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Weekend Interview: Woodlawn Central's J. Byron Brazier On Real Estate's Power To 'Change The Fiber Of Everything'


This series goes deep with some of the most compelling figures in commercial real estate: the deal-makers, the game-changers, the city-shapers and the larger-than-life personalities who keep CRE interesting.

J. Byron Brazier believes real estate can change the world. And he’s starting with his own corner of Chicago’s South Side.

Brazier, an artist-turned-entrepreneur, is the lead developer for Woodlawn Central, an $895M mixed-use project spanning 8 acres of church-owned land in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The plan aims to create a hub of Black life, culture and entertainment and will feature a technology center, a hotel, commercial business spaces, a theater and private residential buildings.

The ambitious project will develop the Black community “from the inside out” — and in comprehensive fashion — according to Brazier, who says real estate is more than just creating places. It’s a tool for meaningful change.

“Real estate speaks to homelessness,” Brazier said. “Real estate speaks to hunger. Real estate speaks to housing domestic violence victims. There's a lot of things that we don't look at in real estate because we're looking at it from an ROI [perspective].”

Brazier spoke to Bisnow about his vision for Woodlawn Central, generating community buy-in and why he expects the project to set a precedent in Chicago and beyond.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brazier speaks at a Bisnow event

Bisnow: For our readers that are unfamiliar with Woodlawn Central, can you tell us a little bit about the vision for the project? 

Brazier: Woodlawn Central actually sparked from a much bigger plan that we have with the Network of Woodlawn, which is a community developer organization that my father [Rev. Byron Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God] put together back in 2015.

When I came on in 2017, I said, “What's your project?” The church sits on 8 acres of parking lots, and ... there was the perfect opportunity to catalyze the process of development without displacement, looking at urban regeneration and social and economic sustainability. You can create a sustainability model for the church and even a faith-based model other churches could look at if they sit on these big swaths of land. Being that the Obama Center is a 10-minute walk from Woodlawn Central and we sit right on a major transit-oriented line, this was really a perfect opportunity to set a precedent, not just for building buildings but also for building the community. 

We looked at culture in a very finite way and said, “Here's visual arts, performing arts, technology and agriculture.” These became districts amongst the community and destinations within Woodlawn Central. We looked at how the development would be resilient in and of itself. It also gave an opportunity for a workforce portion of the concept, that you can still work, live and play in the community without it being buzzwords.

Bisnow: What inspired you to take charge of this massive undertaking of a development?

Brazier: I've always been a philanthropist at heart. So helping people or supporting people is really a key instrument into my development pathway. Because our communities do lack some cultural DNA compared to other ecologies like Chinatown, Ukrainian Village and Little Italy. There's a cohesion, there's a ubiquity within those communities that I really wanted to have in my own community. That's really the inspiration into moving into these pieces of development. 

Bisnow: You've described Woodlawn Central as a grassroots project. What does that mean to you, and how did you generate a sustained buy-in?

Brazier: When I put Woodlawn Central together, I pitched it as a complete infrastructure so that way, it could attract multiple investors, whether they be commercial or residential or entertainment, hotel, hospitality or what have you. The grassroots process is really preparing the hearts and minds of the community, which then builds a much deeper relationship because I'm not coming in from the outside. This is family and friends, right?

So the buying in was not, “Do you trust me?” The buying was, “Do you like this?” In the process now, going from a concept to a detailed plan, we will still need to do some real grassroots communications so that we’re keeping people engaged. We're going to have to do some installations so that way our growth is both visible and consistent.

Bisnow: What does the capital stack look like in the project?

Brazier: We're working through that. Financing has been a little tricky because they're only looking at what the market renders today. They're not interested in your pro forma that says 10 years down the road, this is how it's going to look.

We've had several proposals to be the developer for Woodlawn Central, and all of them did not lead to the vision of what we're looking at for the community, which is to make the community economically solvent. There's bonds out there that are particularly looking to do community development at low interest rates, and we've had two of those offers come to the table because of the intent of the project, not the intent of the returns on the project. We're going to aim to do it that way as opposed to maybe going through a traditional bank or [venture capital].

Bisnow: What would a successful Woodlawn Central project look like to you? 

Brazier: Back in 2010, I did this project called Lacuna Artist Lofts. It was a vacant factory that was worth the bricks it was sitting on. I brought a series of different ideas together to create a hub of creatives and entrepreneurs.

And 12 years later, it's thriving. I think the original owners sold the business in the building for about $12M. I want that 1,000 times, on steroids, for Woodlawn Central. I did that for someone else. This time, I'm doing it for us.

The best thing would be our hotels are thriving, our promenade is thriving, our theater is always sold out, and we're building in other parts of the community in the same way. You’ll have a technology district and design showroom district and agricultural district, and that'll be the whole community. That's my crystal ball.

Brazier intends to create a “holistic and inclusive” community with Woodlawn Central.

Bisnow: What are the challenges that you've seen in getting people from the community to embrace the project?

Brazier: There's been little to no pushback at all. Everybody is so excited about a concept that feels holistic and inclusive. We have given people more hope that there will be no displacement, because historically, whenever you see development happening in Black communities, that means that people are going to have to leave.

But Woodlawn itself has already been displaced. At one point, we had 90,000 residents, and we're now at 25,000 residents. So there's plenty of room to diversify our community but also keep those roots of who we are and where we came from. That plays into the process of getting them more comfortable with change. 

The thing some of the residents are concerned with is construction. My commitment to them was to try to mitigate as much of that as possible by trying to do more modular development, where we can build off-site, and then we can stack. 

Bisnow: How do you generate developer buy-in to fund this development?

Brazier: It's tricky, but it's because of the disinvestment specifically in the Black community. When developers look at investing into a community like Woodlawn, they first look at the [area median income] and they say, “OK, your current populace, their median income is $26K a year,” and so they use that as a baseline as opposed to saying, “There is no market here. What market would we create if we did come here?”

There's initial investment that I think developers are afraid to make because of the lack of income. The development has to be done from the inside out. It has to be in the community, by the community, for the community, and then you utilize the profit into an economic infrastructure. That makes the community cyclical. 

Bisnow: There is the chance for wholesale change in the community as a part of this development. Do you believe real estate can serve as a catalyst for change? 

Brazier: Real estate can change the world. It's just how you use it and how you utilize it. If you're utilizing it for the betterment of something that is ecological as opposed to something that is purely economic, then it could absolutely change the fiber of everything.

Real estate speaks to homelessness. Real estate speaks to hunger. Real estate speaks to housing domestic violence victims. There's a lot of things that we don't look at in real estate because we're looking at it from an ROI [perspective].

Brazier in discussions at Woodlawn's Apostolic Church of God

Bisnow: Are there opportunities that you see for similar communities elsewhere in Chicago?

Brazier: Absolutely. I think that Woodlawn is a catalyst for Washington Park, Englewood, South Shore, Bronzeville and Grand Crossing, where you have swaths and swaths of land empty and vacant. We can start looking at how we not just build buildings but build real districts of culture and commerce, giving opportunity for a return on investment from all kinds of investors and developers.

This is not just about the Black community doing for the Black community. This is America. We are a melting pot of different races and creeds and religions and orientations, and we have to figure out how we can contribute. Woodlawn Central being the catalyst for that will resonate.

Bisnow: Can what you're doing be replicated across the country? And if so, what advice do you have for the next J. Byron?

Brazier: What I am doing is creating a process which sets the precedent.

What I would tell the next me or somebody who wants to go at this on their own: Call me first. Let me tell you where all of the manholes are and all the potholes so you can navigate this a little bit easier. You have to trailblaze in order to bring a model to life.

I would hope this endeavor would model the mechanics behind how you create it and also how you talk to the community and get your family and friends behind what you're saying. It hasn't been very difficult to do that because we've been divested for a really long time. People are willing to look at a lot of different models, including mine, to figure out how they can do it.

Bisnow: How did you get involved in real estate and why?

Brazier: My mom actually got me into real estate. She was a broker back in the ’80s and ’90s, and I would go with her to all the showings. As a young creative, there was something about it I just gravitated towards. I took classes to be an agent and it was not necessarily what I wanted to do. But later on, when I started doing more community development in Bronzeville, I just fell in love with it. My grandfather has also developed about 27 projects within the Woodlawn district on the South Side. 

Bisnow: What about real estate excites you?

Brazier: Real estate is so diverse. There's a character in real estate that I think people miss sometimes when they say, “Oh, I just want to buy a home.” There's a specific type of home, right? It has to match you. There's a specific location that has to render to your culture and to your personality. It's so vast and has a lot of potential to really communicate who you are, who your family is and your hometown. All of that is mixed up into real estate.

Bisnow: Do you have any particular architects or architectural styles that influence how you envision creating different types of developments?

Brazier: From a residential side, I'm partial to midcentury modern. I like the clean lines, I like the minimalism. I also love the turn-of-the-century homes, the brownstones, greystones in Chicago, up King Drive. Those are, it goes without saying, history.

The architect that I really love is Bjarke Ingels. He approaches development and architecture from a very sustainable place, in a kind of a lived experience to how you would dwell within the space as opposed to the space dwelling within an even bigger space.

Bisnow: What is your favorite weekend routine or favorite weekend activity?

Brazier: Being that I'm well into my 40s, my weekends are really meant to unplug. But I am an avid cyclist. Cycling is one of the things that I replaced with my other sport, which was show jumping as an equestrian from [ages] 8 to 23. I have not yet been able to replace the love for that particular sport, even with cycling, but the development throughout the week takes a lot out of me, so I sit here with my family and my dogs and just chill out.