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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

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

D&L 5: Sizing up Chicago’s Wicker and Lincoln parks

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Chapter 5. The uses of neighborhood parks

I’ve written about parks before — in fact, my last post before joining the book club was on an access park to the Bloomingdale Trail to be built at Milwaukee and Leavitt. But after reading chapter six of Death and Life, I felt like I’d like to take a fresh look at some other parks. So given the various design criteria that Jacobs uses to identify successful city parks, I thought I’d focus in on two fairly successful Chicago parks and their relation to these qualities.

Jacobs writes:

Intricacy that counts is mainly intricacy at eye level, change in the rise of ground, groupings of trees, openings leading to various focal points–in short, subtle expressions of difference.


Good small parks typically have a place somewhere within them commonly understood to be the center–at the very least a main crossroads and pausing point, a climax…People try hard to create centers and climaxes to a park, even against odds. Sometimes it is impossible. Long strip parks, like the dismally unsuccessful Sara Delano Roosevelt park in New York and many riverside parks, are frequently designed as if they were rolled out from a die stamper.

Wicker Park (roughly 600 x 650 x 850 ft)

I’ll start with my neighborhood park, Wicker Park. It’s fairly small at four acres, near the geographical center of the neighborhood it names. The triangular park boasts a playground, field-house and fountain in the western half, with a baseball field and a dog run in the southeast corner. In the summer and early fall, it hosts a farmer’s market.

I’ve found that usage of the park clusters near the western sidenear Damen Ave, even when the baseball diamond is not in use (and is thus free to other park users). It comes down to the intricacy criterion that Jacobs identifies: in the park’s western half, the playground, field house and fountain provide a sense of variety and diversity. And Chicago is known for being a resoundingly flat city (distressingly so to my Los Angeles-raised self), but the paths and stairs up to the fountain work to create a sense of elevation and difference.

As for centering, the fountain provides a fairly viable example — particularly on days with good weather, but even in the middle of winter, I see people reading, eating, chatting on the benches around the fountain and dozing or people-watching from the patches of grass within the circle encircling the fountain. Interestingly, in Jacobs’ discussion of Corlear Park, she notes that the ball field is among the “demand goods,” the most used part of that park. I’ve had the opposite experience in Wicker Park: aside from the days when I see a ball game being played, I usually see individuals clustering closer to the western edge.

Wicker Park is a good example of Jacobs’ neighborhood parks with good design: people instinctively surround the fountain as a centering element and cluster in those parts of the park that offer a varied and different landscape. It is also small enough and unique enough in the neighborhood that it is prized by the surrounding community as an area of green space.

Lincoln Park (about 5 1/4 mi long)

When I happened upon Jacobs’ mention of “long strip parks,” I immediately thought of Lincoln Park, the namesake of the affluent North Side neighborhood. Stretching from North Ave to Ardmore Ave — a distance of over five miles — the park is three hundred times larger than Wicker Park at 1,208 acres, stretched between Lake Michigan and a wall of buildings to the west.

On paper, Lincoln Park would seem to have some faults. It’s by definition a long strip park that doesn’t really have a center (about halfway up its length, the park is essentially bisected by Belmont Harbor). It’s separated from the lakefront by the quasi-expressway of Lake Shore Drive.

But Lincoln Park is indubitably one of the city’s most successful parks. It’s the second-most visited park (PDF: pg. 28) in the United States with 20 million visitors a year, which is particularly evident in the summer. The park certainly boasts many “demand goods” that Jacobs identifies at the end of the chapter — the zoo, marinas — but the park continues to see pretty heavy general use.

I think the key here is that the park isn’t just a long stretch of land along the lake but that in many ways it acts as a series of individual, smaller parks strung together. People certainly do use the Lakefront Trail (which stretches southward beyond this part of the city) from north to south; I’ve walked much of it myself.

But the park escapes the curse of those “long strip parks” that Jacobs mentions because it doesn’t feel like an endless unrolling identical pattern. While it’s difficult to identify a center for the whole park, different segments are delineated by elements such as the ponds, the zoo, the nature sanctuary and the marinas. And then within each o these sections, there’s a strong sense that it’s a coherent park.

The presence of the lake certainly helps, of course — but as we’ve seen in other lakefront and riverfront parks, the mere presence of water doesn’t guarantee a park’s success. I’ve certainly spent enough time on Manhattan forgetting that it’s an island, even when I’m very close to the water. At the same time, a large weakness of these types of lakeside parks is that by necessity they draw all traffic from one direction: in this case, largely from the park’s west (and from the north and south on either end), which could have doomed the foot traffic because there’s not really a compelling destination on the other side. Lincoln Park avoids this by not only being intricately designed, but by being “thin” enough that in most parts of the park one never feels too far and unsafe from the city and the lively sidewalk street life that helps sustain that feeling of safety.

Chicago’s motto is urbs in horto, or “city in a garden.” When those “gardens” are done right, as Jacobs points out, they can add much to the vitality of the place, as Wicker and Lincoln parks do. I hope that in its future plans, the city can continue to build on this legacy.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

The problem of parks

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The future Bloomingdale Trail: creative park space in the city

I’m a little late, but I thought that Blair Kamin’s recent pieces on “park deserts” in Chicago brought well-deserved attention to the problem. The gist is that away from Chicago’s glitzy downtown and lakefront jewels, the city has a dearth of parkland, particularly as you go far into the Northwest and Southwest sides along the river and canal corridors.

An occasional trek out to the justifiably celebrated lakefront doesn’t replace the convenience and importance of a close neighborhood park. I live only three miles from Lake Michigan, in a neighborhood that isn’t afflicted with a particularly sever shortage of open space (although Logan Square to the northwest is), and I can take the train downtown or the bus to the lakefront very easily and be at either within half an hour. But none of these  replaces a neighborhood open space within closer proximity to me.

New York's High Line

This lack of urban space in Chicago relates to a criticism that I have of Gary Hustwit’s otherwise excellent Urbanized, which I saw at a special screening last week. Hustwit traces the familiar path of postwar suburbanization, arriving at one of the classic urbanist nightmares, Phoenix. He interviews a developer who argues that Phoenix shouldn’t be condemned as “sprawl,” but rather accepted as the prototype of postwar automobile-centered development. The developer ends with a defense of his love for his home, pool and 3/4-acre lot, but an unflattering close-up and lack of any mitigating commentary cast him in an unsympathetic light.

This portrayal of the developer, whether or not it was intentional is a weakness emblematic of a larger fault of the film. Not only does it provides fodder for anti-urbanists — “Look at those snobby urbanists, they have nothing but contempt for Joe Suburbanite, they can’t relate to ‘real’ Americans” — but it also dismisses American suburbanization and urban sprawl with a simplistic appeal to individualistic greed on the part of people who just want a big house, some land and some space.

There are many reasons for suburban allure, of course, with the germane reason here the offering of parkland. In theory, classic American suburbia offers  an unbeatable mix of urban and rural: live close to the city, but  surrounded by your own green grass. American suburbanization certainly can’t be attributed solely to a cultural yearning for green space — what with mortgage incentives, the interstates, redlining and other factors, it’d be a shock if the nation hadn’t suburbanized on a grand scale — but it’s undeniable that there is something in our cultural psyche.

While Hustwit does mention the Garden City movement and portray the slums of contemporary developing-world cities, I still wish that he had addressed the pull for suburbanization in more detail: the film paints a gorgeous picture of the appeal of city living, making it easy to dismiss the suburbs as a cultural wasteland; yet the majority of Americans are housed in them and our culture makes an easy contrast between the lush, green suburbs and the overcrowded, run-down inner cities. Not at all an accurate comparison, but certainly a compelling one, especially when so many cities do lack the open spaces that are (theoretically) an advantage that suburbs offer.

In a way, it’s telling that a comment on the Curbed Chicago blog entry that featured Kamin’s pieces dismissed the need for more parks in Chicago, what with the plentiful private green space and the forest preserves. While the forest preserves, and places like the Chicago Botanic Gardens, are indeed great green spaces, these types of locales are found largely in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city. From the vantage point of lawn- and forest preserve-filled suburban Chicagoland, it’s easy to miss the need for green space in the city.

Lake Point Tower's park lies on top of the parking garage, with the residences above

And, of course, private green space doesn’t benefit the majority of city residents who don’t have access to these spaces. In this vein, I was lucky enough to visit Lake Point Tower’s private park during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago event this past weekend. The condo/apartment building, the only one east of Lake Shore Drive, has a tower of residences built on top of a wide parking garage. Instead of the standard rooftop blacktop filled with mysterious blocks puffing out steam and hot air, there is a park. It’s a respite from the city — although never far from the din of Lake Shore Drive — with a pool, winding paths, playground and fairly impressively large trees, for being planted in topsoil above a parking garage.

The takeaway from the Lake Point Tower park is not that the private park should be made public, of course, but rather than when you build parks in cities, particularly old, densely-built-up cities that it’s often necessary to be creative in the way that you allot open space parkland. Parks in urban areas need to be accessible by a number of means, be designed with public safety in mind and often require creative use of space. The Lake Point Tower park, the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s Riverwalk and New York’s High Line are all examples of this type of use.

Parks and well-designed open spaces are important. It is difficult to see from either the largely affluent lakefront or outer suburbs of Chicagoland, but many parts of the city away from the glitzy center are starved for open space (or, as Kamin notes, afflicted with too much open space, but that’s a separate but related problem). At their core, vibrant urban neighborhood require a mix of everything: mixed ages of people, mixed uses, mixed history of buildings and a mix between built-up and open spaces.

Written by Andrew ACG

October 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use

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The Grove, Disney parks and faux urbanism

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I just returned from a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting family and friends. As usual, Los Angeles is an endlessly fascinating place, simultaneously the derided poster child of American sprawl and yet home to some of the biggest changes in urban life today.

I hadn’t planned to go, but when I finished the Rethink/LA exhibit at the Architecture & Design museum more quickly than I had anticipated, I drove over to the Grove, an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex at Fairfax and 3rd. Although my original goal of finding a Macy’s was thwarted, I was amused, as always, by how closely places and “lifestyle centers” of the Grove hew to urbanist tenets of city life:

A façade of an inviting streetscape

– Street-level retail
There’s a feeling of vitality all along the “city streets” of the Grove. The stores all open out onto the street, and there is a lot to see while strolling at street level. This being an August day in southern California, the weather was of course conducive to store doors flung open and people weaving in and out.

Pedestrian-friendly "streets"

– Small blocks
There isn’t any grid or blocks, so to speak of, at the Grove, as it’s far too small (even though its host city of Los Angeles actually has a fairly strong, if oft-interrupted, street grid). But there are frequent corners and intersections onto other streets. While I have no idea if “corner lots” at the Grove attract higher rent than the street lots, it still encourages a sense of vitality and exploration.

One wonders what the ridership per mile figure is.

– Pedestrian-friendliness
I suppose, strictly speaking, that the Grove is a pedestrian mall, as there aren’t any cars along the road. There is, in fact, even a trolley that runs along tracks laid into the ground. But all in all, there are few impediments to pedestrians, sidewalks are wide and there’s a parklike feeling in the middle.


The overriding thing to keep in mind, of course, is that the Grove is completely sheltered from the city block around it. I drove there, as I imagine the vast majority of shoppers did as well, and the “Welcome to the Grove” sign is at the bottom of the bank of escalators as you exit the parking structure.

Places like the Grove, and Los Angeles in general, are often derided for being ersatz and “Disneyfied” versions of so-called “real” places. There’s no doubt that the architecture at the Grove, for instance, is a mishmash of traditional European architectural styles; the developer claims to have incorporated Los Angeles vernacular architecture into the design, but there seems to precious little red tile on the roofs.

But ironically, places like Disney parks and the Grove offer more of a feel of traditional urbanism, even if it’s only the surface level. Faux architecture and artificial weathering aside, the Main Street at Disneyland and the outdoor dining next to the fountain at the Grove offer an urbanist sheen, even if it’s through a painstakingly corporate-crafted lens. While there are certainly no actual apartments above any of the stores of Main Street, it is certainly more walkable than Wilshire Blvd! And I’d venture to say that at least in look and feel, if not substance, it certainly brushes up close to violating much of the Euclidean zoning present in American cities today.

I wonder, in the end, what kind of effect these places have on the urbanite and suburbanite psyche. Part of me thinks that there’s a positive effect in showing (versus telling), and that there’s something to this whole urbanist mumbo-jumbo. On the other hand, I think it also has the effect of ghettoizing this sort of development into carefully scripted and constrained locations. It seems bad to set up a sense that this type of development is limited to playground-type locations and separate it from “real life”: counterproductive in the log run.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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.


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.


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.


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.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 9, 2011 at 4:05 pm

To preserve or not to preserve

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A piece in yesterday’s Friday’s Tribune — I just moved this weekend, so this post is delayed a couple of days — about Chicagoland’s old elegant theaters and my involvement with a trail-reuse group got me thinking about historic preservation and its role in the city.

I went to a docent training meeting this week of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a group working to convert the no-longer-used rail viaduct on Chicago’s Northwestern side into a three-mile elevated park à la High Line in New York or the Promenade Plantée in Paris. Preliminary design for the trail is underway, and Mayor Daley Emanuel has thrown his support behind it. In the news, the Tribune story I read profiles a number of theaters: The Chicago Theater downtown, on Randolph/State, remains iconic; while the Highland Park Theater has apparently been “grotesquely” cut up, although I don’t know what this means unless it’s some sort of garish interior design; while the Uptown Theater remains boarded-up altogether.

Once a utility company, now a shoe store: reused creatively and effectively.

Both of these are positive and speak well toward historic preservation. It seems obvious that we should save these old structures, particularly the theaters, and if possible reuse them. After all, one of the strengths of cities is the dense land use and regulations — now largely made illegal — that allow cities to creatively reuse old buildings. It’s easier to convert an industrial building (or freight line) close to sidewalks, residences and other shops than to convert a big-box store zoned only for commercial use.

The Bloomingdale Trail will be a a well-needed addition to Chicago’s public parkland to be one as well (it will also entail the creation of street-level parks). Reuse of Chicagoland’s elegant grand theaters allows us to maintain a sense of architectural and entertainment history while meeting modern needs.

So it seems that historic preservation is all-in-all and on the whole a good thing. On the other hand, Emily Washington, at the Market Urbanist, notes that a move in Arlington to set new standards for historic preservation risks preserving a number of banal, anti-urbanist architecture. Ed Glaeser argues in Triumph of the City, which I read earlier this year, that over-exuberant historic preservation has the effect, he says, of artificially limiting the otherwise market-driven supply for housing, driving up costs for walkable, urban areas and thus forcing many who might otherwise desire to live in cities to move out to the suburbs.

Washington’s height limit, for example, seems to be historic preservation writ large, and while I truly enjoy the European vibe there, it also drives up the cost of real estate; it’s also produced office towers in Rosslyn: thanks in large part to Metro, these have turned out to be transit-friendly, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which they didn’t. By contrast, Glaeser cites Chicago’s propensity for new development and construction to be a reason why it’s relatively affordable compared to other big American cities such as DC. (I suspect that our easy winters are also a factor.)

It seems easy to draw a line of what should be preserved. Landmarks, such as grand theaters, train stations, grand palaces, seem obvious — I don’t think anyone would re-tear down old Penn Station in New York, and I’m glad Chicago’s Union and Dearborn stations are still with us today. Merely limiting preservation to landmarks, though, would have entailed the destruction of structures such as the Bloomingdale viaduct-to-be-park — Chicago isn’t exactly lacking in elevated rail.

And it begs the question of what exactly is a landmark? We clearly can’t just go on size or “oomph factor,” for lack of a better description. And if we’re preserving landmarks and city buildings for their historic value, then everyday, smaller buildings — such as the 1950s-era strip malls that Arlington is aiming to preserve  — are just as valuable.  After all, many of the most valuable exhibits in museums are the smallest or most ordinary. Taken to the logical extreme, we can’t really tear anything down because everything has historic value.

No one is suggesting that, of course. But it speaks to the tension between city-as-museum and city-as-home. Frequently, they do work together beautifully: conversion of factories to condos, use of an old rail viaduct as a sorely-needed public park or the adaptation of Twenties movies palaces to modern functions. Neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, within reason, fit this well: they were built in the pre-auto era and have many of the urbanist characteristics that we should prize today.

But when they don’t, we have to think about what we want our cities to be. If we want (and I do!) to make our cities walkable, transit-friendly and dense places, not all infrastructure, architecture and buildings are going to contribute toward the goal. Landmarks such as theaters, individual buildings, train stations — which seem to have a particular propensity for being bulldozed — are easy. It gets messier with larger, more comprehensive districts, and I think we have to think carefully about what we want our cities to be. Beautiful, historic, low-slung city centers are a joy to visit; and the alternative doesn’t have to be soulless Corbusian skyscrapers. But our cities, after all, are places for real people to live, and it’s paramount to keep that in mind.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 1, 2011 at 8:42 am

Posted in Land use

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Sidewalks: bad for the neighborhood?

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Not so nice in the burbs?

Does the lack of sidewalks make a suburban area feel more “high-end”?

A coworker mentioned yesterday that his suburban subdivision had no sidewalks; I speculated that it was a cost-cutting measure by the developers. He agreed, but then mentioned that it might also be because the developer wanted to project the image of a “high-end” area, adding that the subdivisions in the affluent northwestern Chicago suburbs to which he hopes to move also lack sidewalks.

It’s a curious thought. Most of the Los Angeles suburbs that are familiar to me have sidewalks, even if they are solely used for recreational purposes and cars are used for all essential trips. I’ve noticed that many of the lots in the newer, affluent favored quarter of the northwest Chicago suburbs lack sidewalks, though.

Perhaps a lack of sidewalks indicates that the residents of that subdivisions can all afford cars, and so they don’t need sidewalks to get around. Upon reflection, this is a little bit too involved and conspiracy-like for my thinking. It also seems strange that there wouldn’t be any sidewalks for young children — who presumably comprise a large part of the population — but perhaps the thinking is that the lawns, grassy areas and parks in the area suffice.

A lack of sidewalks could also create a sort of quasi-bucolic setting, which is what many suburbs aspire to anyway. I’m reminded of a 2009 Washington Post story that describes the controversy over the installation of sidewalks in an affluent northwest District community. Some were quoted as saying that the installation of sidewalks makes an area safer, because it forces drivers to slow down for children and other people in the street; they also argued that the installation of sidewalks would make an area more urban in nature, via replacement of greenery with concrete.

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these: developers don’t develop sidewalks because residents of these high-end suburban areas don’t demand them, subconsciously wanting to get away from an urban “feel.” Other developers aiming to create similar high-end subdivisions build similarly, and the sidewalk-less pattern replicates itself.

I’ll freely admit that it’s hard for me to see a sidewalk-less suburban area and think “high-end,” but that is probably a function of my urbanist leanings and my upbringing and its surroundings.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Pedestrian, Suburbs

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