Why do we still have car-oriented development in our cities?

October 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Yesterday I was around the Lakeview neighborhood for some errands. While waiting for a bus on Diversey, I couldn’t help but notice how out-of-place this development felt:

959 W Diversey Pkwy

959 W Diversey Pkwy, Chicago. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen

If you remove the apartment building in the background and expand the parking lot, it’s hardly discernable from my hometown.

Granted, there’s probably only 16 parking spaces there. But I can’t help but wonder why such a suburban-style, strip mall development exists in a dense neighborhood like Lakeview in a major US city. Just up the street, we have this:

924 W Belmont Ave

924 W Belmont Ave. Credit: Google Maps

There’s street parking, three bus lines, and three L lines within two blocks of this development, and residential units above. Pedestrians on the street can see inside from the street. Basically, it feels more “friendly” to an urban environment. The first photo above doesn’t feel like it belongs. It’s car-oriented development, despite being directly adjacent to a bus line and two L lines in a dense neighborhood.

I remember a similar style of development in Milwaukee:

East Pointe Market Place, 500 E Ogden Ave., Milwaukee. Credit: Google Maps

East Pointe Market Place, 500 E Ogden Ave., Milwaukee. Credit: Google Maps

This is the East Pointe Market Place in Milwaukee. It’s located on the lower East Side neighborhood, about a 10 minute walk from downtown and a short bus ride from all of the places I’ve lived in Milwaukee when I went to school. Where you see the freeway/state route road signs is the entrance to a parking lot which is surrounded on two sides by a strip mall (with Starbucks, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Five Guys, a UPS store, etc.) and on the other side, a smaller Pick ‘n’ Save grocery store. I always found this type of development a bit out-of-place, but many people drive in Milwaukee, so it’s not too bizarre that there is a parking lot in such a large neighborhood. There are, however, three bus routes directly adjacent to, or within a few blocks of, this development, and the future Milwaukee Streetcar is also set to run directly next to it.

Something still has to be said about the development facing completely inwards. You can’t even really tell what is in the development from the street – you have to walk into it and go across the parking lot to get a good idea, because all of the stores that are there are not advertised with banners along Ogden Ave. like in the photo above. In a neighborhood like this one, it really doesn’t seem to fit all that well. There isn’t much pedestrian traffic, especially compared to truly walkable corridors in Milwaukee like North Avenue or Brady Street (save the Walgreen’s parking lot at the corner of Brady and Cambridge). Perhaps you could suggest that since there isn’t much pedestrian traffic, it makes sense to build car-oriented developments, but it’s probably the contrary: There probably aren’t many pedestrians because there isn’t much to see from that angle. It’s an empty wall: if you want to see what’s there, you have to go to the other side. Most people wouldn’t go in unless they knew what was there and that was their destination, since once you enter, there’s really nowhere else to go. I credit the developer for hiding the parking from the street, but the end result is that nobody is on the street in the first place. Why not flip the storefronts around, and have drivers exit the vehicle and go to the front? I don’t think a short walk is really a deterrent for most drivers.

North Ave., Milwaukee

Good placemaking: North Ave., Milwaukee. Whole Foods is served by an underground parking lot. There is no parking for other businesses but none is needed: The neighborhood is sufficiently dense and served by transit to warrant none. Credit: Google Maps.

East Pointe is a more drastic example of the first photo showing 959 W Diversey, but it’s still important. Even though the storefronts face the street and can be seen by pedestrians, the feel of the area is less “urban” than that of the second photo showing 924 W Belmont Ave. There are two entrances/exits for automobiles, creating conflict points for pedestrians and traffic: Both Diversey Pkwy. and Sheffield Ave. are busy streets. Drivers must pull out of the parking lot and wait in the sidewalk for traffic to clear enough to make a turn, meaning that vehicles turning will impede pedestrians. An extreme example of this problem exists in the Loop: During rush hour, drivers trying to enter parking garages with entrances mid-block encounter a non-stop flow of pedestrians and must wait, blocking an entire traffic lane while waiting for a sufficient break in the flow to enter (or, as I see more often, inching forward until they defiantly speed through pedestrians to get into the garage). This conflict can be and is entirely avoided when good design is employed. Parking lots should not be situated with entrances/exits on streets like Diversey – busy both in terms of auto traffic and pedestrian traffic.

Here are some other examples of bad, auto-oriented design in dense neighborhoods of Chicago:

Montrose and Clark St., Chicago

Montrose and Clark St., Chicago. Credit: Google Maps.

Clark and Wilson Ave., Chicago

Clark and Wilson Ave., Chicago. Credit: Google Maps.

It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the examples of bad design above have left these areas without a sense of place. These developments are in more dense neighborhoods where you can see a lot of people walking at various times of the day. The feel is completely different in other areas of Chicago, where the situation is even worse:

Cicero Ave. near Montrose Ave., Chicago

Cicero Ave. near Montrose Ave., Chicago. Credit: Google Maps.

I hate crossing Cicero Ave. I once had to do it to get to that McDonald’s from the Mayfair Metra station on a hot day. Nobody stops for pedestrians and everybody drives too fast, which you could probably blame on the wide feel the street has due to the lack of tall development on either side of the street. I don’t think I’d want to make crossing Cicero a daily task.

Stony Island Ave. on Chicago's South side

Stony Island Ave. on Chicago’s South side. Credit: Google Maps.

Chicago’s South side has extremely wide streets and an awful record of car-oriented development. I rarely see people walking along these streets. You could say that part of it is because the South side is generally more dangerous than other parts of Chicago in terms of crime, but I wonder how much the lack of “eyes on the street” has to do with the relatively uneasy feeling you get on these streets.

Obviously a city like Chicago could not cover all of its 234 square miles in pedestrian-/cylcist-/transit-oriented development. But something is wrong when the zoning code still allows parking lots to be built that way in such dense neighborhoods, especially directly next to so many transit options. Allowing this type of development is not good in the long-term future of cities that are trying to encourage walking and cycling as the preferred, safe, and viable way of getting around.