The Streeterville neighborhood in Chicago’s Near North Side is home to tens of thousands of Chicagoans, important cultural, educational and medical institutions, some of the area’s greatest retail and dining, and a destination for countless visitors who come from across the nation and around the world.
Bounded by the Chicago River on the south, the Magnificent Mile portion of Michigan Avenue/State Street on the west and Lake Michigan on the north and east, Streeterville has an active and involved community intent on preserving the neighborhood for future generations to enjoy. The Streeterville Organization of Active Residents—SOAR for short—is a key component of that community.
Enhancing Quality of Life
Founded in 1975, SOAR is a 501(c)3 non-profit, non-partisan volunteer organization. SOAR’s mission, according to president Bruce Corson, is to work on behalf of Streeterville residents by preserving, promoting, and enhancing the quality of life and community in Streeterville.
As a unique community organization, SOAR is committed to the kind of thorough and thoughtful planning that will allow the community to continue its smart growth. Streeterville residents understand, appreciate and enjoy the diversity that comes from a mix of institutional, commercial and residential uses in their neighborhood, Corson says. SOAR, he adds, also seeks to maintain a viable balance among these various uses so Streeterville can continue to contribute powerfully to Chicago’s future. Stewardship of this asset is something that SOAR takes very seriously.
“We're a voice for the 40,000 residents who live here,” says Corson, “and represent them when issues come up—like new construction, or major renovation projects, to name just one example. Through our real estate committee, we’re very diligent in making sure that those new projects don’t negatively affect traffic and visibility in the community. We work to make it the well balanced, mixed-use community that exists today.”
One of the goals of SOAR, says Corson, is to “ensure thoughtful development and redevelopment of Streeterville through the continual review of development proposals to improve and shape them.” Formalized planning and zoning principles underpin these efforts.
According to its mission statement, SOAR's goals are to:
• Build and celebrate community by encouraging community involvement and recognizing talents, contributions and success;
• Ensure thoughtful development by reviewing, shaping and improving development proposals in conjunction with formalized planning principles and guidelines;
• Promote safety and well-being by championing public safety initiatives, encouraging environmental awareness and providing educational programming;
• Connect building leadership by providing a forum for board members and building managers of Streeterville residential buildings to network, share information about managing and maintaining buildings, and help one another become effective advocates for our individual buildings;
• Partner with local businesses in creating and maintaining a vibrant urban landscape to the benefit of all Streeterville constituents;
• Provide a forum for building managers of Streeterville to network and partner with local businesses in creating and maintaining a vibrant urban landscape;
• And build and celebrate community by encouraging community involvement and recognizing talents, contributions and success through programs, quarterly newsletters & electronic communications, task forces and committees, volunteer opportunities and recognition programs.
SOAR has its own board of directors and a part-time staffer, according to Corson. “We have about 40,000 residents and about 135 residential buildings inside our boundary. We have 18 members on the board of directors, and elect our officers annually for one- and two-year terms. We just recently elected 5 new board members, which gives us 18 of a possible maximum of 20 board members we can have. We also have a paid part-time staff person, Buffy Sergent, who does a fabulous job of keeping everything organized and running.”
SOAR board members must actually live in Streeterville, says Corson, but a businessperson wishing to join the organization need only have that business in the neighborhood in order to be eligible for membership. Corson proudly noted an upcoming objective in which they are collaborating with their business partners to offer discounts on hotels, restaurants, and area products and services. Membership rates are $50 for individuals; $75 for families.
“And we just did something that for an organization like ours was pretty groundbreaking,” Corson adds. “We put together a whole criteria of service requirements for our board members so everybody knows what they’re getting into. In addition to that, we also began to advertise that we’re going through the board nomination process, and encouraged people to apply online. Through that online application process, we had maybe a dozen to 18 people apply for five slots. We were able to vet each person. We met with each one. In this most recent case, we actually met with nominees in teams, and were able to bring on five outstanding new board members from throughout the community.”
A Wide Range of Programming
Corson explains that SOAR has many events year-round from informational sessions to networking socials to neighborhood cleanups and street fairs. One of the more popular fall events is the Artisan Market, which this year will take place November 10-11, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Ryan Family Atrium of Northwestern University’s Lurie Center at 303 East Superior.
There's also the SOAR Residential Network (SRN), a forum for board members, buildings and resident managers. According to Corson, “It’s a special network that brings board members and property managers together on a quarterly basis to discuss topics of interest that they really want to know about, or need some additional background or information. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to network with their neighbors and learn from one another. Much of the learning happens by virtue of them just being able to talk to one another.”
Some of the SOAR Residential Network’s educational offerings center on life in the neighborhood and workshops are geared to board members and property managers. On September 19th, SRN conducted a workshop on avoiding pitfalls in budgeting.
Information and links to handouts from past programs, as well as a schedule of upcoming programs can be found on the SOAR website, www.soarchicago.org. SOAR also publishes a 10- to 12-page quarterly newsletter, and sends biweekly e-newsbriefs to members and interested Streeterville residents.
At its recent annual meeting, SOAR organizers recognized member buildings for their landscaping and extensive greenery. The residential beautification award went to the 400 East Ohio Street Condominium Association.
Meeting with City Planners and Neighbors
One of the ways SOAR connects with the community and keeps tabs on what’s going on in the city at large is through its outreach programs.
“We’ll collaborate with surrounding neighborhood organizations,” says Corson. “There’s the Gold Coast Neighbors, the River North Residents’ Association, and we meet and work with the Greater North Michigan Avenue Association on a regular basis. We just had a meeting with Landmarks Illinois, and we recently met with the National Trust for Historic Landmarks. We’ll meet with the Parks Department. We really stay in contact with and communicate with pretty much all of the established entities in our community,” he says.
“One of our most active committees is our real estate committee,” Corson continues. “Zoning, planning and real estate development issues are reviewed by that committee, and we then make recommendations to the alderman. We’ll talk about things like traffic patterns, the amount of sidewalk space, adding additional restaurants to areas that we think need it.”
To carry out that work, says Corson, “We meet with city government on a quarterly basis. We meet with the
alderman and his staff, and with the commander of the 18th District who is our police commander.” SOAR also meets with local institutions like universities and hospitals, he says. “We continually make an effort to reach out to and to communicate with all of our partners in the community.”
And it’s that sense of partnering and conservatorship that characterizes SOAR most of all. “There have been people involved in SOAR for years, since we started back in the 70s,” says Corson. “It’s a vibrant, grass-roots community organization. People are very passionate about where they live. It's an active group, and I think we’re active because we’re blessed with so many wonderful residents who want to be involved in their community.”
Debra A. Estock is managing editor of The Chicagoland Cooperator.