International Building Code. Only then did the roughly 150 volunteers come in and start going line by line through the code.

“And because we started with a framework that managed expectations, it kept everyone from going down their own rabbit holes,” she said. “We were flexible, but we kept people focused with an outline.”

That cooperative strategy paid off. In April 2019, when the 740-page ordinance that would rewrite the code was presented to City Council, it was accompanied by statements of support from a cross-section of industry leaders and passed unanimously.  

The new code will officially take effect on Aug. 1, and Frydland said the new standards should help make construction more affordable by allowing the use of a wider range of materials and technologies. It will also give developers, architects and builders from outside Chicago more confidence to bid on and launch projects in Chicago.

“Now if people want to invest here, they will be able to open up our code codebook and understand the language.”

Frydland’s exit set off rumors that she had run afoul of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Crain’s Chicago Business reported the mayor may have been upset with the department’s handling of the April 13 demolition of a smokestack at the former Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, which sent plumes of debris over the neighborhood, leading many advocates and residents to complain.

But Frydland said that wasn’t true. She decided to leave on June 1, her 31st anniversary with the city, and said Lightfoot was supportive of her and the code revamp.

“The implementation of the code is going well, and that was most important to me. I’ve been with the city for 31 years, and I did five years as commissioner, and now I want to spend more time with my family, especially my mother, who turns 91 this October.”