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Radical Streetcorner Makeover!

Architecture students descend on the city's ugliest intersection to show how cars and pedestrians can get along.

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Architects Ron Sakal and Sallie Hood call Archer and Ashland one of the worst intersections in the city. The streets and the surrounding area somehow manage to combine urban congestion and suburban inaccessibility. From the echoing cavern under the Stevenson to the extra-wide streets and enormous parking lot in front of the Riverside Square shopping center to the south, the area enthrones the car and intimidates the pedestrian.

As a location, it has potential. The Orange Line's Ashland el stop would be a transfer point for the CTA's proposed super-Loop circle line, the place the line would turn back toward downtown. And gentrification is already at hand: a nearby development called Bridgeport Village offers large single-family homes starting at $535,000.

Last spring Sakal and Hood, who are married, did a stint as visiting faculty at Notre Dame's architecture school. They had to find a project to challenge a dozen fourth-year architecture students, and Archer and Ashland immediately came to mind. "The way to rectify half a century of poor urban design is to create something beautiful from the worst wasteland," says Hood. "Don't go to the place that's the easy fix."

Their Notre Dame faculty partner Alan DeFrees was delighted with the choice. The students, who'd been through three and a half years of Notre Dame's self-consciously traditional training, were stunned. "They thought we were insane at first," says Hood. They'd just spent two years learning drawing, proportion, and the principles of construction and architectural form, followed by a third year in Rome absorbing the patterns of classical architecture and urbanism--all intended to highlight, according to the school's publication Acroterion, "ideas of permanence, environmental sustainability, long-term utility, physical accessibility, beauty and legibility."

Sakal and Hood would rather visualize a well-proportioned streetscape than elucidate the meaning of these abstractions, but when pressed Sakal says, "The overriding principle is to make the area we're working on walkable. Put the pedestrian first--" Hood breaks in to add, "without sacrificing the movement and storage of cars."

They're not of the utopian school that looks to an urban future without cars. "We like driving," says Hood, describing with relish how the couple has learned to drive expeditiously to a project in South Haven, Michigan, without using any interstates. "In the ideal world automobiles and pedestrians can

coexist, and good design can enhance the experience of both."

This ideal world often eludes us for the obvious reason that cars require more room than people do, whether at rest or on the move. Cars can stretch an urban fabric out of shape. The more acres devoted to driving and parking, the harder it is to walk from one place to another--too far, too tedious, too dangerous. As fewer people walk, cars multiply and demand even more acres. After a few turns of that cycle, even if your zip code still starts with 606, you're effectively living in suburbia--where only the landscaping crews walk around outdoors. What's happening in residential developments in the Clybourn corridor around North and Sheffield and on Roosevelt Road east of the expressway is typical. So Sakal and Hood devised a student project that asks, what would a city look like if it wanted to keep itself urban and walkable?

Envisioning a better balance of power between cars and pedestrians is challenging enough if you're building from scratch. It's even harder if you're rebuilding a piece of an existing city. Sakal and Hood told the students, no tearing stuff down. Wherever possible, they had to use existing buildings and existing spaces--including the gargantuan bus stop at the Ashland CTA station, the parking lot in front of the Riverside Square Dominick's, the space under the Stevenson, and the old cement factory yards across the south fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River. The students divided into six teams of two and for six weeks worked separately and together redesigning portions of the area to make the streetscape more friendly to people on foot.

Today the Orange Line's Ashland station is a big glass-and-metal box with nothing in it, but when you step outside, it seems cozy compared to the huge, echoing space defined by the Stevenson Expressway that roars overhead. Ashland Avenue rumbles to the west, the Archer Avenue overpass ahead of you. Dozens of concrete columns, bigger around than two people and taller than three, hold up the expressway. Scattered here and there are forlorn-looking trees and flowers. Off to the east is a low white metal fence; it's the only human-scale artifact in sight, but it keeps people well away from the river, which runs nearby between sheet-iron pilings and gravelly banks spotted with hardy weeds.

If you try to cross Ashland, watch out: the traffic here doesn't seem prepared to encounter pedestrians. If you head south along Ashland toward Riverside Square, there's less traffic to brave, but the big bus turnout at the CTA station and the yawning empty spaces under the expressway are daunting. The walk to the shopping center is just a tenth of a mile, but it seems much farther.

In the students' vision the immense concrete cave under the Stevenson would be broken up into smaller, friendlier spaces, making it more pleasant to pass through. The bus stop would be replaced by an arcade running south toward the shopping center, lined with small businesses that would be likely to draw customers at all hours--a fast-food place, a copy shop, and a fitness club with a basketball court and a climbing wall. "Think how great it would be," says Hood, "to come home at 10 PM and see people on the climbing wall."

The buses would stop in the middle of Ashland, in a wide median planted with shrubs. Riders transferring to the el would have two lanes of northbound traffic to cross, but at least traffic in these lanes would be slowed by the redesign of the nearby intersection with Archer. Instead of an overpass with exit lanes there would be a traffic circle, a design that's known to reduce crashes.

For pedestrians crossing Ashland, the bus-stop median would offer a large, safe stopping point. There's not much reason to cross Ashland today--the west side consists mostly of an access road and paved area. But the students envision well-soundproofed, affordable loft and studio apartments on the other side, in the space next to the Stevenson overpass.

Between the apartment buildings and below the expressway would be a key element in all their planning--a Robotic Parking facility. These trademarked computerized parking garages use half the space of regular garages; cars are dropped off at a central office, then stored and later retrieved by automated machinery. These garages--the first in the U.S., in Hoboken, New Jersey, recently observed its first anniversary--are said to be safer than ordinary parking garages of the same capacity (cars don't get dinged, and people don't get mugged) and they're indispensable to Sakal and Hood's scheme to reconcile walking and driving.

Today if you walk south on Ashland from the CTA station and cross Archer to the Riverside Square shopping center, you find yourself at the corner of a big parking lot. It's certainly possible for pedestrians to thread their way between parked cars to grab a meal at Burger King or groceries at Dominick's, but it's not a fun trip.

In the students' vision most of this pedestrian-unfriendly space would be transformed. Aside from a few dozen short-term and handicapped spaces, parking would be in another robotic facility, either belowground or occupying a small fraction of the original parking lot. A diagonal walkway from the southeast corner of Archer and Ashland would lead to a plaza between Dominick's and the existing commercial building next door. The rest of the parking lot would be divided into four small blocks with a park and new businesses.

Having arrived on the plaza, the future pedestrian could turn left or right into shops or continue on to either of two new pedestrian bridges that cross the river--today's Riverside Square, despite its name, turns its back firmly on the river. These bridges would offer easy access to the new homes, businesses, and multiplex theater on the other side. The theater fronts on Archer, so you could also reach it via the existing Archer Avenue bridge, but a truly walkable city should have lots of different ways to get where you're going.

Managing a big shopping trip to Dominick's without acres of parking outside the door requires some imagination, but, Hood says, "It's not rocket science." The simplest scheme would be to leave your numbered batch of bagged and paid-for groceries at a drive-through pickup point. Retrieve your car from the nearest robot garage, drive over, match numbers, load, and off you go. Most people aren't accustomed to shopping this way, but good design can make the transition easier--through, for example, the addition of a covered walkway between the store and the Robotic Parking office. When it's raining or snowing, that might even be more convenient than piloting a shopping cart through a lot full of cars poised to back out abruptly.

Behind the current Dominick's the river's edge is all Dumpsters, but the students envision a space that's well used. Riverfront row houses would be built between the backs of the stores and the riverbank. A pedestrian trail would run in front of them along the river, from Archer to the two new pedestrian bridges to a new car and pedestrian bridge crossing the river around 32nd Place and finally to a new film and arts magnet high school. The bridge at 32nd Place would be a public place of its own, with planters and bays for loitering. "We tried to push beyond the typical idea of a bridge," says Matt Cummings, who worked with Ryan Duffey on the design. "It would even have allowed for housing." Below the bridge would be storage space for the high school crew team's equipment and a stop for a water taxi that would run to Navy Pier.

Across the river are the old cement factory yards. Here the students envision some restaurants or small shops, but mostly various sizes of apartment houses on various sizes of streets--and all connected to Riverside Square by the three new bridges. "A variety of housing types," says Hood, "will encourage economic and social diversity."

The new multiplex theater would be next to the river, with a long colonnade open to the water and lined with small shops. The building wouldn't turn its back on either the street or the river.

Is the students' vision buildable? That depends. "It would require several developers," says Hood, "plus an overall vision from the city." The project could be done piece by piece, but the pieces would need to fit into the larger vision.

That's a tall order, but as Sakal and Hood see it, the alternative is to wind up living in the far suburbs without having moved. A city that consists of big-box stores fronted by bigger parking lots, alternating with high-priced single-family neighborhoods, with no safe or easy way to walk from one place to another, is hardly a city at all. If creative design can push back suburbia, it will probably look something like the students' work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.

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