urbanite take

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

Archive for April 2012

North/Clybourn: how not to design urban shopping

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Last week, I went to see the Chicago premiere of “The Gruen Effect,” which looked at architect Victor Gruen’s efforts to recreate in American shopping centers the community present in European commercial city centers. He hoped these centers would encourage social interaction, so the first “shopping towns” he designed included non-commercial community amenities. Once it was realized how insanely profitable that kind of commercial space could be, though, the shopping mall as we know it today was born.

The film, which is quite good aside from some minor quibbles, got me to thinking about the shopping areas in the area. Gruen is the architect of the Randhurst center in northwest suburban Mount Prospect, which has since closed and is being reopened as a “lifestyle center,” perhaps closer to what he wanted. I wonder what he would think of the Bayside Town Center, which I find to be a mixed-use center with mixed success.

Is the traffic situation really this bad? On Sheffield

What I am certain Gruen would not find inspiring, however, is Chicago’s North/Clybourn shopping area. This is the southern end of the Clybourn shopping corridor that extends northward to roughly Diversey, marked by big-box stores and a pockmarked street front. A lot of national chains found within city limits will have two locations — one on Michigan and the other near North/Clybourn.

My fundamental issue with North/Clybourn is that it doesn’t seem to be well-designed for anyone. I find it’s usually one or the other. Places like the Loop or the Armitage shopping district, for instance, are difficult to drive and park in, but pedestrian-friendly. Conversely, suburbs like Hoffman Estates or Schaumburg are a far cry from walkable but boast classic suburban wide arterials, huge surface lots and forgiving shoulders for drivers.

So, North/Clybourn is difficult to drive around. Saturday afternoons are recipes for congestion. People always seem to be moving out of one parking garage and into another. Watching the beach traffic from the Brown Line on summer afternoons is watching a sea of red inch slowly forward on the four-lane arterials — I once sprinted down North from Halsted to Ashland and beat the traffic, the congestion was so bad.

But North/Clybourn is also difficult for pedestrians. The sidewalks in the area are narrow and rather claustrophobic, scarred by the presence of numerous surface parking. Whenever I walk along North I always feel like I am about to be run over by a car, and the measly don’t do much to create a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Transit-wise, there was once a Clybourn/Elston bus but it was canceled circa 1997.

Part of the reason why the area is simultaneously so pedestrian- and automobile-unfriendly is the multiplicity of private parking lots and structures. Some of the surface parking is shared, but never beyond the immediate stores in the vicinity. This constant duplicity creates excess capacity and excess trips. Best Buy, the CVS and Bed Bath & Beyond are perfectly walkable as the crow flies from each other, but drivers must move their car twice to three different lots, creating congestion and smog for pedestrians darting in between.

Zoning-wise, it’s a hodgepodge. C3-5 (1.33 spots per every 1000 sq ft above 35,000) is much of the retail on the southwest corner of North/Halsted,  B3-2 (2.5 spots/1000 sq ft above 4,000) at the opposite corner and Planned Developments at the other two. A quick look up Clybourn reveals aside from some small B1 zoning and a whole bunch of Planned Developments and Planned Manufacturing Districts — it would seem that this area was essentially converted piecemeal from an industrial corridor, and not in a very urban-friendly way, either.

Needless to say, I don’t think this type of shopping area is the type of community-and-commerce combination that Gruen was aiming to achieve. The Clybourn corridor is popular because of the sheer availability of stores, but as a urban commercial boulevard relatively close to downtown it’s really transit-unfriendly and aesthetically bad. There aren’t any easy fixes — the sales taxes that all these establishments are bringing is in invaluable, and once these development patterns are set, it’s very hard to fix them. They didn’t necessarily have to develop this way: while big box stores are always going to cater to a more automobile-driven set (even in New York people will have items delivered, which is of course by motor vehicle) it doesn’t have to create a poor faux-suburban streetscape. The Home Depot on Halsted in Lincoln Park is an example of how to do this right.

Ultimately, the North/Clybourn area reminds me of a story I read in the Wall Street Journal the other day, in which the writer describes the huge disparity between the swanky metro and unfriendly pedestrian environs. Chicago’s certainly nothing near Delhi in this (and many) respects, but in terms of the disparity between shiny new Apple-advertised Red Line station and generally unfriendly structure at North/Clybourn, I can see a little bit of a resemblance. Particularly on a hot, humid July afternoon.

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Written by Andrew ACG

April 26, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Division St development’s height and neighborhood “character”

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Last week I presented the villainous “density” and “parking”; today, I’m completing this unholy trifecta with “height.” Tall buildings, or really, any buildings perceived — fairly or not — as towering over their neighbors tend to inspire controversy at best, and legal vitriol at worst. Charlie Gardner at Old Urbanist recounts how a tall residential building in America’s largest unzoned city inspired a backlash and an ensuing setback ordinance. Closer to home in Chicago, another new development — while not nearly as tall — reflects similar issues.

Where a defunct single-story Miller Lumber building with a small front surface parking lot now stands, at 1815 W. Division (southeast corner of Division and Honore), Smith Partners is proposing a four-story, glass-paneled mixed-use building. Ground-level retail, presumably with storefronts facing to the street, will support 39 apartments, mostly one-bedrooms with a couple of studios and two-bedrooms sprinkled in. Thirty-five off-street parking spots will be built in a surface lot with egress to the alley.

This project has actually already been cut down from its initial height of five stories (and 42 parking spots), which was initially controversial because it allegedly did not fit in with the character of the neighborhood. On a scale writ large, this is the story of tall buildings in Washington, that city’s height limits and the current effort to loosen those limits. That height limit has been credited with creating an “exceptional” architectural character of the city and a supposed “European” character, although I’d call many of the ensuing ten-story office buildings built to conform exactly to the limits anything but exceptional or European. But I digress.

Miller Lumber’s stretch of Division is marked largely by three- and four-story buildings, residential buildings scattered amidst small commercial shops, restaurants and bars. Perhaps the most significant feature of this particular “pedestrian street” is its uncharacteristically wide sidewalks, which lend themselves to summer al fresco dining and plentiful urban greenery. Here, Smith’s original building would have risen above its lower-rise neighbors; the four-story will still be among the tallest buildings on the block.

But even if the old project had been built at five stories, though, I would have supported it. The lot is only a quarter-mile from rapid transit — the Washington region again offers an example of what we shouldn’t do with lots close to transit — and is located on a major, even chronicled, urban thoroughfare. The sidewalk currently is considerably narrowed for head-in parking spots; it looks in the plans like there will be planters instead, though I hope the planters won’t be as wide.

Maintaining the “character” of the neighborhood doesn’t mean running roughshod over neighbors’ concerns or indiscriminately permitting development. Poorly-designed buildings that don’t fit into the urban fabric, with seas of surface parking or blank street façades, for instance, should be carefully scrutinized. But when buildings are objected to solely on the basis of height, I think it’s important not to have a knee-jerk response of rejection. If a building taps into an urban neighborhood’s benefits (good transit access, wide pedestrian sidewalks and desirable geographical location) it makes a pretty strong case.

Some might argue that this would result in a fundamental change of neighborhood character: over the course of two or three decades, a formerly low-slung city neighborhood might rise vertically. But fundamentally, if there’s a market demand for it, then why is this a bad thing?

After all, to put it bluntly, if we don’t “sprawl” vertically, we’ll sprawl horizontally. A simplification, to be sure — but it’s something to keep in mind overall. Washington’s height limit may have created a beautiful low-slung cityscape, but it isn’t doing anything to keep the city affordable or encourage center-city density.

On a final note, I do find it interesting that the community worked for a taller building at the Ashland/Division site, while agitating for a shorter one here. In both cases, the original zoning is the same (B3-2 Community Shopping District); the former is a Planned Development while the latter is to be upzoned. I do wonder what prompted the difference — the former would have risen in an area surrounded by a number of empty lots, while this one is flanked by existing buildings and relatively less surface parking. Perhaps it’s a question of context, i.e. an eleven-story building at a street corner with lots of empty space around it feels less disruptive than a five-story building amid two- and three-flats?

Written by Andrew ACG

April 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use

D&L 19 – Narrow streets and visual order

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Chapter 19. Visual order: its limitations and possibilities

I’ve obviously unfortunately fallen behind on Death and Life for quite some time, due in large part to my time away. While I’m now caught up on reading with the book club and have certainly enjoyed the discussion, I’ll just jump back in with this very quick post.

Given my time away in London, I was intrigued when Jacobs mentioned “European visitors” and their remarks “that the ugliness of our [American] cities is owing to our gridiron street systems.” She goes on to say the grid system is responsible for these endless vistas that break any sense of enclosure and visual coherence, suggesting that we can add additional streets or invoke topographical barriers and landmarks, natural or not, to create a sense of visual separation.

As I live in a metropolis that is simultaneously one of the most relentlessly gridded in the US and one of the flattest — when I worked out in Hoffman Estates, on a clear day I could see the Willis Tower, which was thirty-five miles away — I of course had to think about what this meant here. It is true that some of the streets, such as Clark St up in Andersonville/Edgewater, for example, that meander gently out of the grid are more interesting “on the ground.” And I certainly miss Los Angeles’ dramatic mountainous backdrop. But, alas, you can’t go adding new streets or certainly new mountains any time soon.

It seems to me that another way to introduce this sort of visual diversity is to have narrower streets; as the buildings cluster together closer and the horizon doesn’t seem as far away, reducing that negative “endless” feeling. Plus, a narrower street results in both sides of the street “cooperating” together more. Instead of feeling as if the buildings on one side are totally unrelated to the buildings on the other, they work together to form a coherent visual whole. If perhaps you can’t narrow a street — after all, some of our most beloved streets are grand boulevards à la Michigan Avenue — I think you either need to add some visual element to the middle like planters or medians, or ensure that the buildings on either side are tall to help overcome that separation.

This always strikes me when I walk down the significantly wider Ashland or Western compared to Damen down here in Wicker Park/Bucktown. There are many differences, particularly in commercial density, between the two streets, but it always seems to me that Damen has a stronger sense of visual cohesion precisely because it’s not as staggeringly wide as the other two thoroughfares.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

Parking: to build or not to build

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Sometimes I feel like density and parking are the seven-letter words, so to speak, of planning. Chuck Marohn has discussed how to avoid alienating non-urbanites — “density” conjures up “sardines,” and I can only think what “reducing parking” might bring — and Hollywood neighborhood associations are up in arms about upzoning of land close to LA Metro stations due to parking and traffic concerns.

Here in Chicago, downtown renters are staying away from renting parking spots, although apparently the trend is not as pronounced for owners, who are presumably worried about resale values: developers at Lakeshore East projected that 55% of renters would purchase a parking space, but only 40% of renters have done so, a pronounced trend in recent years.

The story notes that between 0.55 to 1 spots are required for downtown residential buildings, which prompted me to take a closer look at Chicago’s zoning code and off-street parking requirements. There are some fascinatingly specific requirements (do you know what a “mobility street” is? It doesn’t have to do with accessibility — I’ll save it for another post!) but for the purposes of now, a look at downtown land use and zoning requirements:

The zoning code divides downtown districts into four types, DC, DX, DR and DS; standing for “core,” “mixed-use”, “residential” and “service” respectively; These zones are combined with hyphenated density designations: -3, -5, -7, -10, -12 and -16. Broadly speaking, these refer to maximal floor-area ratio: -3 refers to a maximal FAR of 3.0, -5 to a maximal FAR of 5.0 and so on. A DR-3 building, therefore, would be a downtown building zoned for largely residential use with a maximal FAR of 3.0.

“Downtown” zones extend northward to Division, westward to Racine and southward to Cermak, although of course not all the land within this is zoned D; non-downtown zoning is separated into standard business, residential and commercial zones that have generally smaller density designations and more stringent minimum parking rules.

As far as I can tell, the only land use in the entire zoning code that has absolutely no parking minimums, regardless of lot size, are nonresidential downtown (D) districts with densities of -7, -12 and -16. (Many non-downtown land uses are exempted from parking for the first 1,000 square feet or so, but once large enough, they all have minimum parking requirements.)

All residential parking spots are required to have parking: 0.55 parking spaces/unit are required for residential downtown zoning at densities of -10, -12 and -16; 0.7 spaces/unit for -7; and 1 space per unit for -3 and for -5 for the first 100 units. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but after all, if your building has 150 units, that’s a minimum of 80 parking spots.

More importantly, if there’s anywhere in Chicagoland that shouldn’t be burdened with minimum parking regulations, it’s downtown Chicago. This isn’t to say that there should be no parking downtown or that none would be built without minimum requirements. I’m pretty certain the market would support a certain level of off-street parking, especially given the amounts of “reverse” commuting happening nowadays. Keeping in mind the significant externalities and cost of building downtown, though, it is eminently reasonable that we shouldn’t be artificially increasing the supply of parking there.

In a way, that’s what is happening with a non-downtown development closer to home, that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by.

A space that is currently a shuttered Pizza Hut at the southwest corner of Ashland and Division is slated to house an 11-story building with 8,000 square feet of first-floor retail — they’ve got PNC Bank and Intelligentsia coffee so far — with a floor of office space and nine floors of residential space with 99 residential units. The surprising part is that the developer is providing only 15 new off-street spots, in addition to 20 spots that will be co-shared with the Wendy’s next door, which is currently surrounded by a sea of surface parking that I don’t think I have ever seen even 20 percent full.

The idea is that the building is to take advantage of its location, which is right next to the Division Blue Line and of course the bus lines; Ashland runs 24 hours a day. They’re banking on residents not owning cars to the point where they won’t be eligible for residential parking permits on nearby residential streets, although since the building’s address is on Division I would think that residents aren’t be eligible for a permit anyway. The spots are supposed to be for visitors and for patrons of the retail; I am assuming that signs of some sort will be posted to that effect.

The plot of land is currently zoned B3-2 Community Shopping District, which means a maximum FAR of of 2.2 and 1 parking space/unit. Seeing as how the proposed building will significantly exceed this ratio and that 15 spots are by no means above, the development is a Planned Development. As far as I can tell, this means that the development theoretically has to undergo stringent review, but also seems to be exempt from minimum parking requirements.

I’m curious to see how the building will fare. It’s right on top of a transit stop and isn’t far at all from a major supermarket and Loop offices are within 30 minutes door-to-door by CTA. On the other hand, the Polish Triangle along the way is rather scruffy, though there are efforts to revitalize it, and really the general Ashland-Milwaukee-Division intersection has a rather run-down feeling throughout. I see the luxury building on the north side of Division and often wonder about the occupancy of the units there — is there enough pent-up demand to fill nine of floors of middle- to higher-end priced apartments?

Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign that the developers were receptive to community pressure for a larger, more-dense building at that site. (And that the community wanted a denser building in the first place!) Any sort of parking issue inevitably seems to inspire spontaneous paroxysms of outrage, so I’m cautiously hopeful here.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Parking