Saturday, July 17, 2010

Loyola-Morgan Retail District: Gains and Losses

We can't fail to be impressed by the recent transformation of the formerly forlorn stretch of Sheridan between Devon and Albion. The strip of disused buildings and vacant lots has blossomed  into a lively and attractive retail district with the addition of the Morgan at Loyola Station rental apartment building, a good-looking and appropriately scaled mid-rise building with small ground-floor retail shops; and a pocket that used to be ugly and a little forbidding is now cozy and inviting. This pocket of Rogers Park is now the most successful and attractive retail district in the neighborhood, and it is helped a lot by the proximity of two major grocery stores and other retail in Edgewater a few blocks south.

Yet, as you travel south on Sheridan into Broadway and consider the moribund two-block stretch of Broadway just south of Sheridan, and spotty Devon Ave, you're reminded of how much easier it is to destroy a neighborhood than it is to build it, and how important is appropriate development, for Broadway Blvd is an essay in the destruction wrought by ugly, auto-oriented, anti-urban development; a wilderness of strip mall slums and drive-through food outlets and self-storage facilities. Actually, the street contains a number of interesting small businesses, including a couple of antique stores and a wonderful day spa as well as several interesting small restaurants, but they're a little lost among the seas of parking, fast food outlets and other auto-oriented garbage. Just a couple of blocks south, Broadway between Granville and Sheridan is still a cold, lackluster corridor of drive-through food outlets and parking lots, and Devon is pocked with disused parking lots fronting the street and vacant storefronts. But attractive, interesting, lively urban neighborhoods don't develop in a day, and it will take quite a few more years and an improved economic climate for this area to develop fully, and to reverse 75 years of  atrocious urban planning and deterioration.

And that's just as well. Maybe we need to move a little more slowly, and build more carefully, with every building built with care and love. We Americans tend to go way too fast at way too big a scale, with no consideration for unintended consequences and no regard for feedback along the way that is signaling that things aren't working out according to plan. And now that nobody has the money to go forward with big plans except for Loyola University, the people involved in developing this area need to take a breather and consider the progress made so far.

Some of things we hope they think about before they do too much more demolition include the block of Sheridan just north of the Loyola el station. This block still contains a couple of really interesting buildings and a number of businesses that have been in the neighborhood for many decades, like Carmen's Restaurant and Affordable Optical. However, in the past fifteen years, this block has lost a lot of its charm and cohesion, having been decimated by fires that destroyed a couple of charming old buildings, and Loyola University's demolition of a decrepit but lovely two story building and corner building. The University has rights of eminent domain in this area, which is part of the Sheridan/Devon TIF district, and the buildings that remain are in increasingly decrepit conditions, and according to one commercial tenant, are renting their commercial spaces out on a month-to-month basis, while Beck's Bookstore vacated its old building and moved to a space in the Morgan apartment building.

This would all seem to indicate that the university has plans for this block that very likely don't include the restoration of the remaining buildings on this block, including the incredible little beauty pictured below, which contains Affordable Optical and Carmen's. Chicago is fairly stuffed with buildings covered with wonderful embellishment, but I've never seen anything quite like the decorative terracotta ornamentation on this quirky little charmer, and the destruction of this building would be a tragic loss to the neighborhood. Buildings like this are what lend a neighborhood charm and character, and another bland new building, no matter how luxurious and loaded with amenities, would not replace a structure like this.

From here forward, the developers here need to take small, careful steps. There's no crying need for more retail space at just this point in time, given the number of empty spaces available in the area already and the extremely unfavorable business climate. Therefore, the developers might want to consider "infill" buildings for this block, small one-to-three story buildings with commercial space on the ground and perhaps second floor, and apartments above, and more important, some attention to architecture and decorative detail. The recent renovation of a row of one-story storefronts in the 1100 block of Granville in Edgewater is encouraging. These ugly, run-down spaces were recently re-fronted with attractively styled facades capped off by the attractive deco corner store, shown below.


These stylish renovations, and recently constructed mixed-use buildings allover town, while not architectural masterpieces, are major improvements on the hideous, utilitarian,suburban-style commercial development that blighted so much of the city during the 30-year period of urban destruction following WW2. Let's hope we can do even better with whatever gets built in the 6500 block of Sheridan, where the builders will be starting from scratch. Not every building, or even most buildings, has to be a  masterpiece, or terribly "original", just reasonably attractive and well-designed, and perhaps possess some charming decorative details. We might still have a long way to travel before we build with the same spirit and love of beauty that inspired the magnificent buildings of the early twentieth century, but we've at least turned the corner and left the dreadful post-war period behind us.

Whatever gets done, let's hope it gets done slowly. And most of all, lets work to preserve the beauty and charm our neighborhoods still possess after 65 years of maliciously anti-urban modernist destruction.


Nudge said...

Well said! Especially good was the part: “We Americans tend to go way too fast at way too big a scale, with no consideration for unintended consequences and no regard for feedback along the way that is signaling that things aren't working out according to plan.”

Those words have got “Robert Moses” written all over them.

City after city is cursed with so-called “planners” who can't think outside-the-SUV well enough to deduce any useful lessons from their experience of -

1st pass:
A: city builds & widens more roads to accommodate more traffic
B: still more traffic arrives than planned for

2nd pass:
A: city builds and widens still more roads
B: even more traffic arrives than before

3rd pass:
A: city builds and widens still more roads
B: even more traffic arrives than before

By the second or third full iteration of this oh-so-mind-numbingly-common experience, anyone with half a brain would recognize it as an unwanted positive-feedback loop. But not our “genius” planners, unfortunately, most of whom are still in full-on “Robert McNamara” mode, as in “Dammit! We can win in VietNam if we just keep doing more of the same!”

The North Coast said...

Aaaahhhh, Robert Moses, that great destroyer of cities. What evil alignment of the stars caused him, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier to be born contemporaries? Between Le Corbu and his horrid boxy buildings that inspired our housing projects, Frank the Great and all his bastard spawn which are the ranch houses and split level abominations that defile our inner suburbs, and Moses who would have paved over every inch of every city with highways, we're lucky we have a single decent building standing, or a single real city.

Thank God for Jane Jacobs and her disciples. I love reading about the showdown between her and her buds in Greenwich Village, and Robert Moses in Madison Square Garden, and Moses stalking off sputtering about how his precious plans to demolish the Village for a highway was defeated by "a bunch of...of... MOTHERS!!" Residents of NYC neighborhoods like the Village and Chelsea and SoHo ought to erect a statue of her and pray to it daily, for they owe her big time, and so do the denizens of every other city and town who cherish their quirky, charming, "outdated" neighborhoods

consultant said...

Nudge and North Coast, both of your comments are on point.

Here in Atlanta, the road building mentality among older leaders is still strong, but the under 50 crew is starting to see the light.

So much road was built here over the last 40 years, and so much road built to alleviate traffic congestion, that it's now obvious to everyone that more roads is not going to solve the traffic problem.

But leave it to the gangster element of free enterprise. Now some of the road builders have convinced some of the old political leaders to take public roads and turn them into toll roads. Toll roads are suppose to reduce traffic. Of course these private companies want long leases to build and manage these roads for years.

A tiny sign of progress in Atlanta happened when all hell broke lose over these proposals (that wouldn't have happened 10 or 15 years ago).

Now the road builders have had to scale back their plans. Last I read only one short stretch of I-85 in Gwinnett County (deeply conservative (but changing) Republican territory), will have a test case of toll roads.

Metro Atlanta has small pockets of pre WW II neighborhoods. Fine grain, walkable. But like everywhere, the 40 year assault on anything local almost destroyed these places. The last 15 years brought some of these places back and they are a pleasure to spend time in.

But so much of metro Atlanta was built post WW II and has all of the worst features of sprawl.

We've lived in Decatur, Georgia (next door to Atlanta) for 21 years. We still don't have a good sense of the place. This by the way is a very common feeling among people who move here.

We lived in the Chicago area for 11 years prior to moving here (5 in Hyde Park and 6 in Oak Park). My wife and I can tell stories and remember details about our life there that are richer and much more detailed than our life here.

Living life within the car, coming home to places devoid of outside activity, does something to our sense of self, our attachment to place.

My wife is an adoption social worker. She says this reminds her of attachment disorder syndrome she sees in some adoptive and foster care children.

Nudge said...

Poor deluded Mr Moses was so enraptured with Le Corbu's fanciful sketches that he failed to comprehend the reality of moving and storing so many individual automobiles. To complicate matters even more, he apparently didn't comprehend the colossal resource waste needed to accommodate so much part-time storage & transit space. Consider a downtown parking space, which gets used only for 10 hours out of 24, or the 4 or 5 nortbound lanes of I93 headed into Boston from south of the city, which are used at full capacity only from 6am to 9am and are thereafter used at a dim fraction of that amount.

No doubt Mr Moses (like so many other none-too-bright planners) was convinced that building enough roads would give the city the traffic accommodation means it supposedly needs. The end result of trying to retrofit an existing city in this fashion is something like Los Angeles: it turns the place into a highly-inefficient, sprawled out place with lower population densities, enormous amounts of underutilized road & parking space, and horrible internal transit problems.

An environment built from the ground-up to be car-friendly is something like suburbia, with the limiting factor being that no one wants to live there when the environment becomes so friendly for automobiles that it becomes decidedly unattractive to people.

Consultant, I saw bicycle-view video of Atlanta somewhere recently on one of the bike blogs. It looked like an unholy incarnation of sprawlburbia.

The video of Mr Moses getting his a** handed to him would have been precious.

consultant said...


This is off subject. I notice in your photo on the right, you have a spindle of discs next to your laptop. Are those burnable dvds?

I ask because lately I've been having problems with Sony dvd-r discs and HP dvd-r discs. I've burned stuff on them and when I insert them again they show up as blank discs. I've used other discs from this package and they work fine.

Wondering if others are having this kind of problem.

The North Coast said...

Those discs are CD-ROMs especially formatted for burning music onto, and I'm sorry I bought them. They won't format on this computer, for some reason, and maybe that's why they were marked down to such a low price at Staples. They're HP Music CD-Rs that I meant to take to the Rogers Park swap meet but forgot, and I'll happily give them to anyone who asks for them.

Anonymous said...

For a Chicago girl, you sure do cast a wide net. I read your post on the Irvine Housing Blog about people you knew with stellar credit and a huge down not able to get a loan for a Chicago high rise unit.
Likely, the problem is not with the prospective borrower - but rather the financial health of the overall building. Maybe a blessing for these people you know.
When a high rise does not pass the sniff test of a lender, a borrower should take note. Something is wrong with the building and should be left alone.

The North Coast said...

I agree with you. I have remarked that the failure to get a loan was no reflection on the couple themselves, but on the market and the building into which they were buying. It told me that the lender sees further massive drops in prices coming, either in that building or in housing in general.

The Chicago housing market is in a state of complete collapse and comps are being busted with every sale. The South Loop, where this couple wanted to buy, is an absolute, unmitigated disaster, worse than Las Vegas or Miami. The overbuilding here during the Great Rampage was almost laughable.