al Chalabi, Suhail A.J. (1940 - 2015) Suhail al Chalabi loved the Chicago Region. Like most architects, he appreciated structures by architects from Wright to Mies to Gang. And, as a son of the desert, he reveled in the waters of Lake Michigan, the ponds of Lincoln Park and the Chicago River. But his love of the region came from his great knowledge of it, monitored and compiled over nearly fifty years: work with its community leaders, suburban managers and city mayors; a precise mental image of its infrastructure; and how its expressways, airports and rail shaped the regional economy. This knowledge led to development of many transportation models, and culminated in the simplest, yet most complex, which charted past regional growth and forecast socio-economic development, by small area, for the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Region. Suhail al Chalabi was born to a large and prominent family in Baghdad, Iraq, July 14, 1940. His grandfather, uncles, and cousins were bankers, businessmen and community leaders who assumed major roles as the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire were forged into the nation of Iraq. Many family members became cabinet members; and community service was a family obligation. Suhail's father, a graduate of the University of California and Columbia University, was Director of the Iraq Development Board (investing 7% of Iraq's oil revenues) and a delegate to the 1945 United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco. Awash in oil monies and its emergence as a new nation, Iraq attracted designers, creatives and literati, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Agatha Christie and Gertrude Bell (who helped determine the borders of Iraq and other Mideast nations.) Placement in universities and scholarships to attend them were based on National Exams. Suhail earned acceptance and scholarships to MIT, earning his Bachelor Degree in Architecture in 1962. He went directly from there to Athens, Greece to study urban planning and regional economics from the Athens Technological Institute (ATI), earning a Master's Degree in 1965. Studies related to work with Doxiadis Associates took him to Libya for its first Housing Census and preparation of an Urban Development Plan for Guanabara State (Brazil), both in 1964. Early in the Athens school year, Suhail met another recent architecture graduate (from Carnegie Mellon University) who would become his ATI colleague, wife and life-partner, Margery al Chalabi. They married on the Island of Rhodes, in 1965, and returned to the United States. "We lived and grew together for over 52 years; supporting and complementing one another like two saplings fused into a tall old tree", said his wife. After a brief review of job options, they both found positions in Chicago. Suhail as many young architects joined the firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) in its urban planning department (1965-66). His major project was the air rights development plan for the Illinois Center. But Mr. al Chalabi's real contribution to the Chicago Region began with his employment at the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), where, between 1966 and 1974, he served as Research Director. "Suhail was a planner with a mathematician's mind. He was able to construct the models that explain regional growth in jobs, population and land use. He also was a lifetime friend", said Larry Christmas, NIPC's Executive Director. He was in charge of socio-economic and demographic studies for the six-county NIPC region. He supervised a number of regional land use studies including the Open Space Plan and Community Profiles and developed the initial GIS for the region. He also developed a model for forecasting social and economic impacts (and their land use impacts) of major infrastructure projects. Mr. al Chalabi continued his regional planning efforts with the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS), becoming Deputy Executive Director. Between 1974 and 1980 he supervised the division of planning, research and development, preparing the region's Long-Range Regional Transportation Plan. In this role, he worked directly with the region's many urban and transportation planners, transit operators, mayors and managers and consulting firms. "Suhail was confident of all his work; but he also was egalitarian in all he did, respecting men and women, rich and poor, all races and ethnicities, equally, soliciting their input", said his wife. As part of a major reorganization, in 1980, Mayor Jane M. Byrne brought in the esteemed urban planner, Ira Bach, as her Chief of Staff. Her major interest was to develop a greater cooperation with other urban and suburban interests of the region. Mr. Bach recruited Mr. al Chalabi to assist in that effort as a Special Assistant in the Mayor's Office. Eventually, he became Deputy Commissioner of Development and Planning and Commissioner of Economic Development. Significant achievements included: regional cooperation on water; planned expansion of O'Hare; and development of the Ten-Year Capital Budget and Transportation Plan to support the City's successful effort to win the 1992 World's Fair. This Ten Year Budget was incorporated into and became a framework for developing the City's Comprehensive Plan, Chicago 1992, a task he shared with Margery al Chalabi, who was recruited by the Mayor's Office to prepare that Plan. He also worked directly with numerous firms to expand existing plants or to encourage location in Chicago, including expanding the Financial Futures Exchange. A special assignment from the Mayor involved the design from existing molds of the Children's Fountain, currently located next to the Chicago History Museum, but with plans to be moved to the recently-dedicated Jane M. Byrne Park. With the Byrne re-election loss, Mr. al Chalabi joined, with his wife, to form the eponymous firm, ACG: The al Chalabi Group, Ltd. Early efforts continued assistance to firms to locate or expand in the Chicago region. However, a breakout and landmark project was saving the Chicago Theater from demolition and developing a financial plan to purchase and rehabilitate it. Eventually, ACG also oversaw Theater operations, as well. After a contentious period with a later City administration regarding ACG's participation in planning for the proposed Third Chicago Airport, the City took over the theater. But, it still stands, a Chicago icon, now owned and operated by the Madison Square Garden Company. Planning for the Third Airport became a major project for the al Chalabi Group, one that prolonged by opposition by the City and O'Hare's major airlines encouraged Mr. al Chalabi and his firm to complete its most creative work ultimately developing models and methodologies proving the economic impact of major airports and other transportation projects; this expertise became the hallmark of the firm. "Suhail was committed to a balanced regional growth. He regarded the South Suburban Airport as an opportunity to provide that balance, while strengthening the region, overall", said Mr. Ed Paesel, SSMMA's Executive Director. This expertise was employed in increasingly -sophisticated means in dozens of projects for the next thirty years of Mr. al Chalabi's work. These included projects for major new bridges - connecting the U.S. and Canada in Detroit, and the Ohio River Bridges in Louisville; commuter and high-speed rail, expressways and tollroads; the first suburb-to-suburb bus, for Pace; as well as socio-economic development plans for Chicago's South Suburbs; strategic regional transportation plans for Chicago, the RTA, and the State of Illinois; and socio-economic forecasts for the Greater Chicago Region. Many of these studies were done as part of large, interdisciplinary consulting teams, others as prime contractor, primarily for the Illinois and Indiana Departments of Transportation. Mr. Kirk Brown, the former Secretary of IDOT, said, "Mr. al Chalabi was the complete professional. His analyses were broad and comprehensive. He knew (and proved) how the region's transportation network determined how the region grew and prospered. He was a great visionary and a good friend." Mr. al Chalabi was a member of Lambda Alpha, Ely Chapter, an honorary organization in land economics; the World Society of Ekistics, an international honorary organization of urban and regional planners; and served on the Forecasting Advisory Committee of NIPC (1991-2006). He was a series member of the Lyric Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Goodman Theater. He participated in annual meetings, worldwide, of the World Society of Ekistics for the past fifteen years, serving on the Executive Committee for many years. The last year of his life was a courageous fight against a rare and lethal disease. He succumbed on February 4, 2015. He is survived by his wife; his brother, Dr. Jamil al Chalabi (Dr. Laila al Chalabi); his sisters, Dr. Ayser Hamoudi (Dr. Ala Hamoudi) and Lina Agha Jaffar (Jaffar agha Jaffar); many in-laws, cousins, nieces and nephews and friends and colleagues. A memorial is being planned for the near future.
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Published by Chicago Sun-Times on Feb. 8, 2015.