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Gottfried Takes Helm At Urban Innovations

It is still relatively rare for women to ascend to the top of major real estate companies, but after decades devoted to transforming River North from a warehouse district into a vibrant loft-office market, Jo Anne Gottfried is taking the helm as president of the pioneering firm Urban Innovations.

Loft-office districts are now commonplace in many American cities, especially those in the Rust Belt once devoted to heavy industry, but Urban Innovations helped pave the way, and Gottfried has been there almost since the beginning.  

“Urban Innovations has been doing loft offices for about 40 years, but it took a while for the rest of the world to discover them,” she said. 

Jo Anne Gottfried and Howard Conant
Jo Anne Gottfried and Howard Conant of Urban Innovations

In the early 1980s River North was a district many office workers and executives just passed through without stopping as they commuted from Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast to jobs in the Central Loop.

“It was a little gritty,” she said.

Urban Innovations only had four or five employees in those years, and Chairman Howard Conant Jr., who helped found the company in 1978, hired Gottfried in 1987 as a property manager. At the time, the company had finished renovating 444 North Wells St., a former Mars candy factory and its first investment, and had recently purchased 372 West Ontario and 445 North Wells, the former De Luxe Candy Co.  

Lawyers, financial professionals and other traditional corporate employees were still avoiding River North, but Gottfried said the comfortable look and feel of exposed brick and timber had begun drawing in marketers, architects and advertising firms that shunned sterile environments.

“All the creatives were flocking to the neighborhood,” she said.

Urban Innovations now owns and manages 10 River North properties, and a portfolio totaling more than 1M SF. Most were gut rehabs, what Gottfried calls “new buildings in old skins,” with updated plumbing, HVAC, electrical systems, elevators and other infrastructure. 

A time traveler from the 1970s might be shocked at the intervening change. The gritty industrial past is still visible, but its renovated structures now teem with office workers, and restaurants, boutique shops and art galleries crowd the street-level retail spaces. Other neighborhoods across the nation eventually underwent similar changes, as local developers realized the intense demand for nontraditional offices.        

The 32 years Gottfried spent at Urban Innovations also brought changes to the real estate industry. In the beginning, she did not quite realize how thoroughly women had been shut out. Urban Innovations was a small office with leaders who valued women’s contributions, and the creative tenants that filled its properties were also historically more diverse than traditional corporations.

Gottfried Takes Helm At Urban Innovations
Urban Innovations President Jo Anne Gottfried

“Within our group there are not any outsized egos,” she said. “People from all levels in the organization are heard, so I don’t know if it struck me until I went to a real estate conference.”  

Gottfried credits local legend Goldie Wolfe Miller, among other Chicago women, for not just breaking through into leadership themselves, but also mentoring many others on how to climb the corporate ladder.

Although commercial real estate remains male-dominated, she now sees far more women like her taking on leadership positions.

“A team from another company recently came in to pitch us on a possible project, and all four were women,” she said. “Years ago, even as few as 10 years ago, that would not have happened.” 

Still, the industry needs to make more progress, she said. At another recent business meeting, “there were 10 of us in the room, and I was the only woman.”

Urban Innovations always prided itself on performing many tasks in-house, including construction, management and leasing, so over the years as Gottfried climbed the ladder, she took on a variety of jobs, including accounting, human resources and information technology.

“I always tell people I got my MBA courtesy of Urban Innovations,” Gottfried said.

“She’s a great role model,” said Miller, who heads The Goldie Initiative, a mentorship program for female real estate professionals.

“Thirty years ago we were worried about just getting into the business, and no one was thinking about how to become the president or the CEO,” Miller said. “So today, it’s phenomenal that we’re having so many discussions about how to get women into the corner offices.”     

Gottfried’s upbringing made her comfortable with women in positions of leadership. Her mother was a city councilor in her hometown of Columbus, Indiana, and helped direct its redevelopment.

And Columbus, located about 40 miles south of Indianapolis, is not just any small city. Since the mid-20th century, local business and government leaders transformed it into an architectural gem, filled with masterpieces from many of the world’s best-known architects.

Cummins Inc., an engine manufacturer, is the town’s leading employer, and J. Irwin Miller, its chairman until 1977, started the Cummins Foundation in the 1950s. It attracted architects like Eero Saarinen, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, Richard Meier, Harry Weese, the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and many others, who designed local schools, libraries, churches and homes, including seven National Historic Landmarks.

As a kid, Gottfried checked books out of a library designed by I.M. Pei.

Her sister became an architect, and growing up in Columbus may have impacted Gottfried’s career choices as well.

“What it taught me was the importance of architecture on the well-being of a community, and how it makes a difference in how people live,” she said.

She has carried that over to her work in River North.

Hub640
Hub640 at 640 North Fourth St. in Milwaukee

Urban Innovations has taken several big steps that will deepen its commitment to River North and spread operations to other cities.    

It formed a partnership in 2016 with the newly launched North Wells Capital, a company co-founded by Conant and Jim Fox that now handles Urban Innovations’ investment strategy, acquisitions and fundraising.

Gottfried said this is a way to attract more outside capital. And Urban Innovations is ready to put that capital to work.

In 2017, North Wells purchased 308 West Erie, a 45K SF mixed-use building in River North, along with an adjacent parking lot, for almost $13M. Urban Innovations, which also does a lot of construction work for outside clients, projects it will break ground this October on a new six-story structure next to the existing building.

And earlier this year, North Wells acquired a surface parking lot at 320 West Huron St., one of the few remaining large land sites in River North. The two partners are developing a specific vision for the 32K SF of land.

Urban Innovations’ ultimate aim is to develop buildings with floor plates of 15K to 30K SF, to accommodate River North’s many growing firms. The company historically served as a launching pad for smaller tenants occupying around 5K or 6K SF, and many move to buildings with large floor plates when they outgrow their spaces.      

But with larger floor plates, Urban Innovations will be able to incubate and hold onto River North firms as they grow, and attract already-established firms looking to establish Chicago operations for the first time, Gottfried said.

She doesn’t anticipate any shortage of demand, as the expansion of high-tech in Chicago has given the neighborhood an engine of growth that didn’t really exist when Urban Innovations began.  

“The tech people weren’t anywhere in the 1980s, and this is a sector that is drawn to the creative office environment,” she said.

Urban Innovations and North Wells also established a foothold in Milwaukee. North Wells acquired in 2017 the former Boston Store building, a 429K SF mixed-use property at 640 North Fourth St. in the Downtown West Milwaukee Business District, an area undergoing a resurgence similar to many Chicago neighborhoods adjacent to downtown.

The developers just put the finishing touches on the portions of what is now called Hub640 that were once occupied by Boston Store and its parent company Bon-Ton Stores Inc., and are in negotiations with a retailer to occupy much of that space.

The neighborhood is seeing a lot of activity, Gottfried said, including the city’s $28M extension of the streetcar system to Hub640, and next July the Democratic National Convention will be held at the Fiserv Forum.

“For a long time, no one was paying much attention to Westown, but now it feels a lot like River North,” Gottfried said.