May 2023 Member Spotlight: Paulina Martínez, AICP
Paulina Martínez is the Director of Business Development at World Business Chicago (WBC). Her work focuses on retention of manufacturing in the Chicagoland region and helps build a vision for the future of manufacturing and implement it.
Q: How did you get started in Urban Planning?
A: A college project is what piqued my interest in urban planning. I was required to attend a festival in downtown Joliet; it was underwhelming and I noticed there was no community connection since almost no one from Joliet was in the festival. I remember thinking “Why can’t we have something nice? Why can’t we look like Naperville or cute towns that put their resources into beautifying their downtown?” I recognized then that morale grows when residents have pride in their neighborhoods and it sparked my interest in work focused on creating community.
After conversations about the profession with Alfredo Melesio, the then Planner for the City of Joliet, he recommended an internship with Will County to find out if it was a fit for me. I really enjoyed interning with the Will County Land Use Department. I then started the Master’s Program at UIC and worked two years in a research assistantship with World Business Chicago while I was in school. Once I completed my graduate degree and through the support of the networks I had built through WBC and UIC, I was hired with the City of Evanston where I stayed for five years.
Q: What experience did you gain in your earlier roles?
A: With Will County, I learned about systems and tools economic developers use, and gained an understanding of collaboration between the private and public sectors. With the City of Evanston, I started as an Economic Development Specialist where my focus was on capacity building in the business districts, infrastructure improvements, district beautification, grant management and more. My work eventually led to the creation of two special service areas, placing 50-75 new planters throughout multiple business districts, new bike racks, over 100 district banners, and façade improvements in historically disinvested areas.
I was most recently the Assistant to the City Manager. I believe I succeeded in that role because I took a generalist approach, but kept the urban planning mindset. Planners are a hybrid of administrators, engineers, architects, and more, which allows projects to keep moving forward. I also established good working relationships across departments through many initiatives including language access guidelines and multidisciplinary public art projects.
Q: What does your role with World Business Chicago encompass and what do you find most challenging?
A: When I returned to WBC, this time not as an intern/research assistant; I started as the Director of Community Impact for seven months and then had an opportunity to move to Business Development & Foreign Direct Investment team to oversee the manufacturing sector, which is one of the core sectors for WBC. My role is centered around big-picture initiatives focused on connecting the different dots and players in the manufacturing ecosystem to help lead the industry to the future. There is still a big disconnect between industry and educational institutions – this type of disconnect is what I am trying to address, to be more intentional in building community.
A challenge for me is building trust within the community because a lot of damage has been done through planning efforts in the past. Fortunately, times are changing and planners have started to reconcile our role in communities through actions that demonstrate we’re here for the community.
Q: How has WP+D fit into your professional growth?
A: My WP+D involvement started in grad school, but after graduation I drifted away for a little while. I reengaged a few years back and participated in the Mentorship Program and I absolutely loved it. I was matched with Tina Fassett Smith; she gave me such good advice and I gained a lot from that experience. I also joined the group because I love to support any groups that support women in any kind of industry and field. I think supporting each other is critical because every single one of us can benefit from a network in our professional lives. Lifting each other up and sharing resources is critical to the success of women in the workplace, and for the creation of healthy communities.
The WP+D programming is constant but not overwhelming; there’s always something to do, always a way to engage with Planning & Development professionals and it’s a great place for women to network and learn.
Q: What career accomplishments are you most proud of at this point?
A: One opportunity I had with the City of Evanston was to work on language access guidelines, which was laying the groundwork for what will hopefully become a policy. Language accessibility really makes a difference in a lot of peoples’ lives. Looking through full government websites can be confusing to the average person and then adding a language barrier layer can be exhausting and very detrimental not only for an individual, but for a community as a whole. If a municipality receives federal resources, they are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for for individuals not fluent in English or non-verbal.
Q: How did you come to dance with Ballet Folklorico de Chicago?
A: I was born in Mexico, and in school it was common for the teachers to make us perform Mexican folkloric dances for holidays like Mother’s Day or Teacher’s Day. I didn’t love it or hate it but instead dancing was just always present in my life. A few years ago I started to feel disconnected from my community and disconnected from myself. Starting Mexican folkloric dancing on my own terms gave me a reason to get out of the house during the pandemic and to participate and learn more about my culture, and preserve my cultural traditions for the next generation. I really love being a part of Ballet Folklorico de Chicago, and being part of a renewed movement of promoting cultural pride.
Unfortunately, the experience for a lot of immigrants has been that of assimilation, but by “assimilation” what is meant is forgetting where you come from and your culture. I think that’s really sad because this country has been built by immigrants. I believe you can embrace mainstream US culture but that doesn’t mean you have to lose who you are or lose your culture. To me, that’s really, really important. That’s been my journey with Ballet Folklorico; it started as a way to improve my mental health and reconnect with my roots, but it’s become my mission in life to be a culture keeper and keep spreading it to communities that don’t get access to that. To me it’s about paying it forward and that’s how the circle keeps moving.
Q: What advice would you share with other women professionals?
A: Network and seek out mentors! Networking does not have to be an event with hundreds of people, you can do targeted networking through LinkedIn or leveraging your current relationships to get introductions to other professionals. As for mentors, this does not have to necessarily be a formal arrangement, but identify those people in your life that you can go to for advice and form your “board of directors”. As the oldest daughter of immigrants with limited formal education, networking, and mentorships have been critical, because as a young person you don’t know what you don’t know, and having guidance from an experienced person in the professional setting is an invaluable asset.
Finally, I would encourage all to seriously think about becoming AICP certified. It can make a difference in the professional setting, and it definitely keeps planners accountable, committed, and engaged in the profession and connected with each other.
June 2022 Member Spotlight: Cat Vielma
Cat Vielma is a Director of Acquisitions at Red Stone Equity Partners. She originates, underwrites, and closes tax credit transactions across the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Chicagoland.
Q: Tell us about your role and what Red Stone Equity Partners does.
A: Red Stone is a syndicator of tax credits, which is a fancy way of saying that we broker relationships between the institutional investors of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and the developers that have the tax credits. We also underwrite, close and asset manage funds on behalf of our investor partners.
I joined Red Stone in 2019 and my specific role is to find opportunities that we want to place our equity in across the Northwest, Midwest, and part of the Great Lakes.
Q: What does that entail?
A: The first piece of my job is finding opportunities, and that means I am taking coffee with folks in the city, at IHDA, with developers, consultants, etc. I’m trying to get a handle on who is applying for credits, who is successful, who is someone I want to work with, who is moving up and exciting, who might be a good pairing to work with someone else I know. I’m trying to give people a value add in the tax credit application process.
The second part of my job tends to be very Excel heavy because those are the opportunities I am currently looking at where they have credits in hand and they are looking for an equity partner. It is my job to think about the investor partners that we have and determine who would be a good match for this development.
The third part of my job is a lot of negotiating and underwriting on deals that we have secured.
Q: It sounds like there is a big learning curve for your job. How did you get into this work and how did you learn the skills you needed?
A: There is a big learning curve and everyone is on it because there isn’t a LIHTC course. What was really helpful for me and my career trajectory was working within HUD. I started on the equity side at the National Equity Fund on the underwriting side which was helpful because I saw a hundred deals every year. I saw so many different types of deals, developers, and places.
At HUD, because I was young, and curious, and I knew a little bit about LIHTC, they really threw me into things.
Those opportunities made me feel more empowered and at my next job I asked more questions, I pushed back, and I was more direct about wanting to learn, versus waiting for someone to pick me up and teach me. I think that is still the case today. I learn so much from my peers, from our underwriters, from my boss, etc. It’s an ever evolving program that requires constant learning.
Everyone knows pieces of [LIHTC], but there is not one single person who can say “I know everything about LIHTC there is to know.” We’re all in the same boat and I think that makes LIHTC equity an equalizer of different skills sets. If you’re curious, thoughtful, kind, and focused, you can do really well - regardless of if you have a planning degree, a finance degree, or an art degree.
Q: We’ve talked before about the need for increased diversity in the industry. Can you share with me what you see as the value of making this a priority and what your thoughts are on how we get there?A: On why I think it is an urgent need - selfishly, because the industry needs to survive and needs to thrive. Every month, I read an article about people in the industry retiring and I don’t see an equal amount of young people entering the industry.
I also think that the industry has done really well creating different little facets out of this weird tax widget. Out of the tax credit program, we have created housing for young adults with intellectual disabilities, housing for seniors, women, etc. I think that there is a lot more power if you have people coming out of the community who have benefited from LIHTC and have a real passion for it because they know it, to be the ones helping to create a development. I think this would only serve to make the developments better and more tenant focused. I think the program has reached the stage where we are pretty good at housing people – we don’t house enough people, so how do we house people well enough that they don’t stay in LIHTC forever? Are there people we can help stabilize, get their next job, and their next, next job, and save for a house? Being able to do that is maybe something we can only do when we have more people who understand the deep need for housing because they have lived it.
In the last 18-months, a lot of institutions, agencies, funders, etc. have been throwing money at trying to find a developer who is a person of color because that feels like the most obvious solution. But I think that the actual answer is much more complex and it’s hard. It’s going to local colleges and schools and talking to people in finance and development programs, telling them about the tax credit program, and saying “we know you’re learning about development, but have you heard about this really cool, stable, decently paying tax program where you can take your skill set and do really well while also doing good.” It’s a pretty easy pitch, but we need to start with young people.
Q: What's a project you have worked on that you are most proud about?
A: There’s one that’s local, it’s a deal called Grace Manor and it is designed by JGMA which is a minority architecture firm. It’s along Ogden on Route 66 in Lawndale, which has historically been under capitalized, and as a kid from Pilsen, it feels pretty personal to me. The City, the developer, and the architect, are coming up with a unique vision to not just build affordable housing, but to build something really beautiful that will beautify the space and draw people into it.
One project that I’m excited about that is not local is a deal in Denver that is one hundred percent permanent supportive housing for transitional aged youth (18-24 yrs). There is a huge homeless problem in communities like Denver and the state more broadly. About a third of the young homeless population in Denver are LGBTQ+ whose families had kicked them out of their homes in neighboring states, and Denver felt like the closest safe haven for them. As a same-sex parent it speaks to me personally as trying to house young adults who are starting out in their lives and being dealt a really bad hand. It’s really great when you get to tour a development like this and they are fully occupied because you know that everyone living in that development has had the arc of their life has changed based on living in that development, and that is really exciting to me.
March 2022 Member Spotlight: Lobna Anous
Lobna Anous is an entrepreneur and founder of U for Urban Impact, based in Egypt, and a graduate student at UIC in the Master of Urban Planning and Policy program. WPD first connected with Lobna at our summer member appreciation picnic, and we are amazed by her passion in regenerating underdeveloped areas.
She co-founded U for Urban Impact along with another urbanist, Salma Osman, with a vision for creating a global platform based in Cairo, Egypt, that tackles the rising urban challenges worldwide. This social enterprise focuses on the intersection between social and urban impacts. Placing the individual at the center of the process, the enterprise uses travel and event-based strategies as tools of integrating the community in urban regeneration through community events, competitions, and local and global exchange opportunities.
Q: Why did you decide to start your own organization?
A. Founding our own organization came about naturally as a solution to the urban problems we were witnessing. We never imagined our own organization at first, but we did know that we had (and continue to have) a responsibility to make the world a better, more connected, and more inclusive place. We come from a different side of the world where our diverse backgrounds and constant passion for travel provided us with a global mindset when it came to looking at the urban scene. We started discussing how cities are rapidly expanding while their old segments are left neglected and in need of intervention. We wondered how we could capitalize on individuals' power as a response to such issues. How can we look at vacant lots as opportunities rather than challenges? How can we open a conversation between all stakeholders to reach more inclusive solutions? Out of that, the idea of “U for Urban Impact” came to life to reshape cities and streets through a participatory process globally. We use cross-cultural exchange as the tool to empower people so they can travel while impacting cities.
Q: What’s your favorite project in your organization?
A. There are several projects that are close to my heart, such as our first global urban festival - "U Meet: The Urban Week” - as well as our first urban regeneration project called “U Travel: Humans of Tunis Village” located in Fayoum, a small village of a city southwest from Cairo. The whole idea behind “U Meet” was to create a community event that spreads awareness on the role of the individual in re-imagining streets and cities. The event took place over one week, in a hybrid form including activities like community interactions, space activation, and a series of global panel discussions.
“U Travel: Humans of Tunis Village” was the first real testing of our main service. The project aspired to have an impact not just on the village's physical space but also its humans. That’s why our intervention was divided into two types: physical intervention and social intervention.
After many field studies and consulting with the community we decided to design this project following a tactical approach by creating a pilot project then having the potential to expand and spread around the village. This initial physical intervention phase includes shading parts of the main street (see in the photo at left), installing street furniture around the main spine, and upgrading the signage system and wayfinding through art.
Regarding the second intervention, it is important to note that creating any change in a space with a high cultural identity and tight community relations is not a simple process. It requires continuous testing and experimentation, as well as listening to the feedback of all stakeholders. That’s why from the moment this project was a concept until its implementation phase, we ensured that certain criteria could not be compromised, such as individual power and sustainability. As much as this gave the project a great strength and credibility, it was a huge challenge to achieve these goals. It required extensive planning and negotiations with the community on their needs, as well as visualizing with them the intervention. In addition, it demanded local sustainable materials and testing them to insure their viability as well as sustainability by local workers.
Q: What is the most important thing you receive from this organization?
A: I believe the most important thing we’re learning throughout this journey is the essential role that partnerships and collaborations play in creating an effective change. The issues that face today’s world are very multidisciplinary and do not concern one field or specialization. In addition, the responsibility of solving them is beyond the capacity of a single party. That’s why people and entities from different backgrounds need to join forces to build more resilient cities. We are witnessing throughout our projects how collaborations facilitate the creation of a positive impact and also a sustainable one.Q: Your vision to integrate/expand this local organization globally?
A: As we live in a highly globalized world, cities are connected more than ever and affecting each other, directly or indirectly. This thought guided the formulation of our vision based on a set of goals that we call “the 4 Global Goals,” which we believe are the key to achieving an inclusive built environment. Those goals are: Rebuild, Recycle, Reconnect and Rebrand, and they are the pillars of our organization. Our expansion tool lies in the partnerships we build in each city. They serve as the extending arms of the organization, facilitating our search for projects as well as working with us on establishing a base in each city to reach as many potential urban travelers as possible. Our ultimate goal is to have a U for Urban Impact team based on each continent and acting as a catalyst for urban development.
Q: What’s your vision in your next five years for yourself, and as a forthcoming graduate student?
A: My vision for the future involves several aspects. The first is related to the expansion of the organization’s portfolio to include more local and global projects. The next five years would involve expanding U for Urban Impact to at least one other city outside of Egypt. That way we would be able to achieve the first milestone of a global organization. As for my personal goals, I would like to integrate both academic and professional experiences to build a strong foundation for any projects I work on. I feel having both skills leads to well-grounded and effective interventions.
It has been a great journey to share my story along the way! Please feel free to check out our website to know more about us. Or contact me if you are looking for more information and conversation. Conversation generates collaborations and therefore impact!
Follow along on Instagram and Facebook at @uforurbanimpact.
November 2021 Member Spotlight: Kate Portillo, AICP
Kate Portillo is Staff Planner III with Rolf Campbell Associates. In her role, Kate provides community planning, zoning analysis and process support, economic development services and staff augmentation as a consultant to municipalities and private clients. We recently sat down with Kate to learn more about her career journey and perspective on planning.
Q: Tell me more about your work. What does a Staff Planner do?
A: I see myself in the planning role sometimes as helping to analyze risk. I’m answering the questions, what does it look like to put money behind something new? What are the possible adverse risks on the community? What is the possible gain? One of the challenges of my role is that I’m not there to infuse my personal opinions. I’m there for professional counsel and to help inform decision makers in their decisions. The planner has a unique position of being a researcher and shepherd of information that can take communities to the next level. You can advocate for certain ideas and push back on false concepts. We have our core values and as a planner I have been given the tools to guide sound decision making, it’s not done from a place of emotion.
Q: What are your professional goals?
A: I am motivated to continue making a greater impact in terms of facilitating change but I recognize that what works in one community might not work in another and my own personal desires for a project might not be what people are asking for and want in their community. I just received my AICP and knocked out one goal. I think that if I continue in municipal planning that at some point I would be interested in being the community development director or being at the lead role of representing the dynamics that a community wanted itself to be.
Q: Why did you choose to pursue certification?
A: I am aware that there is a range of opinions on the value of [certification] and some of that comes from the historical trends of who would be earning their AICP. There is a lot that our field is still reckoning with. I like holding myself to the ethical standards [of AICP] and it took work to go through the required steps. I would hope that I am part of the changing landscape of who that group is. One thing I have tried to do is leave myself open to people who are looking to go through the process too. I’ll give whatever feedback I can but I’ll be as supportive as I can.
Q: What is some advice you would offer to others pursuing certification?
A: This is going to sound corny. I’m a power of positive thinking person and I think that self-talk is so important. Keep encouraging yourself and be good to yourself, and don’t be too hard on yourself. For someone coming out of school, try to do it sooner rather than later because the test is pretty academic and some of the information will be fresh in your head. Use your resources. There are a lot of groups to find study partners.
Q: What is a dream planning project for you?
A: My answer right now would be business incubators or sustainability projects. I haven’t been in the mix on either of those things yet and I would love to be part of a community where there was value placed on innovation as an economic development tool, community building tool, small business supportive project. I really believe those are some dynamic projects going on in the planning world right now. I love hearing about them and I would love to be a part of them.
I see enough of what I would call typical development in my professional life and I know that with some cooperation we could have more dynamic housing projects that focus on issues of flooding with rain gardens and permeable pavements. It’s not my area of expertise, but again, that’s part of the beauty of planning, you can expand and experientially become more talented at certain things.
January 2021 Member Spotlight: Laurie Marston, FAICP
Laurie has 45 years of experience in providing planning services to municipalities, businesses, developers, and nonprofit organizations. She was also present at the very first WP+D meeting over 25 years ago. Laurie recently retired from her career as a planning consultant, working with other consulting firms or doing some work solo. She also served as the technical adviser to DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute, which partnered with APA Illinois, providing plan commission training around the state. We recently sat down with her - virtually! - to learn more about her career, community engagement, and where she sees the industry going forward.
Q: How did you first discover planning as a profession?
A: When I was an undergrad at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, they offered something called a Jan Plan. During the month of January students could take a short course, do fieldwork with a professor, work at a job, travel, or something else of your choosing. During one Jan Plan, I took a class with two civil engineering professors that was all about planning, which was so cool. That was my first real exposure to it. Just after I graduated, I spent the summer working at the local Union County planning department. It was a rural area, so it was just a few students and the planning director! After that initial exposure to the field, I never looked back.
Q: How did WP+D and your involvement with it come about?
A: Laurel Lipkin and Cassandra Francis originally came up with the idea. They sent out a mailing to a number of different lists of women that were involved in planning, development and related fields. I was on one of those lists. Our first meeting was at the 3 Arts Club on a snowy night. When I arrived, the place was completely packed which was so exciting! There was clearly a need for what the two founders had tapped into, bringing women in this industry together for networking, mentoring, professional development programs, volunteer programs and the opportunity to socialize too.
Later at the first meeting of the Board of WPD, we didn’t have a gavel, but somebody had a hairbrush, so that became the gavel. For a number of years when the new board was sworn in, the outgoing board president gave the hairbrush to the incoming president to use for the next year. I love that tradition and the spirit of the membership that it represents: being able to improvise to solve a problem with a sense of humor. All these years later, I still continue to engage as a member and attend WPD programs when I can.
Q: Where do you see the industry going in the next 5-10 years?
A: There are so many good organizations working in planning and development, but I have been seeing an evolution over the past several years, which has only been accelerated by the pandemic. Previously, organizations in various fields stuck to their subject matter - housing, the environment, transportation, etc. - but now people are seeing just how interrelated issues are. For example, peace groups are seeing how climate change is affecting refugee migration patterns, which can lead to conflicts, perhaps resulting in violence. Environmental groups are now more involved in issues of racial justice. Labor unions are getting engaged around issues like voting rights.
This change relates to planners because we’re trained to look at the big picture. Geography, for example, is not something that most other professionals typically look at, but planners do. We also have the big picture in terms of time: we want to know what happened historically, while also looking toward the future. I’m optimistic that the next few years will be good ones for the industry as planners help society to solve these pressing issues in a much more holistic way.
A: What was the most challenging project in your career? The most fun?
Q: One of the most challenging projects was with a client looking to utilize a property as a small group home for seniors needing memory care. They found the perfect home for their needs – a one story home on a large lot, tucked away between trees, and adequately distanced from the neighbors. The consultant team completed a market analysis which showed a definite need for such a facility in the community. We talked with staff in several other communities about similar facilities. They all indicated that, once operational, the neighbors had not expressed concerns. The proposed group home would have little impact owing to its small size. However, at a public hearing, we learned how many residents were opposed and vocalized their thoughts on what supposedly horrible things would happen to their community as a result of this group home and the people who would live and work there. Even a medical doctor spoke out against it! I expected some opposition, but was disappointed and surprised at the viciousness of the comments. Ultimately, the client withdrew the request before the village board vote. This was such a loss, as this facility was exactly what this community needed, and there would be negligible impacts.
On a much more positive note, about fifteen years ago, I was part of the consultant team for the Glenview Park District for a working farm on Lake Ave. A family who had immigrated to the area from Germany had owned the property since the mid-1800s. When the last family member had passed away, her will directed that the property be sold to the highest bidder. The likely result would have been the loss of the farm to development. A citizens group asked the Park District to purchase the property to preserve it as a working farm. The Park Board appreciated the group’s goal, but was not sure that the community wanted to devote substantial funds to saving the farm. However the Park Board agreed to put a referendum on the ballot for funds to purchase the farm. With the active support of the citizens group, the referendum passed! The Park District asked us to develop a Master Plan for the farm, which included at that time a single family home, a barn and cows. We had a wonderful experience doing an all-day charrette with the citizens’ advisory committee to envision what the property could become. Small groups each created a vision, then shared it with the entire group which provided feedback. Based on the ideas from the charrette, we worked with the citizens’ advisory committee to refine the plan, which the Park District then adopted. To our delight, the plan was implemented over time and the farm continues to operate today. I loved this project because it was a community project, where people were excited, passionate and worked together for the greater good.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: I’m so thrilled that WP+D is gearing up to celebrate 30 years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long! True story: during WP+D’s 25th anniversary celebration at the Union League Club, we realized that at the time that WP+D was founded, our members would not have been able to enter the Club without being accompanied by a male member! Just one of many reminders of how far we’ve come.
March 2020 Member Spotlight: Katanya Raby
Katanya Raby exemplifies commitment to the planning profession and to the communities and residents we serve. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois Chicago, with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a Master's in Urban Planning and Policy. At UIC, Katanya served as the Graduate School Representative to the APA-IL Chapter Board. Currently, in her role as Associate Outreach Planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Katanya is an important contributor to the ON TO 2050 regional planning effort and to CMAP's Local Technical Assistance Program, which helps communities put plans into action for their residents.
In particular, she helps coordinate and execute the agency’s public outreach, ensuring that those residents' voices are heard loud and clear in the development and implementation of plans. Katanya brings a deep understanding of challenges communities face, including institutional inequities, historical segregation, and economic isolation. Urban planning is a vehicle for Katanya’s great passion: getting people interested in the world around them and in how we might – together – improve quality of life for all.
Katanya also works to promote diversity and inclusion in the field and in the workplace. At UIC, she co-founded the Society of Black Urban Planners to develop programs promoting diversity in the graduate school and to facilitate discussions on urban planning concerns. She now serves on the APA-IL Diversity Committee.
Katanya’s passion includes the next generation of citizens and planners, focusing much of her public engagement work on students and youth as she co-manages CMAP’s Future Leaders in Planning program for high school students. Katanya also developed Exposure, an after-school program for planning in Chicago’s Bronzeville area that is sponsored by UIC’s Society of Black Urban Planners. And she is involved in building support for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s No Small Plans graphics novel to foster youth civic engagement.
Katanya’s impulse to create discussion about improving public spaces even finds expression in her artwork. In her spare time, Katanya enlists underserved neighborhoods in placemaking and creates interactive public art installations, murals, and beautification projects. Katanya is the recipient of the American Planning Association’s, Illinois Chapter 2017 Emerging Planner Service Award.