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Uplifting Black Neighborhoods: Many Focus on Black Tenants, but Lyneir Richardson Focuses on Black Property Owners

March 14, 2023

Lyneir Richardson formed Chicago TREND as a social enterprise in 2016 to catalyze and accelerate commercial development that strengthens urban neighborhoods, focusing on communities of color. Its most recent innovation is an inclusive shopping center ownership and community revitalization strategy to identify, acquire and improve neighborhood centers in urban neighborhoods in partnership with local entrepreneurs and residents.

ALSO CHECK OUT: Two Companies Help the Black and LGBTQ Communities Invest in Retail Real Estate

Richardson, CEO of Chicago TREND, knows a thing or two about this work, having served as CEO of the primary economic development corporation in Newark, New Jersey, for two mayoral administrations. He was also vice president of urban development at General Growth Properties, where he led the national initiative to bring quality shopping centers to ethnic neighborhoods in large U.S. cities. He started his career as a corporate attorney at the First National Bank of Chicago. Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Ben Johnson got an update from Richardson about his recent work.

What has Chicago TREND been up to in the past couple of years?

We bought our first shopping center in 2020, and we now own four. We also have three shopping centers under contract to purchase, and ideally we will own all three or some subset of them by the time we get to [the annual May ICSC event in] Las Vegas. We have also formed a $50 million fund that will allow us to buy at least 12 and maybe as many as 20 more shopping centers over the next two to three years.

What is your ideal ownership scenario?

Our whole focus is buying shopping centers in majority Black neighborhoods and then creating opportunities for small, local, Black and other impact investors to co-own these assets with us. We have enough money to be able to buy the centers without community investment, but our theory is that if people have $1,000 or $5,000 invested in the shopping center in the neighborhood, they will patronize and protect and respect the shopping center in a different way. Right now, we have 140 Black local investors, and our ultimate goal is to have 1,000 of them. By the time we get to [Las Vegas], we will have about 250 Black community investors that own properties.

How plentiful are the opportunities out there to purchase centers that fit your criteria?

We are buying neighborhood shopping centers, places that are in communities and on commercial corridors that, when they are blighted and boarded up, bring down values in the neighborhood. In many of these communities, we are seeing properties that were developed 20, 30, 40 years ago. The shopping center we are buying in Baltimore was first developed in 1947, so nearly 80 years ago. They just haven’t been invested in. Slowly but surely, they need a new roof, they need a new parking lot, they need new face-lifts and they need to be reimagined, redeveloped and repositioned because there is still viability in the market.

“Our company is willing to do the work to get [these neighborhood centers] redeveloped, to work with the municipalities to get the incentives and grant dollars that are available, because we believe if we are patient about their worth, we will be able to create value.”

We are buying properties where there is density, where there is the income and all of the shopping center fundamentals of visibility, access and parking but there is a generation of property owners, either older owners with one asset or bigger REITs, [for whom] these are not their A-quality properties. Our company is willing to do the work to get them redeveloped, to work with the municipalities to get the incentives and grant dollars that are available, because we believe if we are patient about their worth, we will be able to create value.

So many cities want to see these properties redeveloped because in the worst-case scenarios when these little strip shopping centers are run-down and the tenants are declasse, you start to see crime around them, you start to see drug dealing in the parking lot, and they hurt the rest of the community. So our work is another way of getting involved in community development.

Looking back over the past seven years now, is it making a difference?

We started in 2016 with this initiative of strengthening commercial corridors by investing and helping local entrepreneurs identify opportunities and underwrite projects, giving them their early-stage capital and connecting them to retailers. Then during the period of COVID and right after George Floyd was murdered, I remember seeing a guy standing in front of a store holding a sign up saying: “Please, don’t wreck my store. It is Black owned!” It was at that moment that it hit me like a ton of rocks: Nobody Black owns the shopping center. So we have been doing all of this to help these tenants and these small businesses, but who owns the shopping center?

Ownership has privileges, and we have hired Black property managers and Black leasing agents. When we had to get a roof repaired, we found a Black roofer. We structured arrangements to get small tenants and Black tenants to give them an opportunity there, and then when we added on this community ownership component of inviting people locally to have an ownership stake, it really changed our model. Now we have properties that we are not just giving small businesses an opportunity; we own the asset and we hire the professional service providers, the leasing agents and the property managers and the contractors. Our business has really, really changed over time because we found a way to connect community to the neighborhood strip center.

How important is it to have firms like Chicago TREND to increase the diversity of ownership of shopping centers?

We are intentionally looking for and buying properties in majority Black neighborhoods, but typically, the people in the neighborhood are contesting gentrification or they are alarmed by new retailers coming in. They are just not part of the discussion, so through our focus of having diverse ownership that is connected intentionally to local residents in majority Black neighborhoods, we believe we can create value. We believe we can get more government and financial support for the project. We believe that with the ownership, we can continue to strengthen both the patronage of the shopping center, as well as its operating performance.

I think about how many years have I been to [the ICSC event in Las Vegas] and have rarely met a Black-owned firm that has the contract to lease a shopping center. I have rarely met a Black-owned firm that has a contract to be the property manager for a shopping center. I have rarely met an architectural firm that is Black owned that is doing architecture, even the buildout on a shopping center. So ownership matters.

Then there is a whole other discussion coming out of 2020. I talk about it as the year of pandemic, protest and political pandemonium, or what I like to call my own PPP.  There was so much public announcement around closing the racial wealth gap and [about] economic development programs that would address systemic inequality and strengthen neighborhoods. Well, our whole program is about closing the racial wealth gap by owning assets. Wealth is created by owning assets — assets that generate revenue and assets that hopefully can appreciate over time — and maybe they will be passed on down to others. The shopping center business titans of our industry have known that for decades, and maybe I am late to the game of figuring it out but I am working very quickly to acquire the assets and assemble the capital and then to democratize ownership of these assets in some way.

What has been your greatest challenge?

When we were raising the fund, we intentionally tried to find philanthropically motivated impact investors, and man, getting that fund formed was hard. There is no other way to say it. It was hard, but the ownership of commercial property requires you to be urgent but patient so it is going to take some time before we know if we are right. We can acquire the properties and then you do the homework, you do the due diligence, you do the financial analysis, you do the deal structuring and then you make the purchase. You are urgent about making the purchase, but it is going to be five or seven or even 10 years before we will know if we are right. So you have got to have a strong will and an enduring optimism to get to the point where you can say what we did, it really worked.

What is next for the firm and for you?

We have got our work cut out for us for at least the next 36 months of acquiring 12 to 20 additional shopping centers. We are going to be looking across the country in neighborhoods that are majority Black and trying to find properties that we believe we can create value and we can strengthen the neighborhood at the same time. That is going to be our work, and we are going to be laser focused on finding those opportunities and structuring the deals appropriately and making the case to retailers that they can be profitable in the shopping centers that we own.

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