urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Wicker Park development: Walgreens and a gym?

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A brief note that I’m sad I won’t be able to see Urbanized at any of the screenings that are coming up in the fall. No Chicago screening? Sadness — I guess I’ll have to wait for it to get into wider release.

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Last week’s most-read story on Crain’s Real Estate Daily described how developers are planning on projects including a gym, a boutique hotel, a small-plates restaurant and a Walgreens at the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee, the heart of Wicker Park. I live a five-minute walk from this intersection, so of course I had thoughts on the development (although given the lackluster economy, I’m skeptical that all that development will happen.)

The closed Midwest Bank branch between Milwaukee and Damen will be converted into a Walgreens, which is somewhat unintuitive because there are already a number of pharmacies in the area. Within a mile-and-a-half along Milwaukee Ave, not only are there two Walgreens — one at Milwaukee and Wolcott halfway between the Damen and Division Blue Line stations, the other at the Western stop — there is also a CVS at Division and Ashland. This last store is, ironically, almost in the same situation as the proposed Walgreens: it also opened in a closed 1920s bank building (the bank actually moved right next door, but they abandoned their vintage headquarters) very close to a transit stop.

I wonder if the neighborhood can support such a high concentration of drug stores. Diversity of uses, classic Jane Jacobs-style, is an essential element of healthy urban neighborhoods, and four chain drugstores in a mile and half  seems rather excessive. On the other hand, I can see how the Damen Walgreens will do well. For the waves of downtown commuters disembarking at the Damen station who head north on Milwaukee and Damen avenues, it will be very easy to stop at the Walgreens. In fact, it will have to rely fairly heavily on pedestrian and transit-driven traffic for business.

Street parking on Damen, Milwaukee and North avenues in that area is limited and difficult. (It’s difficult to drive through, let alone park, in that area. Buses that pass through often take as long to clear the intersection as they did to cover the mile preceding it.) From this point of view, the density of drugstores isn’t perhaps as excessive after all if the clientele they are serving is mostly walk-in traffic.

In fact, the street parking lot at 1611 N. Milwaukee Ave belonging to the now-closed bank is to be converted into an AT&T store and Midwestern coffee chain Caribou Coffee, which is a positive development. Surface parking lots tend to discourage pedestrian activity and eat up valuable real estate. There’s a seemingly always empty Verizon Store surface parking lot just a little bit further northwest on Milwaukee which I’d also love to see turned into something more vibrant. And in such a walkable neighborhood, storefronts are essential, contributing to its urban vitality.

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Among the other “storefronts” planned for the area include an outpost of the Chicago Athletic Club, a rather glitzy chain of large gyms. All the other Chicago Athletic Clubs are in trendy, transit-accessible, walkable neighborhoods: Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, the West Loop and Evanston, all within half a mile of CTA stations. In fact, the ones in Evanston, Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square are a tenth of a mile away; the location in Lakeview is at Belmont and Broadway in the middle of one of Chicago’s densest community areas (Lakeview, community area 6, with about 29,000 people/sq mi, 2.5 times as dense as the city as a whole).

I extrapolate two things from the interest of the gym here: First off, they think that the Wicker Park/Bucktown area is dense and walkable enough to support such a large commercial enterprise; whether you support the large chain or not, it’s a positive development that the neighborhood is perceived this way. Second, the gentrification and upward mobility of the neighborhood are such that they think the neighborhood can support it in those socioeconomic aspects. I could write a whole post on young, upwardly-mobile perceptions of  Chicago neighborhoods, but it suffices to say it’s as if Wicker Park is joining — or rather, has joined — a club, and that’s the club of trendy, yuppie-heavy*, transplant-filled neighborhoods.

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As I said above, I don’t believe all the planned development Crain’s mentioned will come to pass. Even if it does, not all of it will probably last. As commentators note, the six-way intersection is littered with closed boutiques and shut-down restaurants. But the conversion of parking lots, vacant stores and unused buildings to living storefronts is essentially a good thing for the neighborhood, even if I’m a little bit hesitant about the diversity of the buildings coming in.

*Not to denigrate yuppies. By almost all definitions, I’m one myself.

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Written by Andrew ACG

August 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

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