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Over the distillery and through the ravines: Toronto, part two

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Last week, I wrote about the purposefully built environment of Toronto: its transit, its unique suburban downtowns and its pedestrian facilities. This week I thought I’d turn to another facet of Toronto’s landscape: its natural facilities and adaptive reuse.

Milkman’s Run, part of Toronto’s ravine system

City in a garden
This is one of Chicago’s slogans: urbs in horto, to be exact. But I think it’s a slogan more appropriate to Toronto, as it’s literally a city set in a system of wild gardens. A system of lushly forested ravines snakes through the city, offering a respite from brick, stone and concrete. I had only the fortune of hiking a very small portion of the trail, the Milkman’s Run from Rosedale to the Evergreen Brick Works, on my last day in Toronto, but even that small taste of the Canadian city’s trail system left me with a wonderful impression.

Signage to the trail was not too conspicuous, but following the directions provided by the Brick Works web site was very easy. Within minutes of starting down the ravine trail, I felt the city melt away, though I never really lost sight of another person in the distance (which, I hasten to add, is a Good Thing: one of the classic weaknesses of urban open space is a lack of other eyes to keep it safe). The hike to the Evergreen Brick Works was an easy twenty minutes; a small portion of the trail runs by the Don Valley Parkway, but the highway’s presence didn’t feel oppressive. The entire trail was green and leafy, and my only regret is that I had not came later in the season when I am sure the fall color would have been gorgeous.

Toronto’s ravines seem to be a relatively under-appreciated urban resource. Better signposting in the city to the system, more intense focus on the system as one of Toronto’s key attractions, and improved wayfinding within the ravines themselves would go a long way toward raising their profile. Chicago has a park boulevard system that theoretically form a ring penetrating well into the heart of the city, but many parts of that system are little more than green, irregularly-maintained medians of high-speed arterials. Toronto’s lucky to possess an already intact system of trails and paths in a natural setting, isolated from vehicles but not from the city as it winds its way through the different neighborhoods — it should take full advantage of these.

By contrast, Toronto’s lakefront is the subject of more attention, fewer accolades and much more mixed reception than its system of ravines. Like Chicago — and most, if not all, Great Lakes cities — Toronto’s waterfront came of age in an industrial era, and like nearly all of these settlements the most valuable use for this land was for polluting, productive and profitable industrial uses. And like Chicago, Toronto has rail lines and highways running right along the lakeshore, as this was the logical right-of-way when built. Unlike Chicago, though, Toronto’s expressways in particular are more disruptive — it’s great fun to drive the elevated Gardiner Expressway and weave among the condos, but crossing over or under it is more akin to walking under Louisville’s Interstate 64 than Chicago’s grade-level Lake Shore Drive. And Toronto, as far as I can tell, didn’t have an Aaron Montgomery Ward, who fought tenaciously to keep Chicago’s lakefront open and free.

The point of this isn’t to say that Toronto’s lakefront is point-blank inferior to Chicago’s, though — it’s just to say that a different set of historical circumstances has led to the differing results seen today. I don’t know enough about the history of the lakefront and current efforts to comment knowledgeably about the efforts to beautify the lakefront, but Toronto shouldn’t beat itself up needlessly that its lakefront isn’t quite there yet. It’s got a pretty damn good system of ravines to supplement it in the meantime.

The Distillery District

Reduce, reuse, recycle
The city’s postindustrial and Great Lakes heritage shows up in the repurposed buildings and districts scattered throughout the city. On our walk down Queen Street West, my friend and I passed both a Candy Factory Lofts and a Chocolate Factory Lofts. One can only imagine what the first residents must have smelled upon moving in!

Two of the larger complete reused entities I saw were the city’s Distillery District and the Evergreen Brick Works. Toronto’s Distillery District used to be just that, a distillery, and has now been redeveloped to house such enterprises as high-end chocolate stores and an Ontario microbrewery. The Evergreen Brick Works were perhaps my favorite “attraction” in the city — they used to supply the city with brick and mortar, but after the quarry dried up in the 1980s, the entire complex was repurposed and now serves as a municipal park and community center.

Neither of these developments are unique to Toronto — the Distillery District reminds me strongly of Milwaukee’s Third Ward, another formerly industrial neighborhood now home to trendy shops and eateries, and to a lesser extent Soho in New York. The Evergreen Brick Works are more distinctive, but the reuse of old industrial structures as parkland isn’t new either — the High Line and soon-to-be Bloomingdale Trail show that. But these two developments, and in particular the Brick Works, are exemplars of adaptive reuse — the latter in particular does a good job of balancing its new role as a park with its history as a quarry and industrial site.

Evergreen Brick Works

Toronto was a wonderful place for a weekend, particularly for a visitor from Chicago. It was a city with just enough similarities to my current town that I was able to understand its foundation — I immediately felt at home with the regular street grid; with the TTC’s system of subways supplemented by long, straight bus lines; with the industrial reuse of buildings; and with the “wall of condos” along the lakefront. But its richly remarkable differences I felt as well — the smooth clang of streetcars along the streets; a gorgeous system of ravines; intensely dense suburban development; and, in comparison, a lack of a huge swath of economically deprived territory.

I’ve still got a lot to understand about Toronto. But I think it’s a city in which lots of the current movements of North American urbanism, and in particular “cold city” urbanism, are in evidence. And even if you don’t care that much about urbanism (in which case, why are you reading this?) it’s definitely worth a visit. I’ll be back.

Written by Andrew ACG

September 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

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“Queen Street West is my patio”: a weekend in Toronto

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“Queen Street West is my patio!” — so said a good-natured guy to his friends on the other corner as my friend and I walked down the namesake street of Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood last weekend. I found it a witty aphorism that something that captured my experience of Toronto, its public space and sense of urbanism in my short three-day tour last weekend.

Toronto reminds me of a lot of Chicago: it’s a denser, older, gridded lakefront city that simultaneously has less touristy pizzazz but more of the vibrant energy that comes from being a nation’s largest and preeminent metropolis. Both are towns with few natural barriers aside from their respective Great Lakes, with suburban development spreading in all directions away from the water. The differences are considerable as well: Toronto has a significantly more international feel, and the density of the Greater Toronto Area is nearly twice that of the Chicago metropolitan area.

This post got a little unwieldy in the writing, so I’ll discuss my transit, walking and wayfinding experiences in the city this week, and finish up with my thoughts on Toronto’s lakefront, ravines and industrial heritage next week.

Take the Rocket
I of course couldn’t go to Toronto without taking a spin on the streetcar system, since it has by far the largest remaining streetcar system in North America. I’m of two minds on it: the ride is markedly smoother than taking a normal city bus (although I have taken Taipei city buses in reserved bus lanes, which does go a great way toward reducing that jarring-and-lurching feeling.) On the other hand, I walked down Queen Street West during the Friday afternoon rush and those streetcars were plodding down the street, stuck in traffic and bunching just like the North Ave bus on a Saturday afternoon. The answer here is to rip up the rails à la Rob Ford and replace the streetcars with buses; but it did underline the fact that streetcars don’t intrinsically move any faster, although the riding experience is considerably more pleasant.

Coming from Chicago, Toronto’s street grid felt very familiar. There is a distinctive lack of diagonal arteries by comparison, and there’s unfortunately no “Philadelphia system” of house numbering, so you can’t say that Eglinton is “2300 North,” in the way that you can say it in many cities west of the Appalachians.

Toronto’s long continuous straight thoroughfares lend themselves to long bus/streetcar routes that largely follow one street: so you can get lines like the Queen, Eglinton or Lawrence lines, much like you have the Fullerton, Garfield or Western buses in Chicago (in contrast to places like Boston, New York or Washington, whose buses I find confusing both in naming and in route.) The subway lines largely follow surface streets, as you can see in their names: the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth subways follow, well, Yonge, University, Spadina, Bloor and Danforth streets. In fact, the in-car maps on the subway have street grid numbers to help identify addresses along those streets, much like how all of Chicago’s L stations have street coordinates on the signs.

The one thing I will pile on the TTC for is: token and paper transfers?! I mean, I enjoyed attempting to decipher the cryptic codes on the transfer slips, and the tokens were a blast-from-a-past-I-never-experienced (I’ve never taken any transit system at a point when tokens remained the only way to pay the fare.) The TTC’s passes do come in paper card form, but even then these have to be scanned by TTC operators and subway station attendants. It’s just surprising that individual fares are still being issued on tokens and not some sort of smart card.

On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the way that bus-subway and streetcar-subway transfers are smoothly integrated in the city outside of downtown: I took the 28A Davisville bus from the Evergreen Brick Works, which pulled into a bay inside the fare-paid section of the Davisville subway, meaning that I didn’t have to pay another fare. It’s diametrically opposed to the Los Angeles approach, where many transit riders are illogically punished by having to pay double fare to transfer, and underlines the grid-based nature of Toronto’s system. Obviously, for those with passes, this doesn’t matter. But psychologically, I think that it underlines the fact that transfers are a natural, normal part of a well-functioning transit system.

By comparison, the CTA’s Orange Line is the line with the best bus-train integration — although the location of many of those stations, between highways, industrial canals or strip malls, dictates that many, if not most, of the riders arrive by bus — with dedicated bus bays, but the Orange Line stations don’t incorporate a single fare-paid zone.

Finally, Toronto has some snazzy bus shelters. Even in some more suburban areas that I would assume don’t see extremely high ridership, I saw some nicely appointed bus stations that go a little way toward avoiding the second-class (or worse) status to which the bus rider is often relegated.

A forest of condos
North York is supposedly Toronto’s “second downtown,” and is pretty close to the geographic center of the region today, so I took the Yonge subway up here on a whim on my last Sunday in Toronto to check it out. It’s unlike nearly all suburban development I’ve seen in the United States. The street that it in fact most clearly reminds me of is Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles, which similarly is a linear forest of tall buildings rising starkly away from its squat surroundings. But the vast majority of buildings on Wilshire are commercial and office buildings, while the majority of the tall glass-and-steel behemoths rising on either side of Yonge Street are condos.

North York’s an unmistakeably suburban streetscape: Yonge Street is considerably wider than it is just a few miles south, there are more curb cuts and the number of pedestrians is significantly reduced. At the same time, sidewalks are quite generously proportioned, many of the storefronts are pedestrian-oriented and face onto the street, and of course there’s a reliable form of rapid transit throughout the corridor. The subway from North York Centre to Bloor/Yonge, the busiest in the system, takes no more than 20 minutes.

Encouraging denser development around transit systems is of course axiomatic in modern transit and land-use planning. But what is fascinating about North York is that the visual density around the station is much higher than some closer to the center city (Summerhill or Rosedale, for instance) and that there’s an extremely sharp delineation between the tall condo development and single-family homes. A five-minute walk away from Yonge will bring you to classic postwar inner-ring single-family homes and lawns. It’s a little jarring.

Queen St West

Walking a very long patio
Transit wasn’t actually my main way around the city: I actually ended up using walking as my primary method of transportation, and as an attraction in itself — I spent most of my Friday walking down Queen Street West from downtown Toronto to Roncesvalles, circling north on Roncesvalles and walking back downtown on Dundas.

Queen Street West is one of my favorite urban streets. Many of the shops on that street don’t even really appeal to me, and I’ve never been much of an fine art/gallery kind of guy, which comprises a large portion of the street. (The one thing I did do was poke my head into several bookstores, of which Toronto seems to still be amply supplied — at least for now). But the storefronts on Queen Street, for the most part, come up to the street and are continuously built-up; there are very few surface parking lots, cars can be parked all the way along the street and there’s of course a streetcar line running down the entire length.

Queen Street compares favorably to the other large public space I saw in Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square. That was filled with lots of people à la Times Square in Manhattan, but seemed to be largely a glitzy crossroads of people trying to get from one place to another. Queen Street’s also obviously filled with people trying to get from one place to another, but it seems more of an organic public realm — people lingered and chatted, they strolled, they popped in and out of stores. In many ways, as I read in American Urban Form, the street is the North American public space par excellence, and so it seems appropriate that Queen Street was one of the best public spaces — “patios,” if you will — that I encountered on my trip.

Next week: Toronto’s landscape, both industrial and natural

Written by Andrew ACG

September 20, 2012 at 8:00 am

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Book review: American Urban Form

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American Urban Form: A Representative History
Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore
Drawings by Andrew H. Whittemore

180 pages, MIT Press. 2012.

The history of any American city is going to be marked by representative events: the Great Fire, the consolidation of the five boroughs, the earthquake of 1906 have all had indelible effects on their cities. Nevertheless, American cities as a whole have all been shaped by similar forces, as I mentioned in my post on the classic forms of American downtowns. Postwar federal urban policy and the role of the automobile have been particularly strong influences, but the US.

That post, in fact, was inspired by American Urban Form, a slim volume out earlier this year from the MIT press that aims to present a streamlined, genericized history of the American city from colonial to modern times. Warner and Whittemore present the history of “the City,” an amalgamated form of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, depicting it at several key junctures in US history, ranging from a colonial village in the 1600s to the global city of 2000.

They describe how a small colonial town on an isthmus develops into a flourishing mercantile trading village, which in turn explodes into a glittering late nineteenth-century industrial metropolis, which after surviving postwar urban renewal and suburbanization emerges as the burnished, slick global city we know today.

The key strength of the book lies in its presentation of this vague city, and its clear focus on design. There is certainly not a paucity of history of American cities and suburbs. But American Urban Form focuses on exactly that: explaining how the commercial buildings, houses, government institutions, roads and rails were organized. While the contributing factors — such as prejudice against African-Americans, tenement laws or the rise of the automobile — behind the spatial organization of the cities are of course discussed, they are brought up insofar as they explain these physical changes.

The book is definitely focused on the United States, and isn’t a comparative, but I think when coupled with some other volumes — Downtown by Robert Fogelson and City Life by Witold Rybczynski — it goes toward answering that “why do American cities look like this and European cities look like this?” question that often pops up.

Whittemore’s drawings are particularly beautiful and useful, especially the ones that compare the “State Street” from its colonial roots to its twentieth-century majesty and the comparisons of superblock and public housing. Each chapter opens with a two-page spread showing the City’s  Subjectively, I’m a big fan of pen-and-ink line drawings, which the book features.

The only minor quibble I have is that the book reads very much as a history of the Northeast metropolis, and to a lesser degree the Midwest industrial metropolis. While my current town of Chicago is pretty aptly described by the book starting with the 1895 chapter, my hometown of Los Angeles doesn’t really fit the narrative here at all. Depending on their age, other Sunbelt cities may only loosely correspond to the book.

But it’s just a small quibble. Overall, it’s a lovely concise volume, a useful read for anyone who wants a history of “the American city” without the history of any particular one, especially for someone into design.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

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Chicago buses in the news: new bus lanes, cut bus lines

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Chicago bus lines have made an appearance in the news twice the week, with new bus lanes on the South Side and a whole host of potential route changes, including both increased frequency and service cuts.

Premature branding
Construction on the Jeffery Ave “bus rapid transit” lane — which the Tribune termed as BRT that “won’t be so rapid” — on the South Side began Monday. The Jeffery Express 14 bus will include limited stops and part-time bus-only lanes from 67th to 83rd. The bus line currently runs nonstop from downtown to 67th, at which point it stops every quarter-mile until 99th.

Jeffery & 71st: the site of a BRT “superstation” to be

Presumably, with limited stops, the stop frequency would increase to every half-mile. Combined with the nonstop portion, the 14 bus would essentially see express or nonstop service for nearly eight miles from downtown. Other improvements will include a “showcase” station at 71st and Jeffery — pictured at right — which is where the Metra Electric’s Bryn Mawr (not to be confused with the North Side’s Bryn Mawr on the Red Line) station currently is; signal priority from 73rd to 84th; and new, flashier buses with potentially Bus and Train Tracker information.

Notably not included are full-time exclusive bus lanes, prepayment or level boarding, all of which require a fairly large capital investment and significant repurposing of road space.

I’ve attended meetings on the Central Loop BRT and BRT on Western and Ashland. I understand the desire to call it “BRT,” as it can be a flashy trademark and communicates the fact that these aren’t just new bus routes slapped on. At the same time, it’s seemed to me that the CTA and CDOT have jumped the gun a little bit. To draw a little bit of an extended analogy, manufacturers and companies are often concerned about the genericization of their trademarks, in which the descriptive power of the trademark is diluted gradually over time: People come to call any tissue a “Kleenex” or any photocopy a “Xerox.”

What I’m afraid of happening in this case is “BRT” coming to mean just a flashy new bus, or incremental improvements, or at worst a marketing method that CTA is using to try to gussy up improved bus service. Indeed, as the “Citizens Taking Action” strongly-worded — and inaccurate — description of BRT as just vehicles that look like “rocket ship[s] piloted by Flash Gordon,” make clear, there’s a little bit of this setting in already. The Trib‘s story mentions that Forrest Claypool has already stopped referring to the bus lanes as even “BRT lite.” This is good. I just don’t want people to see that there are incremental changes being made to the bus service, see it being called “BRT” and then conclude that there isn’t anything real there.

CTA service changes
Aside from the BRT changes, the CTA announced yesterday significant planned changes to rail and bus service: this includes increased frequency on six of eight rail lines as well as bus frequencies on some of the most popular lines, such as the Western, Chicago and Ashland avenue buses! The Red Eye has a fairly good summary of the changes, which includes additions in bus frequency, route discontinuations, segment cuts and combinations.

There’s a meeting Tuesday, Sept. 4 at the CTA headquarters at 6 pm to discuss the planned service changes. Given the demographics of some  areas that will be affected by the bus cuts — including the 11 bus’ passing through Roscoe Village and Lincoln Square — I anticipate some very high attendance!

Written by Andrew ACG

August 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

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How to identify your downtown

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Downtown: in or to the business or central part of a city

Having traveled recently around the Midwest this summer to towns and cities of varying sizes, it’s struck me how “downtown,” a seemingly basic concept — that dictionary entry seems pretty simple — and lexical item coined in America, actually encompasses such a variety of built areas in this country.

It seems to me that there are three basic built forms when we talk about “downtown.” To use my completely unscientific sobriquets, there’s the Big City, a mixed-use vibrant quarter in large metropolises; the Government Center, an area made-up largely of public-sector buildings that empties out after hours, often in midsize cities; and Ye Olde Townes, a boutique-y and often self-consciously quaint district found in suburbs and small towns.

These are all explicitly American cities. Public-private transportation subsidies, federal highway funding, Americans’ tendency to spread, cultural valuations of small towns and intense nineteenth-century commercial centralization have all contributed to form these downtowns we see today.

Downtown Chicago

The Big City

A tall set of skyscrapers, the Big City boasts healthy commercial activity in both the private and public sectors; aside from white-collar office jobs, retail presence continues to flourish, perhaps in the form of an outdoor mall but often in the form of middle- to high-end shopping streets. The share of metropolitan office space is relatively high by American standards. Civic buildings and museums tend to cluster here, although they may be in a “museum” or “civic quarter” separate from the rest of the city. Pedestrians can be seen on the street, although numbers are markedly down on nights and weekends.

These are the most likely kinds of downtowns to be the hubs or to be well-served by transit systems. If intercity rail services the city, a somewhat prominent rail station exists, although relocations and closures may mean that the rail station is on the edge of the commercial district. In places with minimum parking requirements — essentially, all cities in the US — if there is a relaxation or smaller amount of required parking, it will be here.

These types of downtowns also tend to have some pretty bad traffic congestion, as the density and size inherent in large-scale retail and office buildings tend to lend themselves to crowded conditions.

Government Center

I know this is the name given to the collection of civic buildings in Boston, which in most other respects boasts a Big City-type downtown, but to my mind the awful Government Center is a good example of this kind of “downtown.” Usually ringed by a set of highways, Government Center will be populated nearly exclusively by civic and governmental buildings. There may be some private-sector headquarters, but most corporate offices will have moved out to the suburbs a long time ago. Retail is limited to convenience stores and lunch joints, nearly none of which will be open after hours or on weekends. Government Centers also tend to play host to large conference centers that don’t interface well at all with the surrounding streetscape. There is relatively little residential life here.

Transportation-wise, this is typically marked by an oversupply of parking garages and parking lots. Cities with stark Government Centers to  If the city has a transit system, which is probably an underfunded, underscheduled system of buses, nearly all the routes probably serve the downtown. If the system is relatively well-designed, there may be a hub where buses – pulsed if you’re lucky – come in.

Downtown Traverse City

Ye Olde Towne

I was inspired to put this post together when I went on a visit to downtown Naperville sponsored by the Chaddick Institute — by nearly all measures, downtown Naperville is one of the more successful downtowns out there. The thing that struck me, that really prompted this post, was the description of downtown Naperville as a “scoop” — it is made up almost entirely of buildings no taller than three stories. If you want real height, and corporate headquarters in Naperville, you’ll have to drive by the Interstate 88 corridor, where a slew of generic-looking corporate buildings cluster by the highway.

Ye Olde Townes tend to boast boutique- and independent-type retailers almost exclusively, such as antique stores, art galleries, boutique clothing shops, stationery stores, ice cream and dessert parlors and high-end restaurants. These stores are generally closely clustered together, fronting onto the sidewalk. There is often angled parking, but if not there is almost certainly on-street curb parking on the main commercial streets.

The biggest difference between Ye Olde Townes and the other two kinds of downtowns is the marked absence of large-scale office buildings. Some small real-estate offices and boutique law firms may be found downtown, but any real large-scale offices will be found in corporate office parks, often on the outskirts of town. In a way, Ye Olde Townes are the diametric opposites of Government Centers in that they often contain nothing but retail, whereas Government Centers often contain no retail at all.

Summing up

These are of course just archetypes. No one single downtown district adheres completely to these descriptions — Los Angeles and Washington, to take two cities on either coast, don’t really fit into any of these — and the multiplicity of cities and towns across the States means that there is wide variation in urban form. It’s a small trend, but I think we’re also starting to see some downtown areas of large cities become Ye Olde Towne-type downtowns, with residential condo living and high-end stores and shops, but a small share of corporate office space overall.

Still, I think it’s valuable to think about the really different forms we associate with “downtown.” Of course, “cities” themselves vary greatly in form — Mumbai, Dallas and London are pretty different — but I think we’re a little more cognizant of the differences between cities as a whole. “Downtown” is a seemingly cohesive idea on the surface, but not so much underneath.

Written by Andrew ACG

August 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

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“Make Way for People” aims to turn streets, plazas into better public space

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Yesterday Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the catchily named “Make Way for People,” a program to incrementally improve public space and the public experience in Chicago largely via adapting existing street right-of-way.

On the whole, I think the initiative is well-guided. As Galina Tachieva writes in her excellent Sprawl Repair Manual, Americans tend to view thoroughfares as our public spaces, in contrast to the European emphasis on squares and plazas. If we’re ever to view our streets as more than ways to speed autos along as rapidly as possible, incremental efforts like this are needed. That said, I think we need a lot more detail about the specifics, particularly the “People Plazas.” Initial thoughts:

People Plazas will utilize public-private partnerships to spruce up existing CDOT plazas, squares and triangles via “new programming and retail opportunities.” No specific locations as of yet.

The first two areas I thought of in Chicago were the Apple-North/Clybourn area and the Polish Triangle in Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village. The first as an example of a relatively successful public-private partnership (at least until we rename it the “Apple” station), and the second as an example of a public space that has struggled to really take off despite valiant efforts to the contrary. I’m curious how these “People Plazas” will differ from these existing efforts. How long will contracts be? Are we talking about mere cosmetic improvements, addition of exclusive retail stands, performance space?

People Spots: platforms “adjacent to sidewalks,” about 50 feet long and seven feet wide. The diagrams show the space taken from parking lanes to install various seasonal relaxation facilities. A tentative location in Lakeview will install seating, tables and “semi-permanent” landscaping for $40,000. The other project locations include one in Andersonville and two in Kenwood.

This is the initiative that I think has the highest chances of success, particularly when placed on vibrant commercial corridors such as Clark St. I’ve often wanted to eat some snacks or food I picked up, but there wasn’t a nearby park or store-controlled outdoor space to do so. These types of platforms would serve as communal spaces along these thoroughfares to stop and rest a bit. At the same time, I hope there’s a good plan for maintenance of these spaces: tragedy of the commons is, well, tragic.

People Streets: Converting culs-de-sac, dead-end streets and other areas of “excess” asphalt into “year-round hardscape public spaces.” The first trial of this is on the 2300 block of N. Kenmore, in the middle of the DePaul campus, just south of Fullerton. According to the Sun-Times, this could theoretically be made permanent based on community demand.

These seem like summer street festivals and block parties writ large for a long period of time — not a bad thing by any means (I enjoy the many summer festivals! However, I would like to know more about the criteria for choosing these streets, and in particular for any theoretical permanent closures. I don’t think Chicago will feature a large number of culs-de-sac or turn into a dysfunctional suburban street network any time soon, but having attended a university which thought it had permanently closed off a street, I think it’s important to know how these “People Streets” will be chosen — traffic counts? type of street? etc.

People Alleys: Allowing the use of city alleys for music or art exhibitions in hours when they are not used.

This is the initiative I am the most skeptical about. Outside of the Loop, Chicago alleys are largely populated by garages and garbage cans — which, don’t get me wrong, I like: I can still remember the first time I visited Manhattan after moving to Chicago and how I was struck by the presence of giant piles of trash bags on the street. Chicago’s alleys help minimize similar unsightliness, curb cuts and sidewalk-fronting garages. But I think that these very things make them the hardest to convert to useful public space, in the sense of recreational and economic public space.

As a sidenote, I wonder how the People Spots and Streets will address the city’s privatized parking meter lease that haunts efforts such as this. It’s my understanding that the city must pay for the removal of any on-street parking spots — this could become a large financial headache.

Overall, I applaud the city and the mayor for these initiatives. Despite the lack of detail, I think these are positive and laudable efforts to reclaiming our public streets for mixed uses, a step to really creating a vibrant street community.

Written by Andrew ACG

June 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

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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

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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

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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.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 26, 2012 at 8:00 am

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Want to live at the mall? A look at Bayshore

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Partially as a way to take a break from Jane Jacobs, I’ve been reading Witold Rybczynski‘s very readable City Life and Makeshift Metropolis. A chapter of the latter (one of Planetizen’s best ten planning books for 2009) and sections of the former discuss the American retail landscape’s shift from downtown department stores to shopping malls to open-day lifestyle centers.

I was thinking about this when I stopped at the Bayshore Town Center, in Milwaukee’s northern suburbs, and remembering my reaction the first time I was there.

From the interstate, it looks more or less like any other shopping center, though perhaps a little bit glitzier. But it’s a surprise when you turn into the center — I’ve driven and walked in shopping centers like the Grove in Los Angeles before, and when I initially turned in on Port Washington Rd, I was expecting to pull into a sea of surface parking.

Curb parking on the inner streets of the center

Instead, I was surprised to turn into streets with on-street curb parking and pedestrians crossing to and fro and even a fake . As it turns out, Bayshore Town Center, is actually a mixed-use town center, with apartments above the retail stores and all three forms of parking — curb parking, surface parking and parking structures.

(I should note that this is only new to me, by the way — people wrote about this development earlier.)

As a driver, it’s remarkably stressful to drive through the complex, at least during the Christmas holidays when there are people everywhere crisscrossing the streets of the complex. And as a pedestrian, while the nature of the curb parking does mean that you’re separated, the exclusively commercial nature of the buildings, the completely uniform architecture does make you feel like you’re walking in a shopping mall that has just turned inside out.

Want to live at the mall?

“Lifestyle centers” and open-air malls aren’t anything new, of course. But this one differs in that it is mixed-use: you can actually live at Bayshore, with condos on top of the buildings, in that traditional mixed-use form that urbanists are always so proud of.

On paper, Bayshore Town Center seems to check all the smart-growth requirements. It has commercial and residential streets in a mixed-use layout and a street grid, if a small one, with sidewalks for pedestrians. If I recall correctly, they even re-connected parts of the street grid

Yet it’s a fairly unsatisfying shopping experience overall. It doesn’t please you as a driver, but it doesn’t really please you as a pedestrian, either, in the way that successful city streets do. I think the fundamental thing it’s missing is that it’s a mixed-use center (good) with limited transit (bad). There is transit, for sure, but outside of the Town Center, the rest of the suburb is unmistakably auto-oriented; and within, there is a bus stop, but it’s on the side of the road, separated from the center by auto traffic on the way to the interstate. (I would have taken a picture, but I was one of the drivers in those cars.) You get the sense that transit is an afterthought.

I think fundamentally Bayshore’s just not a great shopping experience, and may even lend these mixed-use complexes a bad name, because of the lack of transit. Creating such a tight fundamentally auto-oriented form is disconcerting and dissatisfying for all, pedestrians and drivers alike, and I’m worried that it makes “mixed use” just seem synonymous with “poorly designed.”

Written by Andrew ACG

March 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

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