Up Close With Howard Conant
Howard Conant Jr. loves hearing “That can’t be done,” then proving the naysayers wrong. From a long line of social justice activists, the founder and chairman of Urban Innovations has been repairing his corner of the world through real estate for more than 35 years.
It makes sense that someone from a civil rights, anti-war, feminist-focused household ended up in architecture school at Berkeley, which is where Howard started his training in affordable housing and urban renewal. In his first project, a family endeavor, he picked up four buildings at Illinois and Wells in 1978. (This was no River North and wouldn’t be for years.) Two buildings were abandoned, two condemned, and the project was much more difficult than anticipated with roofs caving in and the blizzard of ’79. (It was the Bad News Bears of portfolios.) No stop signs, lights, or one-way streets (though there was street parking back then), either. But undesirable neighborhoods draw an improbable set of urban pioneers. They moved into those renovated residential and commercial condos, and Howard was one of them.
Between Lincoln Park and the Loop, the economic engine that is River North seems inevitable in retrospect, and Howard had that sixth sense. East Bank Club gave the area a credibility boost when it opened in 1980, followed by restaurants, galleries, and businesses. River North got its first residential influx in the early ‘90s. Urban Innovations did some of the initial condo projects in the area, but they were never in sync with market swings so the firm shifted focus toward longer-term investments, Howard tells us. Gentrification is not for the impatient, but Urban got in early, put in the capital, and continues to reap the benefits. It has nine loft office buildings in River North (222 W Hubbard, above) and two in the West Loop, all owned for 20 or 30 years. (That's how patient you have to be?! We thought this would be more of a 20 or 30 minutes kinda thing.)
One favorite commercial project is the property built and inhabited by design education non-profit Archeworks (Howard’s a board member) at 625 N Kingsbury. Urban rented the balance to other non-profits including the National Public Housing Museum and ART WORKS projects, and Howard is honored to witness the social justice activism (ART WORKS "Slavery Uncovered" exhibit, above) taking place inside. (Ex. Archeworks collaborated with the Rehab Institute on designing for stroke victims.) The other component of Urban Innovations’ business, affordable housing, also melds social good with economically sound deals, Howard says. The company began redeveloping Section 8 senior housing about 14 years ago, and now manages and operates 38 buildings across five states. The deals make sense business-wise, and they help retain dwindling Section 8 housing stock that seniors desperately need.
What next? Keep wearing the white hat (as they’d say on Scandal), and renovating underused buildings, Howard (snapped with VPs Aaron Zaretsky and David Deuter at 1871) says. That means expanding beyond River North, into property types ranging from unused schools to big box retail to any kind of abandoned building. Sustainability is also a big focus. Urban Innovations was chosen to host a fellow from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program this year, who will create a tool to help Class-B landlords evaluate energy efficiencies and credits that could eventually be rolled out on a national scale. So many of Howard’s passions stem from something his father once said, “If you do something right, people will notice.” It applies to Urban’s work with the city, its tenants, and its employees.
One of Howard’s most proud moments was the creation of the Carol Lydecker-Dwyer Live Your Dream Award, honoring the talented, life-loving longtime Urban employee after she lost her battle with cancer a couple years ago. Every year an employee gets an extra week off and a stipend to pursue their dream—this year one is preparing for a trip to Malawi with Habitat for Humanity. “I’m lucky I don’t have stockholders, so I can do this kind of stuff,” Howard says. Outside of work, you’ll always find him working, whether it’s as board member of the Writers Theatre (rendering of its new Jeanne Gang-designed theater, above), with the Human Rights Watch, or on a church mission to Guatemala.