News & Politics » Essay

Cityscape: What Can We Do With Block 37?

Who's responsible for this $34 million sandbox? What can be done to redeem it? Can we prevent it from happening again?

by

comment

"It's a way to say, 'You should not do this in cities,'" explains Christian Laine, founder and director of the Athenaeum, Chicago's center for architecture, art, and urban studies. He is describing a competition announced by the Athenaeum in January, "Piazza Chicago," that will seek to find "design possibilities" for the conversion of some blocks in the Loop now standing vacant. But "salvation" might be a better word for what Block 37, cleared by developers, requires.

The buildings that once occupied Block 37--the north-loop redevelopment parcel bounded by State, Dearborn, Randolph, and Washington--have been torn down to make room for a big-bucks mixed-use complex whose construction has been delayed while its developers look for financing. The razed buildings formed part of the "walls" of two essential Loop spaces--Daley Center Plaza to the west and, to the east, the State Street mall in front of Field's. In their place stands one of the most expensive sandboxes ever built--$34 million for mud and rubble ringed by a solid white-painted wood fence, angled to make space for planting beds and graveled cut-through paths at each corner. Hardly an eyesore, but an enormous waste of a crucial site in the Loop.

"Piazza Chicago" also will accept ideas for the interim use and beautification of a similar derelict half-block four blocks to the south, on Adams between State and Dearborn, in the trees-and-fountains tradition of Daniel H. Burnham. Submissions will be juried, and the Athenaeum will exhibit the winning designs in April. Competition criteria call for "people-oriented spaces for meeting, sitting, eating, [and] congregating" that can also accommodate unspecified outdoor events and support food concessions. Places, in short, where people might "sit down and have fun" (as Laine puts it) and remedy what Athenaeum spokesmen described as the present "blightful" condition of these sites.

The Athenaeum's call for ideas drew a quick and enthusiastic response. Laine says that designers from as far afield as New Zealand and Italy have expressed interest, testimony either to the pull of what Laine calls "these world-famous sites" or to a global building slump. (Says Laine, "The Athenaeum loves recessions. Architects have a lot of time on their hands.")

But the enthusiasm is not universal. "These exercises are fine," says Stuart Nathan, a partner in FJV Venture, Block 37's developer. "But they have nothing to do with economic reality." (Neither, apparently, does building speculative skyscrapers in the Loop, but let's not get nasty.) Laine acknowledges that the designs produced for his contest are likely to improve only the walls of the Athenaeum's Wacker Drive gallery. FJV Venture is currently seeking financing for the project, which means that the length of time the block will lie vacant is uncertain. Nor is it clear who would pay to build, maintain, and insure any interim facility. Title to the block has already passed to the developers; while the city must approve any interim use of the site the developers might propose, it cannot dictate any such use, and the developers are not likely to let anyone else play in their sandbox.

And a plaza, even a temporary one, wouldn't make eventual leasing any easier. Asked his opinion, architect Jack Hartray, of Nagle Hartray & Associates Ltd., said, "The problem is that anything that would work in that space on an interim basis would be good enough that people would want to keep it." It wouldn't matter whether they were tree lovers or car parkers--anyone moved out of Block 37 to make way for new digs would cast the tenants as villains. Poisonous PR.

Real estate development is in many ways a crime of opportunity, and the successful developer is the one who grabs his chances when they come along. The redevelopment of Block 37 has been in the works for more than six years. The most recent scheme was advanced by FJV Venture, a team composed of three of the city's top devleopers, Metropolitan Structures, JMB Realty, and the Levy Organization. In its latest version the complex (designed by Murphy-Jahn in a circumspect mood) was to consist of 1.8 million square feet of office space in two towers, one 46 and one 30 stories. On the State Street side the towers would be set back, rising from the rear of a five-story retail base. This retail "podium" would contain 350,000 square feet in an atrium mall like the one at Water Tower Place; an underground concourse would link the mall with the Daley Center and Marshall Field's State Street store.

The buildings on Block 37 started to come down in the autumn of 1989, a little later than planned; lawsuits over property valuations and other hassles pushed back the timetable for the start of construction on the retail podium and one of the two towers from its original spring 1990 date. By the fall of 1990 every structure on the block was razed except for a Commonwealth Edison substation on Dearborn; plans called for it to remain in place. The victims included the officially landmarked McCarthy Building, at Dearborn and Washington, an 1872 commercial structure that had been much degraded over the years by remodeling but still offered what Ira Bach called in Chicago's Famous Buildings "a striking and pleasant contrast" to the newer buildings around it.

Other buildings with less conspicuous but perhaps more substantial architectural virtues went down too, including the Unity building and the United Artists theater. Howard Decker, the Chicago architect who chairs the Illinois Historic Preservation Council, describes the late Block 37 as "very rich in historic resources." City Hall offered no real opposition to these demolitions; in fact, it agreed to a unique "de-landmarking" of the McCarthy to remove any legal obstacles to its demolition.

In 1990, however, the demand for new prime space by both corporate tenants and retailers went sour faster than the mayonnaise at a bowling-league buffet. It was widely assumed that Block 37 was a sure starter--the site was choice, the development team potent--but the fact remains that the FJV group had signed up no major tenant before the bulldozers moved in. Yet FJV spokesmen were insisting publicly as recently as June 1990 that they would find the tenants--and the $500 million--they needed to proceed.

By autumn it was clear that the developers' optimism was exaggerated. FJV missed the city's October 1 start deadline (the deal with the city called for completion three years after that), and city planners proved unwilling to extend it; the failure to start meant that FJV paid the city a penalty of $1.9 million. As the Christmas shopping season got under way, landscaping crews began planting dogwoods in makeshift beds at the corners of the block, the way one might decorate a fresh grave.

FJV has complained that in this volatile real estate market the delays in acquiring and clearing the site doomed their project. Whatever the city's role, it was as embarrassed as the developer by the failure to commence building as promised on Block 37. The deal had been arranged for the developers with city help. FJV Venture bought the three-acre site from the city for the bargain price of roughly $12.5 million; when the city pays all its bills, it will reportedly have shelled out nearly $40 million for its role in the acquisition of the site. Mayor Daley has admitted being "frustrated" by the whole process.

But the most important question Block 37 poses to the city is whether and how public authorities might prevent developers from tearing down viable buildings until they can guarantee the viability of the projects proposed to replace them. In May 1990 the mayor proposed an amendment to the city's zoning ordinance that would add a sunset provision to the city's development guidelines, cutting the deadline for breaking ground from the present 20 years to 2. In February 1991 the city insisted on tough new provisions in its zoning agreement with developers of a new tower at LaSalle and Monroe, requiring them to keep existing buildings occupied and in good condition as long as possible before demolition, and to begin construction within six months of demolition or face the loss of zoning approval for the project. There were suggestions that the city make such provisions a permanent part of Loop building regulations.

Indeed, word from City Hall is that the Department of Planning is exploring even more ways to deter future delays in construction. Changes in tax laws would help; presently, a developer can often save money on taxes by tearing down an old building, even taking into account the costs of lost rent and demolition. Demolition requirements concerning landscaping and so on could also be stiffened so that the cost of clearing sites would be unattractively high.

The main reason that Block 37 sits vacant seems to be that no one in authority at City Hall believed that it might. Several words could be used to describe this approach to land-use regulation. "Trusting," "naive," and "complacent" come immediately to mind, although you could probably call it "derelict" in most bars without starting a fight. But "forgetful" might be the most accurate term. In 1985, Montgomery Ward's empty State Street store--the much-defaced Fair Store designed in 1890 by William Le Baron Jenney, which at one time was among the largest retail buildings on the planet--was torn down. The demolition left a half-block scar on Adams between State and Dearborn, a crucial Loop site touched on by State Street, the Federal Center, and the Berghoff Restaurant. The site subsequently changed hands, and today is owned by Bramalea Midwest Inc., a subsidiary of the Canadian development firm of the same name, which has ambitious plans, with a Dutch partner, to erect an 80- or 85-story office and retail tower there.

In late 1990 Bramalea closed its local leasing office, and a company spokesman conceded that it might be another three or four years before the project got under way. If that forecast proves accurate--and developers are not renowned for their pessimism--the site will have stood vacant for nearly a decade before construction starts.

On the other hand, such sites could be built on next week. FJV's Nathan asks skeptically of the Athenaeum contest, "How long is "interim'?" How long indeed. He bristles at the suggestion that Chicago's third airport might open before FJV's skyscrapers do. Without quite explaining how, Nathan insists that the Bramalea project and Block 37 are different. He insists, for example, that FJV Venture has a timetable for development. No doubt Bramalea also had a timetable; but even the savviest developers are vulnerable to economic forces beyond their control, as the events of 1990 made clear.

The remarkable Loop building boom of the 1980s has been matched in the past only by the boom of the 1920s. That decade gave Chicago the Wrigley and Tribune buildings, the Board of Trade, the Civic Opera House, the old Daily News building, and the Merchandise Mart, among many others. Real estate experts insist that the 1980s differed from the 1920s in ways fundamental enough to prevent the 1990s from being like the 1930s. And possibly the virtual shutdown of Loop office development is merely the short-term effect of a temporary overcapacity. However, if the experts are so good at predicting the economic future, fewer of them would have been caught by the downturn in 1990.

Let's at least admit the possibility that vacant lots like Block 37 and the Bramalea site might prove to be about as temporary as civil-service appointments under the old Mayor Daley. After all, not a single new office skyscraper of significance was built in Chicago after 1930 until the Prudential Building was opened on Randolph--in 1955.

Designing things that you know will never be built is wonderfully liberating to the imagination. Block 37 offers especially rich possibilities, sitting as it does at an important Loop crossroads that connects major transit lines, Field's, and government buildings. Its location, unfortunately, is about all that recommends Block 37 as a plaza site. For one thing, the space is interrupted by the Com Ed substation, which is too expensive to move and too ugly to ignore: it squats on the Dearborn Street side of the site at mid-block, athwart the axis between the main entrances of the County Building and Marshall Field's.

Then there is the expanse next door of Daley Plaza, as well as another new vacant lot across the street to the northwest, at Randolph and Dearborn. So much space will make it difficult to achieve any sense of intimate scale on a site whose size is more suitable to a parade ground than a plaza to begin with.

Conventional plazas are not the only possible interim uses for Block 37 or the Bramalea site, however. Consider the following:

The main attraction of such famous public spaces as the Piazza di Spagna in Rome is simple steps--the Spanish steps--and less famous places, like the entrance of the Art Institute, also rely on steps. (They're a popular feature even when they don't go anywhere, as is the case with the First National Bank Plaza.) If FJV Venture were to excavate the foundations of their buildings now rather than wait for the start of construction, it would create a lovely hole in the ground on Block 37. The Boston firm of Machado & Silvetti Associates won plaudits from Progressive Architecture magazine recently with its redesign of the Piazza Dante in Genoa, a cramped cul-de-sac nine yards below the level of the surrounding city that the architects outfitted with bleacherlike steps to bridge the vertical distance between it and the streets above. Such a space would probably please passersby too; as much as people anywhere, Chicagoans relish the opportunity to look down on others.

Then there are trees, of course. And they wouldn't have to be the cliched rows of street trees or an ersatz English-style pastoral park either. The standard methods of planting in the Loop--single specimens growing in pots or pits sunk into the pavement--mean slow death for trees. Conventional ornamental trees are too expensive for temporary use anyway, and often vulnerable to neglect. An alternative is to plant these spaces with fast-growing trees like silver maples or Siberian elms or the much-scorned ailanthus (tree of heaven), which offer all the benefits of their better-bred cousins but require no large investment either to buy or maintain. And their removal, as one landscape architect has put it, "would never be untimely."

The result might be not a prissy row of trees but a proper grove covering an entire block--hundreds of trees that would be fenced off from people except for a path or two. Such a jumble would form a solid phalanx of green. Such a grove would not decorate space but reshape it, providing scenery and screen at once--proof that a "people-oriented space" can mean a place that benefits people as well as a place with people in it.

More conventional imaginations would suggest a sculpture garden for the site. Sculpture has been temporarily placed on vacant land south of Harrison near River City in the South Loop; and developer Marvin Romanek installed several works on the site of his Saint Clair Place project at Ontario and Saint Clair until construction could get under way. Similar use has been made of a vacant lot on North Michigan. (John Wilson, organizer of Navy Pier's annual Art Expo, says that it's hard to keep sculptors from turning every vacant lot into a sculpture garden come May, because the town is crawling with dealers.) Some artists actually created their works at the River City site, which suggests an attractive possibility for a Loop sculpture garden. People love to watch other people work; window washers, department-store window trimmers, street-patching crews, muggers, and construction gangs always attract gawkers.

At three acres, Block 37 is big enough for some form of earth sculpture. A few years ago in LaSalle County, artist Michael Heizer's Effigy Tumuli, consisting of a giant turtle, catfish, water strider, snake, and frog, was shaped by bulldozers from the debris of an abandoned surface mine. His work might be the model for a subject more appropriate to an urban site--a massive cockroach, perhaps, or a pigeon big enough to climb, play, sun, or sit on.

Light displays offer possibilities for low-cost drama, and have the advantage over earth sculptures of not needing to be mowed. During the last Christmas season New Yorkers were treated to laser lights playing nightly over the surface of the World Trade Center. Fred Kent of New York City's Project for Public Spaces once suggested that city streets be turned into literal theater: if TV images of the street were projected onto nearby walls, people might see themselves seeing themselves. The flat east and south walls of the Com Ed substation would make dandy projection surfaces. And it is pleasant to muse over the impact of a huge hologram display re-creating in three-dimensions a few of the marvelous Loop buildings that have been torn down over the years. Imagine it: a ghostly gallery in which the Stock Exchange, the Garrick, the Republic would stand tall again, safe at last from zoners and bankers and deal makers.

Illusion of a different sort appeals to Jack Hartray. The architect would borrow from the tradition of the Hollywood movie set and build a four- or five-story wooden barricade around the site, on which billboard-scale lithographs of pre-Great Fire buildings could be mounted. (In Paris, authorities have hidden repair work on the facade of the Church of the Madeleine behind a 15,000-square-foot canvas on which is painted a full-size version of the facade of the Church of the Madeleine.) The result would be a sort of trompe l'oeil in paper and paste, a false-front Chicago rising from the mud. "At least," says Hartray, "it would get us back to what the city was in 1840."

Or the space might be reserved for traveling carnivals and tent shows. In its present state the block resembles a rodeo arena; medieval piazzas were the scenes of bear baiting, duels, riots, and executions. Such events would rejuvenate a jaded staff at the mayor's Department of Cultural Affairs, but the liability problems, let us admit, would be insuperable.

Charles Thurow, the first deputy planning commissioner for the city, doesn't think that "Piazza Chicago" is a bad idea, exactly. It's just that focusing on interim plazas for two particular sites narrows the discussion unnecessarily. Block 37 and the Bramalea project are not the only Loop building schemes stymied by recession and overcapacity. City planners count seven of them, the most recent the 40-story tower by Dirk Lohan planned for 150 N. Dearborn; that lot was recently put up for sale by its frustrated developers.

Indeed, at any given moment substantial downtown acreage is either vacant--Illinois Center, Cityfront Center--or devoted to some dubious interim use, such as surface parking, while its owners wait to begin new projects or expand existing ones. Lincoln Properties' 311 S. Wacker, so far occupied by the first tower of three, is one example of the latter. Landscaping improves the look of such lots--the half block to the south of the new AMA headquarters on North State, which will someday be another AMA building, is now a pleasant little bit of Naperville in the heart of River North--but not necessarily their usefulness, since few of them are genuinely open to the public.

If temporary parks, why not temporary buildings? A massive wood-frame meeting hall, the Wigwam, was built at Lake and Market streets to house the 1860 Republican Party national convention and then dismantled. (If you think building a McCormick Place addition is controversial, imagine the row that would attend unbuilding it.) Hartray points out that every building is temporary to some extent. Some "permanent" Loop structures probably were intended by their builders to serve only interim uses. The one- and two-story retail buildings on the east side of State just north and south of Block 37 certainly look like interim buildings in scale and construction, the kind of structures one might erect to generate some cash flow while waiting for more lucrative opportunities to materialize. They stand on the former sites of the Masonic Temple Building (at Randolph, razed in 1939) and the Columbus Memorial Building (at Washington, pulled down in 1959).

Architects and engineers have spawned whole families of genuinely temporary structures--air-supported domes, ordinary panels-on-a-slab prefabs, Quonset huts, and tensile structures that look like circus big tops turned inside out. They have been used to house emergency shelters, portable military hospitals, temporary exhibitions, field offices on remote construction sites. Each offers possibilities for urban settings.

In 1986 the old Montgomery Ward's on State Street had just been razed, with no immediate prospects of being replaced. Architects Kevin Kemp and Howard Decker had recently opened their own firm, and Decker recalls thinking that the situation was "ridiculous and intolerable." The partners pondered ways such prime Loop blocks might be somehow restored to publicly beneficial uses. Their solution was a temporary marketplace. Kemp drew up plans for a long two-level hall that would span the old Ward's site from east to west; it would be flanked by smaller, single-story pavilions on the corners at State and Dearborn. The complex could house flower and vegetable stands, craft shops, and cafes around a depressed central area usable as an informal amphitheater or as an ice-skating rink in winter.

The simple utilitarian metal structures they envisioned had corrugated metal roofs and would be set on a light foundation; since the pieces would be bolted together, the structures could be "demounted" and moved to another site. The concept was enthusiastically received by city planners and State Street merchants; Decker & Kemp even got calls from people who had seen newspaper articles about the hypothetical marketplace and wanted to rent space. But worries, mainly from competing merchants, about the looks, the financing, and the management of such a facility have prevented its realization. Worse, the plan had no champion either at City Hall or in the business community.

Neither the idea of low-cost metal structures nor the technology to build them is new to Chicago, Decker points out. The city's vintage el platforms--bolted superstructures, wooden-plank platforms, corrugated roofs--comprise another family of mass-produced frame structures suitable for interim uses.

The ultimate interim use of local land was probably the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Organizers built the fabled "White City" on a swampy site in what is now Jackson Park. "Those buildings were essentially decorated sheds," Decker explains, whose exteriors were coated with a plasterlike material called staff. They proved eminently portable; Jenney's Horticultural Building, with its 187-foot-wide glass dome, was disassembled once the exposition was over and carted to the state fairgrounds in Springfield, where it served as an exhibition hall (known as the Great Dome building) until it was destroyed by fire in 1917. Concludes Decker, "We have a perfectly wonderful tradition in this city that we can draw on."

The less-than-civic-minded response from FJV to Laine's solicitations suggests that they are not unaware of the rhetorical, indeed polemical, intent of "Piazza Chicago." The competition is a way to keep embarrassing attention focused on the issue of premature demolition by developers. Left as is, the block could serve as Chicago's first postmodern plaza--the mud as an allusion to the city's lakebed site, the wooden fence a reference to Fort Dearborn's rude architecture. Or a replica of a Scud missile could be buried in the middle of it, butt end up; call it Art, call it a Statement--as long as the mayor can light it up at Christmastime, people will love it.

What was in some ways the most promising possibility has already been lost: to simply leave the demolition rubble behind. The piles would have created the ultimate urban playground. There'd have been no need to worry about anyone stealing it or breaking it or spray-painting it. The rubble would have offered places to climb, surfaces on which to stretch out to catch the sun, shade to read, nooks for cozy chats. Kids would have found challenges far more absorbing than those posed by conventional playground equipment; avoiding laceration by broken glass would have provided a gratifyingly real test of agility and courage. The pleasures afforded the more cerebrally inclined would have been mostly metaphorical. What besides a block-square pile of rubble could comment more eloquently on life in the Loop in an age of predatory real estate development?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

Add a comment