urbanite take

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

Archive for May 2012

This charming city square is hiding something

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Cafe seating and all!

Isn’t this a good example of a cute, multistory, mixed-use square with outdoor seating in a plaza? Storefronts come right up to the street, and while the midday sun may be discouraging customers from lingering, there aren’t any parking strips or car traffic barring  pedestrians.

This is, in fact, the corner of a strip mall in suburban Los Angeles.

I am in southern California visiting my parents for the week, and we went out for lunch in a shopping center near Colima and Fullerton roads in Rowland Heights, about 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles in the Puente Hills of the southern San Gabriel Valley*. When I spotted this façades in the corner of the strip mall, I knew I had to take a picture.

It’s actually just half a “square” in the corner of a strip mall

The stores on the ground floor are real, and in some cases are actually rather deep. But everything above the front floor is just a fake front, rather like the Leinster Gardens fake fronts in London: but in this case these fake floors are purely decorative and don’t hide anything utilitarian like an Underground line.

This isn’t anything new, of course. The various Disney incarnations of Main Street employ this stratagem all the time; in fact, it’s my understanding that the fake building façades on Main Street utilize forced perspective to look taller. Still, there’s something a little bit sad when in every day real life.

I won’t go so far as to draw any deep conclusions about latent desires for urbanism or mixed-use developmens in the area. Many area residents are Asian-American immigrants for whom the American Dream is a suburban house and yard, comparing favorably with the crowded metropolises of Asia or run-down central city Los Angeles neighborhoods. But that is another post entirely (and not one I’m sure I’m qualified to write). I’ll just say that at the very least, even if it’s in a purely aesthetically architectural sense, there seems to be some desire for at least the look of a middle-range, low-rise urban cityscape.

*Born and raised in California, I don’t think my preference for melodious Spanish place names will ever leave me. There are many things I love about New England and the Northeast, but the plain-sounding English and Dutch toponyms are not one of them. (The Midwest’s Indian names à la Waukesha, Menomonee, Milwaukee, I at least find more interesting.)

Written by Andrew ACG

May 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

First pass through the Bloomingdale Framework Plan

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I was unfortunately not able to attend last night’s public meeting presenting the Bloomingdale Trail’s Framework Plan, as I was in Wisconsin for work (although I did take advantage of another, less ambitious trail instead), but as the Framework Plan has been released online I took a look through it for some initial thoughts.

A lot of this information has been released to the public during the meetings since last fall, but I still highly recommend looking at the plan. There aren’t any surprising new elements in the trail development; instead, the plan just helps to combine all the important information in one place. I’ve bracketed PDF page numbers (not the document’s internal page numbers) to my thoughts below, which are organized proceeding through the presentation.


This section [10-21] sets out the history, the origin of the trail and some of the broad community involvement, including a snapshot of the community Post-It input comments solicited at the design charette.

The trail will be located in neighborhoods that are about 75% more dense at 21,000 people/sq mile than the Chicago average of 12,000/sq mi [10]. As a comparison, the lakefront trail runs by neighborhoods up to 32,000/sq mi, and the High Line through parts of Manhattan at 69,000/ sq mi.

One of the “post it” suggestions is made to keep an abandoned rail car on the line. I hope the eventual trail either preserves a rail car or, alternatively, preserves a very short section of rail as a reminder of the architectural heritage. Not that the rails have to remain untouched by any means, as they are obviously a rusty possible impediment — I just think it would be a evocative allusion to the “rails” part of the “rails-to-trail,” especially if it could be incorporated into one of the side plazas apart from the main trail.


The method section [13-42] takes a close look at design principles of the trail; the implementation section [43 onward] conversely is a walkthrough of the Bloomingdale’s eventual access points and parks.

About half the length of the trail will have [20] a separated pedestrian path. The plan doesn’t explicitly call out where the pedestrian paths will be and how many there will be, i.e. if these separated paths will be coming in big chunks or scattered throughout. While I’m obviously in favor of allowing bicycles on the trail, I wonder if the sections that have a pedestrian path will tend to divert pedestrians completely off the shared trail. Not a big deal, but I am just wondering.

The plan has a good diagram [22] of the flora and fauna available year-round, which is a nice touch as diagrams of outdoor amenities like this tend to neglect the fact that Chicago has, well, a winter! And on that note, I hope there is a good plan for snow maintenance, especially if we have a winter like the year before’s. The thought of two feet of snow on the trail is not pretty! (The High Line apparently uses special chemicals, brooms, hand-powered blowers and shovels.)

Power outlets should be provided, the plan says [26]. Although my college self envisions working outside with a laptop on a beautifully sunny day, I think it’s more likely (and apt) for these to be used for the purposes of public art or other installations.

In general, I hope they have more miradors (miradores?) throughout. The one in New York’s High Line is one of my favorite aspects of the park, as I think people enjoy the sense of being elevated and people-watching below.


The walkthrough [starting 43] is especially valuable. It’s one thing to look at the plan in terms of general design principles, which is of course important, but it helps encapsulate plan designs when the actual parks are looked at. I don’t have a lot of familiarity with the western access points, so I’ll confine my comments to Park 567 (Milwaukee/Leavitt), which I’ve looked at before, and the Damen access point.

It looks like they have selected “Option 2” as the choice for the Milwaukee/Leavitt park. I’m glad that they kept this, as with the addition of the onramp and planted areas, there is still a good amount of freestanding grass. (While we don’t want a whole lot of open park space, I doubt this would be a problem here, where the park is sufficiently “enclosed” by Jane Jacobs standards. It isn’t a windswept waste.)

The trail forks just west of Damen [52] for about half a short-block. I’m not in Chicago at the moment so can’t go out and look and see what divides it, but I wonder if something interesting could be done with the “northern fork.” It is short, but I wonder if it could be used as an extended long plaza, grassy area or maybe for some special art installations, as a short branch-off from the main Bloomingdale path.

It’s good to have the figures [57] that show the park as it develops over its first twenty years. I know at least in my imagination, the completion of construction also includes miraculously fully-grown trees, so it’s good to get a reality check!

Overall thoughts

This is exciting — I’m glad to see that formal trail documentation is taking shape in a coherent, publicly shareable form. While I have a few minor questions, such as that of snow removal and the Damen mini-fork, I think we’re definitely on good ground — or is it good elevation? Please take a look at the file, especially if you haven’t had a chance to attend any of the public meetings, including last night’s.

And in other news, I’ll be in Los Angeles next week, so expect to see a ride down the city’s new Expo Line sometime then! I’m essentially a kid of the Orange County suburbs (in a manner of speaking — Cerritos isn’t in Orange County, but in form and essence it might as well be), so I’ve very little experience with riding the city’s rail. Looking forward to it!

Written by Andrew ACG

May 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized