The Renaissance man who’s still building parks in Chicago
June 26th, 2016
Open-space advocate Steve Baird is among those slumping his shoulders about Chicago losing out on George Lucas’ museum.
He says Friends of the Parks, which fought building the museum (and park) along the lakefront, used a “short-term very, literal interpretation” of the public-trust doctrine to hinder “a long-term cause.”
“Parks are really important, but I’m not a believer in the purity of a position. It ought to be practical. So right now, that’s a parking lot. It’s not used by people,” he told me before news came out that the movie mogul would take his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art elsewhere.
Baird is CEO and president of Baird & Warner Inc., which has residential sales, mortgage and title companies under its umbrella. He serves on the national and Chicago boards of The Trust for Public Lands. And he was instrumental, along with his late father, John Baird, in opening the Bloomingdale Trail–the elevated parkway that runs along an abandoned rail line on the city’s northwest side. It’s a trail surrounded by parks.
Baird’s divergent interests–business and open lands–have shaped his opinions on how the city should grow.
“When I started (supporting open-lands issues) 25 years ago, people thought I was a traitor,” he told me during an interview in his office. “They’d say ‘How can you be doing that?’ They didn’t get it.”
Baird hasn’t always sided with open-space advocates, either. He disagrees with the purists who pooh-pooh golf courses, soccer fields or playgrounds for not meeting their open-space standards.
Open space “is not the woods,” he says. “Open space is something outside that gets people outdoors and active and is open to the public.”
Baird, 63, grew up in Winnetka and attended New Trier High School before earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1974 and later an MBA from Northwestern University.
There’s no requirement to work in the family business, but Baird gravitated to it.
Baird & Warner, which sees more than $6 billion in revenues each year, was started by his great grandfather in the 1800s. It played a vital role in helping Chicagoans rebuild after the great Chicago Fire.
Baird’s father also played a vital role in building the Trust for Public Lands, and the younger Baird followed suit. It” was a natural, says Baird. “My family always went on camping, skiing, hiking, canoeing trips as a family when I was young.” These days, you might see him fly-fishing, too.
For the past decade, the tall, lanky businessman has been a familiar figure on the Bloomingdale Trail, usually wearing a hard hat. Baird says it’s been adjustment to see real people enjoy the pathway once it opened last year. Until then he was accustomed to only workers on the trail and the 606, as the area with the accompanying parks includes.
Baird’s still got work to do, though. He’s been at the forefront of fundraising efforts, including the latest to raise the final $14 million needed to finish the first phase of the parkway.
About half of the $95 million cost of The 606, as the trail and accompanying parks are called, has come from the federal government. Another $5 million from state and local governments and the rest from private sources. Yes, the state monies are tied up in the budget impasse, notes Baird.
He also expect the trail will eventually be extended to the east to connect with the city’s riverfront trail system.
High-profile names are part of the latest fundraising campaign, including Keating Crown, a principal at Sterling Bay development company; Deputy Mayor Steve Koch (they are co-chairs of the effort); CBRE Chairman Bob Wislow; and Melanie Madigan, a civic activist and daughter of former Chicago Tribune Chairman John Madigan.
Wislow calls Baird a renaissance man with a range of interests and a passion for the 606, as the trail and accompanying park system is called. He credits Baird and his late father, John Baird, with bringing it all to fruition.
“Steve is measured, calm and easy-going, but he has a passion for The Trust. He’s one of those guys who walks the walk. He wouldn’t ask you to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself,” Wislow says.
Seated in his west Loop office, modestly decorated with art he collects, Baird acknowledges the trail has faced some criticism, too. Though nothing like that of poor George Lucas.
There are concerns about gentrification, Baird acknowledges. The trail is just “accelerating the problems” that were already occurring, he says. Property values are improving, he notes, and that’s thanks to parks.
Then he jumps from his seat to pull a map from a shelf.
“We just bought a house on an old industrial site,” he says, pointing to the site. “We’re going to build a park.”