We are disappointed with the inaccurate information and negative way the Activate program was portrayed in the Chicago Tribune article from Monday February 27. Working across multiple neighborhoods, with small businesses and artists, we have witnessed tremendous acts of community, positivity, hustle and learned a great deal about the nuances of public space at the macro and micro level. It is unfortunate the reporter did not visit a single site, event, or talk to the numerous vendors, artists and community groups whose contact information was provided. If they had, a different story may have emerged that would have contradicted the perpetual narrative that small actions are meaningless, money is being wasted and innovative city programs are failing.
This post seeks to correct the record point by point with all quotes in bold directly from the article. We will be releasing our Annual Report for 2016 in April.
1. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel got the City Council to approve his "people plazas" program in spring 2015.
The People Plazas program is one component of the Make Way For People program run by CDOT, which launched in 2012. The RFP for the People Plaza program was launched in 2013. Council approved Latent Design contract for Activate in 2015. The program specifically focuses on existing public plazas across the city
2. The parcels would get city money for physical improvements.
The program was never intended to provide permanent capital improvements to plazas or create new plazas. This is a misconception that the reporter has failed to accurately report despite multiple corrections over the past two years. The parcels do not get money for physical improvements through the program. The primary goal of the program is cultural programming through "activations" to the plazas in three main categories per the contract which can be read here:
- Programmed Events - means an Activation that is either a one-time event or an event that occurs less frequently than on a weekly basis during a season.
- Installations - means an Activation, including a Temporary Vendor Structure (such as the Boombox), that occurs on a People Plaza on either a continuous or continually recurring basis during a season.
- Upgrades - means an enhancement to a People Plaza that is (i) not intended to be permanent and (ii) can be installed or removed in a short timeframe including but not limited to a permanent exhibit/art installation, placement of site furniture, temporary landscaping and bike parking amenities.
The $50,000 of City Funding is available solely for the reimbursement of expenses related to Cultural Programming. The funding cannot be used for physical improvements, public work or upgrades. The funding goes directly to artists and/or community organizations as our financial records have accurately shown. We will get to the numbers breakdown below in questions 10-14.
3. The majority of the 49 pieces of property around the city have seen no evidence of inclusion in the program.
There were 52 plazas identified in the contract, of which 48 are currently available for activation. The contract stated that 10 plazas be activated each year of the three-year contract, so the first year only 10 sites received any programming, the second year 20 were added, and in the third year a total of 30 sites will be identified for programming.
4. Aldermanic concerns that lower-profile neighborhoods would get less attention under the program appear to be more justified.
There are plazas in only 19 of the city's 50 wards. Of all 52 original sites, 33% are in only two wards, Smith and Solis. Two-thirds of all sites are north of the Chicago River. Plazas are selected from each of the five Planning District identified in the contract and proportionately reflect the distribution of existing sites.
5. So far, events have been held in 17 plaza sites around the city.
This is true. The program activated 17 out of 20 specified plazas in the last two years with 56 events last year alone. Remember, we are only working on 10 sites per year, not all of the sites. Based on that fact, our activation rate is 85%.
6. The kind of permanent "capital improvements" envisioned in the city's plan have only been made at three sites.
This is false. Capital improvements are not part of the contract. The contract focuses on cultural programming.
7. Boomboxes that are decorated versions of metal shipping containers.
Yes, they are shipping containers, but they are not decorated, they are award winning structures that have supported over 25 unique independent Chicago businesses since launch. To understand the small business ecosystem and how micro retail can build back retail corridors, support local arts organizations and provide jobs, watch our SXSW video here.
8. Last year, there were 56 events, and 11 of the 17 plazas that hosted an event had just one or two over the course of the year.
There is no mention of how our partnerships brought cultural events deeper into the neighborhoods, which are traditionally overlooked by major arts institutions that are centralized downtown. Working with the Old Town School of Folk Music, we developed a plaza series as part of their spectacular 77 Beats series. These events were popular and provided an opportunity for gathering and enjoyment among neighbors.
10. The initial outlay to Latent Design was $50,000. The city has since added $38,600 to the company's budget to help pay for possible future programming.
The $50,000 is a reimbursable, not a grant, meaning we pay all artists/community organizations out of pocket and get reimbursed on average 120 days later. Out of the $50k, we have paid out $12,815 to artists by end of 2016. The additional $38,600 funds mentioned have not been added to the budget and are not yet available for use.
11. The company also received a separate budget of $78,250 through the city Department of Planning and Development to build the pop-up store near the Whole Foods in Englewood.
Latent Design received Additional City Funding for construction of the Englewood Boombox as allowed under the contract. The impact of the small amount of funding made available has been enormous. During the construction of Boombox Englewood, five ex-offenders were employed as part of a construction job training company and over 20 transitional jobs have been created since program inception as part of the maintenance program with CleanSlate. Learn more about the economic impacts of Boombox here.
12. There hasn't been any revenue sharing with the city, according to Claffey, who also said Latent Design founder Katherine Darnstadt hasn't recouped her costs.
Latent Design invested an initial $100,000 on the program, which we used to build Boombox Wicker Park, pay for the first 6 months of cultural programming and generally have program liquidity since it is run on reimbursable expenses and not a grant. We made a commitment to a contract to complete our contractual requirements despite revenue funding pathways not working out as anticipated at the program onset.
13. Reached by phone, Darnstadt referred questions about the program to the city.
In November 2016, the reporter contacted us as part of their FOIA for the program financial reports and we told them to call CDOT first and then call us back. They never did. The quarterly financial records they FOIA'd are available here.
14. Latent was paid an additional $28,000 by the city planning department for setting up the Englewood Boombox.
This is a reference to the first $28,000 payment out of the $78,250 for Boombox Englewood. This is not a separate or additional payment.
15. Deeplocal, the company that makes Nest thermostats.
Deeplocal is a marketing company for parent company of Nest thermostats. The pop up event recap is here.
16. A furniture company paid $250 to lease space for 10 days in 2015 in a second Boombox store built by Latent at Mautene Court, another Wicker Park plaza.
Boombox Wicker Park is on Mautene Court and this is the first store opened September 2015. Latent Design paid for all development and construction costs it in full, not the city. Since inception, Boombox Wicker Park has hosted over 25 vendors, mostly women and people of color that are traditionally blocked out by the real estate and loan marketplace. Boombox was booked for over 80% of the year in 2016 and is currently booked for 60% of 2017. Boombox Englewood is the second store opened September 2016 and we are actively booking that space.
17. Two other companies had Boombox leases in the runup to Valentine's Day. A'Vents by August got a $300, two-week lease to sell flowers at the Englewood pop-up store, and Mindful Indulgences had a $400, two-week lease to sell chocolates from the one in Wicker Park.
A'vents by August has been in Boombox Englewood since October 2016. Mindful Indulgences is a repeat vendor from 2016. They are amazing black women owned businesses who we are thrilled to have met and support, like all the businesses we have met. It would have been helpful for the reporter to interview instead of only photograph them. Powerful statement on misrepresentation by Mindful Indulgences excerpted below and can be read in full here.
"I believe this article to be a missed opportunity to acknowledge the collective efforts and success of seven licensed black woman-owned businesses that cultivated spaces to share their talents, gifts, and services...The fact that the Chicago Tribune published names and images of business only to associate us with an unprosperous and failing endeavor when in fact the experience we collaboratively created was dynamic and successful is unjust and inaccurate."
- Nicole Melanie Davis, Founder, Mindful Indulgences
18. The people plazas program is the latest of the mayor's attempts over the years to use public assets to make money or bring services to city neighborhoods to be met with mixed results.
This program to date has created over 25 temporary jobs, supported over 25 independent businesses, hosted over 75 cultural events and has shown neighborhood gathering spaces and art in unexpected places have a measurable positive impact. The reporter does not fully understand the social return on investment of this program and has not accurately shared what 18 months of programming have brought to the city. Try not looking for things that are wrong and look for what's right.