Stacked big-box development: Chicago’s next urban design challenge

April 13, 2015 at 8:59 pm

In Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin laments a new sort of high-rise residential development going up in and around downtown Chicago: stories of parking at the base, with residences four, five, and six or more stories above ground, far from being “eyes on the street” of any sort.

The difference between a condo tower in New York and one in Chicago is that the Chicago tower will have a base, roughly four to nine stories tall, that houses a parking garage where condo and apartment dwellers store their cars and SUVs. The apartment floors begin only after the parking garage ends.

It’s a small difference with large consequences. It means that in New York, you look up from the sidewalk to the second floor and you see somebody’s curtains. In Chicago, you look up and see, in most cases, a blank wall of concrete or opaque glass, because the city requires buildings to cover parking garages rather than leaving them exposed.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

The book is a compilation of articles that Kamin has written over the years; that excerpt was written in August 2003. While this trend may seem to have slowed, River North and West Loop in particular are riddled with this sort of development. The parking being between the ground plane and the residences is not as obvious as it is with Marina City, but it’s pretty bland. Above is a pretty egregious example; not only is the ground plane wasted on three banks (BMO Harris is not pictured, to the right), there are at least 4 levels of parking above the Chase.

Parking garages in developments like those shown above, and which Kamin bemoans, likely exist because it is cheaper to build parking above ground than below it, and nobody thought much of it. Fortunately, new development does not tend to include aboveground parking structures at the street-facing side of the building, and we are seeing more transit-oriented developments with much less parking.

A trend I have seen more recently is development that has parking on the ground floor (even worse), with retail on top. This was something I first noticed at the Target on Division St:

Image: Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Parking is accessed around the corner, on Larrabee:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This is terrible urban design, for a few reasons: The parking on the first level provides two blank walls to stare at while walking by. There is no opportunity for other retailers to open on the ground floor, or even windows where passers-by can look into the store (the only windows afford a view of escalators to go up to the second floor, where there is retail). There is no chance that anything along this block will ever be “active.”

It’s concerning, because the Wilson Yards Target is better:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Target still occupies quite a bit of the block, but there is nonetheless housing above the rest of the retailers that exist on the other half of the development. Another small enhancement is the café section of Target, which has a window looking out to the street giving passers-by something to look at. I don’t think this would have happened if this Target were built on its own, however. The fact that it is a part of a larger TIF-funded development likely helped. It does help to show, however, that the ugly urban design of the Division St Target is entirely avoidable.

Here is another example of a poorly-designed big-box development, about a 15 minute walk west:

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

This new Mariano’s grocery store, next to the Metra UP-N Ravenswood station (the busiest non-Loop Metra station in Chicago), has a sidewalk-fronting entrance which takes you straight upstairs to the rest of the store, unless you want a coffee or flowers, which are the only items sold on the first floor.

The parking structure, accessed from the cave shown above, is above the store. But what is particularly bad about the design of this development is that its smaller occupant, LA Fitness, can only be accessed from behind the store, through the driveway to the parking garage.

Image: Google Maps.

There is no entrance to LA Fitness from the sidewalk. Image: Google Maps.

In my opinion, fitness clubs should be located on the second floor if possible, since many of them usually throw up an opaque screen for some reason (probably to prevent people from looking inside), which is antithetical to good pedestrian-oriented design. And good pedestrian-oriented design is exactly what we should be calling for on Lawrence Ave, considering it was recently the beneficiary of a much-needed road diet, which not only makes the street safer for people walking but should also be conducive to more people-oriented urban design.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to write this post, which is a new development proposed on Montrose Ave just two blocks from the Wilson Yards Target. A former neighbor tipped me off to a DNAInfo article regarding a Ross discount clothing store wanting to open shop on the site of former Dearborn Foods, which has sat vacant for some time at 918 W Montrose Ave. Here are the renderings:

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Image: Mid-America Real Estate.

Let’s start with the good, because it will be quicker: At least there is space for two small retailers.

The bad should be obvious: ground-floor parking (73 spaces proposed), with second-floor retail. Even worse is that, unlike the Target on Division, the parking is not even closed off by a wall that could have something on it to look at. The developer touts “strong traffic counts” as an asset.

Is it better than the vacant store there now? Sure. Is it better than the Jewel-Osco across the street, with it’s large surface parking lot? Maybe. But it sure isn’t good urban design.

Buildings like this cannot continue to pop up like weeds across Chicago’s landscape. Thankfully, this looks like it is the first rendering, and it has not gone through any sort of public review process. Recently re-elected alderman James Cappleman should reject this style of development and insist that the only type of new development that should be built in Uptown be pedestrian-oriented, not only on principle but also because over half of households in this area have no vehicle and most people commute via transit (source). Traffic-choked Montrose should not be subjected to development that will induce more automobile trips and re-introduce conflict points between people walking and driving with a curb cut on a busy street. Finally, we should expect better when a $200+ million Red Line ‘L’ station renovation is being constructed just down the street.

Chicago already has a tool that can fight back against this sort of development, it just needs to be applied more widely. The Pedestrian Streets ordinance (17-3-0500) is a wonderful law that ensures existing “streets and intersections that are widely recognized as Chicago’s best examples of pedestrian-oriented shopping districts” remain that way. However, it needs to be expanded to include most, if not all, commercial streets instead of covering only those that are currently human-scale, pedestrian-friendly shopping districts. The three developments (Target on Division St, Mariano’s on Lawrence Ave, and the proposed Ross on Montrose Ave) I showed in this article would not have been built as they are had they been on designated Pedestrian Streets. Transparent surfaces would be required on 60% of the sidewalk-facing walls, entrances must be on the primary street, and curb cuts are prohibited.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

Chicago Pedestrian Streets, relatively few and far between, are also inequitably distributed. Image: City of Chicago Data Portal.

33rd ward alderwoman Deb Mell fought a developer who wanted to build a standard-issue, auto-oriented Walgreen’s at the site of an existing mixed-use building, as I reported last year in Streetsblog Chicago. Cappleman, and many other aldermen and women throughout Chicago should be rejecting the same type of development in their own wards, and you should be pressuring them to do so. The higher initial cost, if any, to a developer is worth it in the long run if our new development resembles less of a stacked suburban big-box design, and more of the human-scale shopping streets we’ve come to appreciate in several Chicago neighborhoods.