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.