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Juan Sebastian Arias is the new Executive Director of Elevated Chicago

Juan Sebastian Arias is the new Executive Director of Elevated Chicago

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Say hello to Elevated Chicago’s newest Executive Director, Juan Sebastian Arias! 

Juan Sebastian is former First Deputy of Policy at the Mayor’s Office as well as a longtime friend of Elevated Chicago. His leadership was instrumental in forming the ETOD Working Group and developing the City’s first-ever ETOD Policy Plan and the landmark Connected Communities Ordinance.

His first day as Executive Director was May 1, 2024, with former Executive Director Roberto Requejo serving in an advisory role through the rest of the year.

Continue reading to learn more about Juan Sebastian’s work within City Hall and his background as a Chicagoan growing up across the Northwest Side, in his own words.

 

From City Hall to leading the Elevated Chicago coalition

Juan Sebastian Arias standing next to CTA L train

Article by Juan Sebastian Arias, new Executive Director of Elevated Chicago

Elevated Chicago was founded in 2017 with a goal of pushing for more community-driven and equitable development near public transit. In just 7 years, the coalition has built a movement for equitable transit-oriented development (ETOD) that has placed Chicago as a national leader in promoting more walkable, affordable, and thriving communities that connect residents to what they need. I’m honored to have been chosen by the members of Elevated Chicago to serve as the collaborative’s new Executive Director and excited to build on the successes from the organization’s first 7 years to grow and expand our impact. 

As a Chicago-born son of Ecuadorian immigrants, I’m eager to continue pushing for equity and justice in my hometown. I’m ready to work with leaders from across the city to advance Elevated Chicago’s vision of ETOD so that every Chicagoan is able to live in a thriving, affordable community with access to quality public transit.

A deep love for my hometown motivates me to help improve it

Juan Sebastian Arias at Logan Square Community Table

Growing up in Chicago has instilled in me a deep love of the city. And as a queer son of Ecuadorian immigrants and a first generation college student, I am also familiar with some of the challenges that many Chicagoans face in accessing opportunity. The love that I have for Chicago and its communities means that I also recognize how much room we have for improvement, especially for Black and Brown folks.

For the first part of my childhood, my family lived in an Avondale 2-flat while I went to school and church in Logan Square. I loved the diversity of the almost equally Latin American and Polish immigrant block we lived on, where many stores would advertise in both Spanish and Polish. I also felt a sense of belonging at my church, St. John Berchmans, with its vibrant Latine and Spanish-speaking congregation. 

Over time, though, I noticed big changes slowly happening in the neighborhood. While Spanish mass at St. John’s used to overflow with families — to the point that I often ended up standing on the side of the aisle for most of mass — that eventually changed dramatically. By the time I was in college, on days my family would arrive to Spanish mass just a bit tardy, we would somehow still be able to find seats in the first few pews of the nearly half-empty church. 

Juan Sebastian Arias participating in 2018 March for Equity

I slowly realized that the community I had grown up with was getting smaller and smaller. I didn’t have the words to describe this at the time, but I now know I was seeing the displacement of a community. And as I studied more about housing policy and urban planning, I began to understand how Latine families were moving out of Logan Square by the thousands, driven largely by rising housing costs as wealthier residents started to find the area attractive. 

These observations sparked my curiosity in urban planning, affordable housing, and public policy. As I learned more about the history of harmful policy-making and investment in Chicago and the United States at large, I became committed to doing my part to repair these harms and contribute to changing our existing systems so that all people can enjoy the benefits of living in a great city like Chicago. 

These are just some of the values and experiences that have informed my professional goals and motivated my interest in working with communities of color in Chicago to push for change to the status quo.

Juan Sebastian Arias We Will Chicago group photo

TOD then, versus ETOD now

One of the especially exciting, impactful and values-aligned efforts I got to support in my time with the Mayor’s Office was in promoting walkable, affordable communities connected to transit through ETOD. 

Thanks to the steadfast advocacy of organizations like Elevated Chicago and aligned leadership from City officials, Chicago has emerged as a national leader in promoting equitable transit-oriented development through policy, investments, and partnerships. The evolution and growth of the ETOD movement in Chicago over the past several years offers many lessons for the future. 

A brief history: Chicago first adopted a TOD policy to encourage compact, pedestrian-oriented development near transit starting in 2013. 

By 2019, Chicago had revised and expanded that TOD policy several times, yet never with an explicit equity lens. Unsurprisingly, the benefits largely bypassed many transit-rich communities of color and, in some neighborhoods, likely contributed to displacement.

Juan Sebastian Arias speaking at 2019 Elevated Chicago Symposium

Fast forward to 2023. By that year, Chicago had adopted a nation-leading ETOD plan that centered racial and health equity, passed landmark legislation to reform the city’s zoning code for more walkable, affordable, and connected communities citywide, and launched a pioneering $10M economic recovery program to invest in over 40 community-driven ETOD projects matched with technical assistance. 

Now in 2024, ETOD in Chicago has become more broadly recognized and institutionalized through policy change, investments, and increased collaboration. ETOD has also been included as a priority in the Transition Report for Mayor Brandon Johnson.

The switch in Chicago from TOD to ETOD

I started in the Mayor’s Office shortly after City Council approved an update to Chicago’s TOD policy that included a requirement for the Mayor’s Office to put together a first ever equitable TOD plan. 

This legislative hook created a forcing mechanism that endured across a mayoral transition (from former Mayor Emmanuel to Mayor Lightfoot) and that allowed advocates and supportive city staff both to push for its completion.

The biggest strength? A collaborative and equitable process

Juan Sebastian Arias at 2018 Elevated Chicago retreat

One of the biggest strengths that contributed to the successful creation of the plan as well as its implementation was the deep collaboration throughout the entire journey.

Thanks to steady advocacy from local ETOD champions, the City partnered with Elevated Chicago to co-convene an ETOD Working Group to develop the plan itself, from data analysis to policy and program recommendations. The Working Group grew to consist of 80+ stakeholders representing community-based organizations, government agency staff, researchers, advocates, and other civic institutions. 

It takes a village of allies and champions

Juan Sebastian Arias group photo with Steering Committee

A key ingredient that enabled this prolonged cross-sector collaboration were the relationships both within and across institutions in the Working Group – city department and sister agencies, advocacy groups, community groups, Elevated Chicago coalition, and more. 

ETOD is by nature a cross-sector and interdepartmental effort. Just within the City alone, there are at least 4 departments or agencies directly involved in advancing ETOD — the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), Department of Housing (DOH), Department of Transportation (CDOT), and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) — with the Department of Public Health (CDPH) also a long-time champion. 

The position I was in at the Mayor’s Office allowed me to play a convening role to help these various arms of government improve coordination and alignment on a common goal. In doing this, I learned the critical importance of finding and cultivating fellow ETOD champions. 

Building relationships and tapping into people’s belief in the bigger vision of fostering vibrant, walkable, and affordable communities made collaboration and problem-solving among colleagues more effective, streamlined, and even enjoyable.

The value of trusted, collaborative relationships between City officials and community leaders and advocates can be further seen in the example of inside/outside coordination that led to the successful passage of the Connected Communities Ordinance

The strong relationships cultivated within the ETOD Working Group and across the Elevated Chicago coalition created the foundation for City officials, researchers, advocates, and civic and community leaders to collaborate on all aspects of the policy-making process. 

The future of ETOD in Chicago

Juan Sebastian Arias speaking at 2022 Elevated Chicago Symposium

A lot has been accomplished, and there is a lot of work still to do. 

The City’s housing and economic development investments in ETOD have resulted in a pipeline of 50+ innovative projects that will need support to ensure they come to fruition. Current and planned investments in transit expansion and improvement —- from the Red Line Extension in the Far South Side to the Red and Purple Modernization (RPM) along the North Lakefront — also create once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to foster more affordable, equitable development near transit across the city. 

I’m excited for how the collaborative, community-driven efforts that have matured over the last few years will continue to adapt. Chicago and the current Johnson Administration have an opportunity to build on the successes of the last few years by formalizing the interdepartmental efforts through dedicated staffing, continuing the co-governance efforts of the ETOD Working Group, and supporting the robust pipeline of emerging ETOD projects. 

We still have a long way to go to ensure that all residents in Chicago are able to live in vibrant, walkable, affordable neighborhoods that connect them to all they need through reliable and safe transit. 

Receiving Active Transportation Alliance’s Equity Award

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