Welcome Back: How Two Cities Reanimated Their Downtowns

June 2, 2022 • Linda K. Monroe

Tenants and local residents sample tasty treats and shop at the Community Market hosted by 444 West Lake Street in Chicago. (Image by Eric Masi, Torque)

Two-plus years have passed since the pandemic hit the pause button on traditional business operations. Fast-forward to today, however, and many C-suite leaders are setting into motion their return-to-workplace plans. Although a lot of these strategies come with a variety of new scripts, they also feature a replay of former best practices. And, as companies welcome back employees to their brick-and-mortar environments, the time has come—finally—for cities to celebrate the reanimation of their downtowns into the dynamic urban showpieces they once were. Two cities leading the way in their efforts to welcome back employees and visitors alike to their central business districts are Chicago and Minneapolis.


For Chicago, it all began in early 2021, when a group of forward-thinking commercial real estate professionals—as well as BOMA/Chicago, the City of Chicago and other business leaders—started meeting weekly to discuss ways to reengage the city’s famous Loop area. This eventually grew into Chicago Returns, an initiative with a mission “to drive a Chicago comeback where employees, residents and tourists return to Chicago’s downtown, support local businesses, jumpstart and grow the economy.”

“Our first priority was to promote our mission,” recalls Amy Masters, director of Marketing & Communications at BOMA/Chicago. “We focused on social media channels, where we shared information and resources on positive health statistics, addressed public transportation and public safety concerns and discussed those companies that were returning to the office, both locally and nationally.”

CBRE team at 150 North Riverside in Chicago, a 2021 BOMA International
TOBY Award winner, takes a short break to pose during Chicago Returns Week Event.
(Image by Eric Masi, Torque)

From virtual information-sharing, that outreach evolved into four educational events, a back-to-the-office survey and, eventually, a proclamation from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot endorsing the organization’s plans to host Chicago Returns Week in early May 2022. “Chicago Returns Week included a myriad of tenant events, promotional discounts—including 1,000 free parking spaces—and a #chicagoreturns social media campaign featuring prizes with a total value of more than $10,000,” says Masters. “Downtown buildings also lit up their buildings blue in support of Chicago Returns Week, and more than a dozen public activations were hosted by BOMA/Chicago buildings and other organizations supporting downtown, ranging from live music and multimedia art performances to outdoor yoga and a community market.”

Tamala Ballard, a property manager for EQ Office who oversees the daily operations of Chicago’s iconic 3.8 million-square-foot Willis Tower, became involved in Chicago Returns Week through her role on the BOMA/Chicago board. Ensuring tenants’ well-being is, of course, paramount to the role of the management team, she notes, adding, “It also is incumbent on us as building owners and managers to create and maintain workplaces that workers will be excited about….creating environments that are warm, welcoming, hospitable, inspiring, collaborative and enabled by cutting-edge technology.”

Musicians entertain tenants and guests during a
public activation at River Point in Chicago. (Image by Eric Masi, Torque)

Fortunately for downtown Chicago, the return-to-office numbers are increasing. Masters reports a positive uptick in employee headcounts through statistics assembled from BOMA/Chicago’s monthly occupancy surveys to members: In February 2022, the occupancy numbers were at 19 percent; by the time Chicago Returns Week launch, however, they had nearly doubled to 35 percent.

That’s also good news for Ballard and her industry colleagues. Plus, the Chicago Returns initiative has helped Chicago building owners and managers adopt an optimistic mindset and has created, according to Masters, “true collaboration and cooperation” among all parties, both partners and competitors.


Minneapolis is staging a comeback of its own with an ongoing initiative called BOMA Block Builders. Since March was targeted by many downtown Minneapolis employers as a return month—and coincided with the 2022 NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball tournament—BOMA/Greater Minneapolis hosted the first of its BOMA Block Builders events then “to show appreciation for downtown workers and encourage a vibrant return to local businesses,” explains Sarah Anderson, president and CEO of the BOMA local association. “This first round was pretty quick, so it was asking a lot of our members at that time.”

Piedmont Office Realty Trust challenged workers in their US Bancorp building
to Basketball Pong during a BOMA Block Builders event.

The success and enthusiasm of the sports-themed pop-up events, accessed via the city’s unique 9.5-miles-long skyway system, morphed into a second gathering just a few weeks later to celebrate another sporting event: the MLB baseball season’s home opener. More recently, a third event in early May focused on May Day and Cinco de Mayo. “Each event got better and better,” says Anderson. “We do want to keep this going because we know that, although we’re seeing an influx of people coming back, there are still many more coming later on and we want them to have that same experience of welcome.” 

Among the participating downtown buildings of the BOMA Block Builders events were 950 Nicollet and Washington Square, whose well-planned and well-attended events were simple but effective. “What we did was an inspiration mural,” reveals Emily Culpepper, RPA, assistant general manager at JLL who is responsible for the operational aspects of 950 Nicollet, which is occupied by Target Corporation. “The idea behind the mural was to not only get the skyway system activated and downtown business workers engaged with the BOMA Block Builders initiative, but more so to inspire positive energy in downtown Minneapolis. Many people wrote some really wonderful things on our wall. It was so fun seeing people stop and read a bit; you could see smiles light up their faces before they moved on.”

Shorenstein’s Steve Poechmann encouraged Minneapolis workers to tap their
creative side with a mini pottery-making session in the Washington Square building.

At Washington Square, outdoor plans on its expansive plaza were quickly shuffled indoors due to inclement weather during one of the BOMA Block Builders events. Despite this change in plans, “Our event was very successful and the tenants really enjoyed the variety we offered, from the pottery craftsman and free mini sessions to the pop-up retail shops supporting small local businesses,” says Steve Poechmann, RPA, property manager with Shorenstein Realty Services for the 1.1 million-square-foot complex. “We had a couple hundred tenants stop by and also welcomed some neighboring office tenants. It was a great opportunity to showcase our building…while reconnecting with tenants that have returned to the office in some capacity.” Even Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey joined in on the festivities one day at Capella Towers, which also is managed by Shorenstein Realty Services. 


Advice for those property professionals—urban or suburban—looking to engage returning workers to their traditional office environments? Information-sharing, collaboration and outreach are key, according to the participants of the initiatives in Chicago and Minneapolis. “Just do it,” urges BOMA/Greater Minneapolis’ Anderson when asked what advice she would give property professionals in other cities considering similar efforts. “There’s nothing that should hold you back.” After all, a warm welcome is a great way to make everyone happy to be back in the office again.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda K. Monroe, a freelance writer and editorial project manager, was the former editorial director at BUILDINGS magazine from 1981-2008.