The entire Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) community, including staff and volunteers, marked a sad day on Dec. 27, 2013, when John W. Baird passed away at the age of 98. Mr. Baird, chairman of Baird & Warner, joined MPC's board in 1953 and was an active and dedicated member for more than 60 of the organization's 80 years.
Mr. Baird called on the Chicago City Council to enact a fair housing ordinance barring discrimination in real estate sales.
"Both professionally and personally, Mr. Baird worked for the same goal that has driven MPC since our foundation in 1934: creating better opportunities for everyone in our region by promoting policies and development that make Chicago more equitable, sustainable and prosperous," said MPC President MarySue Barrett.
At the helm of one of Chicago's largest real estate firms and as a venerable leader in the region's civic community, Mr. Baird altered the course of Chicago's development and, in so doing, shaped the city we know and love today.
During his tenure as MPC president, from 1957 to 1963, Mr. Baird called on the Chicago City Council to enact a fair housing ordinance barring discrimination in real estate sales "against any person because of his race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry." Though the law passed in 1963, neither the city nor its Real Estate Board was ready for true change, prompting Mr. Baird to resign from that board in protest of continued discrimination. Known for his humility, Mr. Baird would later insist that his fair housing advocacy was simply "the right thing."
Through his lifetime of work, he would continue to improve housing and job opportunities in Chicago by playing an instrumental role in groundbreaking urban revitalization efforts. From 1961 to 1973, he served first as a commissioner and then as president of the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission, the precursor to today's Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. In the 1960s and 1970s he led the development of Willow-Dayton in Lincoln Park; Campus Green on the Near West Side; and South Commons near the Illinois Institute of Technology. In the 1980s he, along with fellow MPC board colleagues Harry Weese and Larry Booth, inaugurated the concept of industrial loft conversions to housing with their precedent-setting Printers Row project.
Mr. Baird in an undated Chicago Sun-Times photo
Long before the real estate market embraced concepts like sustainability and green building, Baird was a champion for adaptive reuse of buildings and open space. He served many years on the Commission for Chicago Landmarks, with a focus on using historic preservation tools to protect and maintain Chicago's great architectural heritage, like the Michigan Avenue Street Wall facing Chicago's front yard, Grant Park, while at the same time revitalizing the built fabric of Chicago's neighborhoods. With a commitment to neighborhood open space, Mr. Baird co-founded NeighborSpace in 1996, which helps city residents turn underused spaces into community gardens. Through his long-time leadership on The Trust for Public Land board, he brought an urban park focus to its work nationally and locally. In Chicago, that work led to open space hallmarks across the city, including Senka Park on the Southwest Side, Ping Tom Park on the Chicago River in Chinatown, and, most recently, The 606, formerly known as the Bloomingdale Trail.
Long before the real estate market embraced concepts like sustainability and green building, Baird was a champion for adaptive reuse of buildings and open space.
Mr. Baird continued to attend MPC meetings well into his 90s, inspiring the staff and volunteers with his steadfast dedication. His legacy will long be felt by MPC. Indeed, his commitment to the organization is being honored and furthered by his son-in-law, James Mann, who began his involvement with MPC in 1974 and has been an active member of the board since 1980; and Mann's son and Mr. Baird's grandson, Wyllys Mann, who serves on MPC's Housing and Community Development Committee.
"Mr. Baird was a true gift to Chicago," said Barrett. "Equal parts visionary and 'doer,' he will long set the bar for civic leadership in our region. As MPC celebrates our 80th anniversary in 2014, we will continue to reflect on how leaders like Mr. Baird shaped Chicagoland."
The Baird family is planning a public memorial for Mr. Baird. MPC will share details as they become available. To learn more about Mr. Baird's life, visit Baird & Warner's web site.