Elmwood Park’s Conti Circle

If one boils the annals of urban planning down to a decade-by-decade analysis, it is so very frequently the 1950s and 1960s that must lay claim to the biggest disasters, the most egregious screwups.  Yet in Elmwood Park, it is the 1970s where good planning abruptly veered off-course.

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Elmwood Park, if you’ve never been there, has at its center Conti Parkway, a broad circular boulevard that loops around a circular park. Around the outside of the park, commercial, civic and apartment buildings form a ring around the street. A layer of angled parking comes next, then the road, then the circular space in the center.

The styles of the buildings that line the Conti Parkway circle range back to its construction in 1926 by real estate developer John Mills (who also laid out the surrounding streets and built hundreds of bungalows on them, accented with Sullivanesque catalog ornament.) Buildings continued to rise on the parkway into the 1960s – each following the curving border of the street, reinforcing and building up this delightful space. Pre-war and Mid-Century Modern alike acknowledged and respected the form of the street and contributed to the grand outdoor space.

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It is a disarmingly charming space, where buildings of all architectural stripes rub elbows quite comfortably.

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Then something went haywire. In the early 1970s, the city of Elmwood Park, desiring certain recreational amenities and not having any other open land at its disposal, decided to redevelop the central park with a Civic Center and new library. This might have been a fine thing, if the result was worthy of the space – but it was anything but.

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The two buildings that went up on the north and south ends of the circle make no effort to respect the curving plot of land they sit on. Instead, by dropping rectangular buildings and spaces onto a round site, the complex manages to obliterate the maximum amount of land, leaving only shreds of uselessly awkward shaped lawns around the corners. The buildings themselves, rather than being an appropriately monumental or definitive capstone to decades of development, are completely forgettable.

Compounding the problems, a pool and aquatic complex was squeezed between them in the 1990, stamping out whatever open space remained. Fences and loading docks further slice and dice what was once freely accessible public space.

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The damage didn’t stop there; in recent decades, the southwest quadrant of the parkway has been further further diminished by poorly placed driveways for a fire station, the village hall, and a parking lot. A new library – replacing the one on the circle –  makes a rather ham-handed attempt to acknowledge the circle, with a series of stepping corner setbacks that leave an awkward-shaped concrete “plaza” facing the circle – a poorly defined open space masquerading as an architectural response to the parkway.

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Around the same time, the historic village hall’s front facade – a simple but dignified Classical-influenced design – was buried under a misshapen mass of 1970s brick, presumably to add an accessible entrance.  The same design sense went into the fire station next door, along with the same obliviousness to context – three broad driveways slice across the sidewalk, along with a parking lot.

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Unsurprisingly, trees now line the edges of the Conti Circle park space. They conceal the awkwardness within – the buildings trying so hard to become non-entities. Unable to come up with anything worthy of being seen, the village erected something that desperately tries to be invisible.

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For all that, Conti Parkway continues to charm. A stroll around its perimeter is a pleasant experience indeed – but what sad irony that it is the fully developed urban side of the street that offers the most inviting space.

An aside – Conti Parkway was originally known as Broadway; it was renamed Elmwood Parkway by the 1930s. It was renamed again in 1973 for the village’s then-mayor – over his veto!

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UPDATE, May 20 2014: I noticed this post getting a large number of views. While poking around online to figure out why, I came across an interesting study of Conti Circle and its environment: Conti Circle Revitalization Plan. Still no idea where all the hits are coming from, though!

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One thought on “Elmwood Park’s Conti Circle

  1. Pingback: Elmwood Park’s Sullivanesque Bungalows « A Chicago Sojourn

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