North/Clybourn: how not to design urban shopping
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.
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.