Cityscape: Watch Out for River North | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Cityscape: Watch Out for River North

There's reason to fear that its humanly scaled buildings and quiet side streets will give way to a forest of skyscrapers.

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The River North area just north of the Loop is now known chiefly for its restaurants, art galleries, and attractive old loft buildings, but that will not be true much longer. Within a decade or two what was once a quiet, predominantly low-rise commercial and industrial district will become one of the city's most heavily built-up, densely populated neighborhoods.

Ground was broken a few weeks ago for the new American Medical Association headquarters, a 30-story glass and aluminum tower that will stand diagonally across the street from the old AMA building at Grand and State. The Chicago Plan Commission recently approved a 62-story mixed-use complex that will go up behind the Merchandise Mart. A hotel is in the works for the block-square parking lot at Ohio and State, and it is expected that eventually high-rise apartment buildings will stretch along State as far north as Chicago Avenue.

Most of this development has been long anticipated, and the city is farther along with planning for the area than is commonly appreciated. A widely praised "urban design plan" for the area (roughly the land bounded by Rush Street on the east, Chicago Avenue on the north, and the river on the west and south) was issued last year in an effort to preserve the community's funky ambience. While the plan remains advisory, developers up till now have generally made an effort to comply. The AMA recently released another set of guidelines for a tree-lined promenade along State Street from Illinois to Chicago Avenue, which no doubt would lend a touch of class to a street that is now pretty scruffy.

But some wonder whether either of these plans will ultimately become reality. Now that big money is starting to come into the area, it's questionable whether developers will continue to abide by voluntary urban-design plans. On the contrary, there is reason to fear that River North, and for that matter the near-north side generally, may be doomed to Manhattanization, with humanly scaled small buildings and peaceful side streets inevitably giving way to a forest of skyscrapers.

High-rise apartment buildings aren't necessarily a curse. There's no doubt that having more people around adds to the bustle and excitement we associate with city life. But many of the high rises built to date were designed with a minimum of concern for their effect on the environment. Typically they come right out to the property line, with no room for yards or planting to soften their harsh edges. Often the only greenery is a few spindly trees in sidewalk grates. The lower stories are frequently finished in concrete rather than some more attractive material like brick or stone. In many cases the street is marred by the blank walls, driveways, and other unsightly accoutrements of the building's parking garage.

The extension of the Loop office market into River North poses another threat, not so much of Manhattanization but of what might be called Houstonization, in recognition of the lifelessness of so many Sun Belt downtowns. One offender in this respect is the AMA. Ground-floor shops in commercial buildings help create livelier, safer, more attractive streets. But the ground floor of the new AMA headquarters will be given over largely to empty elevator lobbies, which have done so much to deaden the Loop after hours. One hopes this is not the beginning of a trend.

The emerging problems of River North are exacerbated by the fact that in its previous existence it was a commercial district with a minimum of natural pleasures. Look at Dearborn Street: north of Chicago Avenue it is an agreeable, treelined parkway; south of Chicago, in River North, it's an ugly concrete motorway. Similarly, Clark Street is lined with greenery as it passes through Sandburg Village; south of Division it is nothing but concrete.

It needn't be that way. Clark Street in particular gives the lie to the idea that density is necessarily grim. Sandburg Village, after all, is one of the most densely built-up corridors in the city, while the stretch south of Division was until recently relatively lightly developed.

The failure here I think has been the city's disinclination to update its archaic zoning laws. If it chose to, the city could require developers to provide landscaped yards and/or "parkways" (by which I mean those little lawns between the sidewalk and the street that you find in outlying residential areas and on parts of North Michigan Avenue). Instead the commercial zoning in force throughout much of central Chicago encourages amenities such as plazas, which generally turn out to be useless.

River North's history as a commercial district gives rise to another problem that is even more serious: a complete lack of park space. Presently there are no conventional public parks in the area, and it is uncertain whether any will be created except for one or two small parks on the far western edge of the community. The River North urban design plan speaks hopefully of a park in conjunction with the hotel planned for State and Ohio, but no such thing is now in the works.

This is an intolerable situation. Thousands of people will live in River North someday. It is absurd to think they will have to walk three-quarters of a mile to the east or a half-mile north if they want to see a patch of greenery larger than a beach towel. One of the distinguishing features of Chicago's high-density residential districts, public housing projects included, has always been that they have parks or at least recreational space nearby. This admirable tradition should not be abandoned now.

The AMA owns roughly a dozen acres in the vicinity of its headquarters, and at one time many people assumed that a master plan would be developed for the property, including a park; that's what happened with the Cityfront Center project on the other side of Michigan Avenue. But it turns out there will be no master plan; the AMA property is going to be sold off piecemeal to individual developers, none of whom is likely to donate a park to the city out of the goodness of his heart.

Instead of the once-hoped-for park at State and Ohio, the AMA proposes to create a plaza of sorts at Grand and State by setting back new buildings from the corner, thereby creating open space that can be used for outdoor cafes and the like. This is not necessarily a bad idea, but a hard-surfaced plaza is no substitute for green space, and we should not try to pretend otherwise.

The irony is that there is ample vacant land in the community that could be given over to park use. And the development manager for one major landholder in the area told me he is not averse to ponying up a contribution for a park, provided the burden would not be borne entirely by his organization. If other developers were to take a similarly enlightened attitude, getting a park would simply be a question of creating an appropriate financing mechanism. There is a variety of possibilities, including tax-increment financing, a special taxing district, or development fees (at least for projects above a certain size). Fees and taxes are not something that property owners are eager to hear about, but no one can dispute that a park would greatly enhance the attractiveness of the area and thus the value of the properties within it. It remains merely for someone to take the lead on the issue.

In speaking of "a park," incidentally, I do not mean to imply that building one large park is the only solution. In some ways it might be preferable to create several smaller parks. But I am concerned that emphasizing small parks may provide an excuse to put off thinking about the problem until it is too late to do anything substantial. I would not want to end up with nothing but a handful of tiny vest-pocket parks, which are often little better than parking lots with swings.

It is also worth pointing out that a large park would offer an opportunity for a dramatic urban gesture, which is frankly something River North could use. The community has many attractive qualities but no obvious focal point, nothing that announces to visitors that they've arrived at the center of the action. A park, in other words, would be a chance to create a village square.

The obvious place for such a square is somewhere along River North's main drag, the Ohio-Ontario corridor. Granted, this heavily traveled pair of streets is noisy and dirty, but it is also where all the people are. A park would dress up the corridor, which currently has a pretty motley appearance, and would also offer impressive views of the surrounding tall buildings as the area is built up.

There are many ways such a park might be configured. Architect Larry Booth has suggested buildings that would bridge Ohio and Ontario at State Street, with a park in between and to the west of them. His design would provide an impressive visual terminus for the two streets, akin to what the Board of Trade does for LaSalle Street, although it would probably be a pretty expensive proposition. A cheaper alternative might be a park on the half block west of the new hotel planned for State and Ohio, which would make possible something along the lines of the Tavern on the Green in New York.

The possibilities are interesting and deserve to be explored in a systematic way. Far be it from me to tell the AMA how to run their business, but since they've gone to all the trouble of assembling the key parcels of land in the area, they might want to think about hiring a planner. A meeting of the community's movers and shakers may also be appropriate to consider financing.

The last issue of concern in River North is density. The recent approval by the plan commission of the abovementioned 62-story hotel-residential complex near the Merchandise Mart has raised a few eyebrows, and suggests that the pressure to build very large structures in the area will be intense. Friends of Downtown, which opposed the proposal, points out that the complex will have roughly twice the density recommended by the River North urban design plan. The group reasonably inquires what point there is in preparing plans if the plan commission is not going to pay any attention to them.

I suppose if one is going to have tall buildings, tall apartment buildings are the least objectionable kind. Residential development is inherently self-limiting--after a point, the people who move in begin to oppose proposals for further development. But tall buildings of any kind impose costs on a city that the public should not be compelled to bear. Not to beat the issue to death, but it certainly seems reasonable to hit developers up for a River North park fund, for example.

Cities wind up with many of the problems that beset them because of short-sighted decisions made in the early going when no one is around to complain about the consequences. It is difficult for city planners and community leaders to insist on parks and density restrictions and so on in the absence of any sense that they have the citizenry behind them. But that is precisely when planning is most important. It would be a tragedy if, at the very moment when central Chicago was entering what ought to be its golden age, we were suddenly afflicted with timidity.

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