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!

Links:

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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The Terrorists are Clearly Winning

WHEREAS, The City has determined that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire for fair market value those four certain parcels of real property located in the vicinity of Midway Airport [including] Midway Parcel 150, commonly known as 5600 – 5608 West 63rd Street…The Parcels are being acquired by the City for public purpose and use, namely, as a Runway Protection Zone or a Runway Safety Area, or both, as recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”)…It is hereby determined and declared that it is useful, desirable and necessary that the City acquire the Parcels for public purpose and use in furtherance of the City’s ownership and operation of Midway Airport…If the Corporation Counsel is unable to agree with the owner(s) of a Parcel on the purchase price…then the Corporation Counsel may institute and prosecute condemnation proceedings in the name of and on behalf of the City for the purpose of acquiring fee simple title to the Parcel under the City’s power of eminent domain.

Did you get all that?

Let me reparse it: the city wants to buy up this building and tear it down.

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As first reported by Blair Kamin, this is in the name of creating/expanding a “runway buffer zone” around the south side’s Midway Airport.

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I am, by my nature, a conservative person, in the purest sense of the word: I believe in conserving things. I believe in using what you have, instead of throwing it out. I believe in adapting, repairing, restoring, re-using. I abhor the waste of physical resources.

When charged with the awesome responsibility of managing a resource as vast as Midway Airport, however, people have an unfortunate tendency to think in grandiose terms. Plans are made by drawing on maps, made from a God’s-eye perspective, rather than from the point of view of persons on the ground. If the plan’s not big enough, just move some lines, gobble up a little more land. In the so-called City of Big Shoulders, virtually any scheme can be superficially justified by trotting out Daniel Burnham’s threadbare aphorism about how one should “make no little plans”.

Or maybe I’m looking at it backwards; perhaps this is petty bureaucracy run amuck, an old-fashioned case of government CYA – following the letter of FAA standards, no matter what, because if you don’t, someone could come around pointing a finger at you.

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Regardless, here is a plan that has certainly stirred my soul, though not for the better.

Midway Airport, like it or not, is located in the city. Not even in the suburbs, but in the city – right in the middle of it. It is landlocked. And like all such institutions, it has a civic responsibility to be a good citizen, to work with what it’s got and work with its neighborhood, rather than tossing it out or grabbing up more.

Midway Airport by night

Unleashing the threat of eminent domain upon one’s neighbors, regardless of what the FAA recommends, is not being a good neighbor.

The author of the original letter also mentions a fear that a terror attack could be unleashed on the nearby National Guard station from the building’s upper windows. I am unable to source this comment; however, if it is true, it is absolutely the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Even if these hypothetical terrorists actually gave a crap about Midway Airport (hint: they don’t, especially not with internationally famous O’Hare right up the road), why on earth would they try to attack an obscure National Guard post that nobody can even knows is there? These would have to be the most ineffectual terrorists ever. Even if somebody did want to blow the place up, what’s to stop them from just lobbing some grenades over the fence instead?

This is the kind of panic-stricken “thinking” that prevailed in the days after 9/11, when people talked about making skyscrapers airplane-proof. You don’t make buildings airplane-proof; you prevent planes from flying into buildings. And you don’t tear down the neighborhood to protect it; you adapt your behavior to avoid endangering it.

Preservation in a global economy

My interest in historic preservation comes from some fairly simple origins: namely, I have seen far too many beautiful buildings torn down. I see it and I am outraged, because I know we cannot and will not ever build such things again. They cannot be replaced.

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“Historic preservation” is a double misnomer, for me personally. I’m rarely interested in buildings as an embodiment of a specific history. If history gives further ammunition for the conservation of a beautiful building, then so be it; but what I’m really and truly interested in is creating and maintaining beautiful urban places. And I don’t want to see buildings preserved – locked in amber – but put to new and productive uses. Too often I feel that preservationists looking to save a building float pie-in-the-sky notions of museums, community centers, and other non-enterprises that cost money instead of generating it. I want old buildings to be living parts of the current and future economy.

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Lately, over the last year or so, I’ve often felt a growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness over the fates of countless minor buildings and forgotten neighborhoods, places left behind by the vagaries of progress. I try to envision a future that would return life to these buildings. Amid a struggling economy, a global economic downturn, rising competition from overseas, and an American culture that is both increasingly insular and wracked with paranoid fears over its physical safety, I cannot do it.

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If you use Bing.com to take a virtual flight over older city neighborhoods, you’ll see a pattern of scale. Everything we build today is gigantic. Gigantic schools go into old neighborhoods, and they’re surrounded by tiny little houses on tiny lots. Goliath size vs. fine grain. The notion of acceptable size in America has inflated to the point of ludicrousness. I try to envision a modern chain store adapting to the fine-grained construction of the historic city – a Wal-Mart inserting itself into a dozen side-by-side storefronts. It’s a nice fantasy, but try to sell it to corporate reps who are beholden to a particular development model.

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It is a sad fact, little recognized but indisputable, that construction is the province of the wealthy. It takes serious money to build or renovate something, even with a heavy investment of sweat equity. And so the poor, or those of simply less-than-average means, wind up with the leftovers and the off-castings of the above-average. Today this means that the jobless are stranded in neighborhoods like this. Tomorrow it might mean that they are living in deteriorating suburban ranch houses. But neither bodes well for the future of surviving buildings in collapsing neighborhoods.

These problems are all interrelated. Overmassive scale, awful places, nemployment, sluggish economy, beauty allowed to rot, people left behind. If all the effort we’ve expended in the last 60 years in flinging ourselves further and further apart from one another were instead redirected into building up our cities as the dense, beautiful, walkable, humane places they once were on track to becoming, we’d all be better off.

Reader roundup

Some great articles in last week’s and this week’s Reader.

Regarding Michael Reese Hospital and the Olympics:
* Michael Reese Hospital: The First Sacrificial Lamb

Regarding the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago:
* An Odd Way to Honor Burnham – Lynn Becker takes on the process by which the centennial pavilion architects were selected (and, incidentally, slaps down some gibberish from Colin Rowe and his followers about how “there was no Chicago School of architecture”.)

* The Big Aluminum Hot Potato – will the centennial pavilions ever actually be finished?

* Go Ahead, Make Little Plans – a challenge to the Last Four Miles proposal (a plan which, by the by, I support wholeheartedly. It’s ridiculous that one can’t bike to Rogers Park via the lakefront.)

Northerly Island

Heckuva view

Northerly Island, a peninsula of land on the lakefront at the south end of downtown Chicago, is the perfect example of something hidden in plain sight.

Tourists flood the nearby Field Museum, and a steady stream make the trek out to Adler Planetarium, at the point from which the peninsula springs. Yet Northerly’s sylvan trails, looping among the prairie plants, were virtually deserted when I payed a visit on a summer Saturday afternoon. In all my wanderings through the city, I’d never actually been there till recently, when I decided to seek out the site of the long-vanished airport that I knew had once stood on the lakefront.

The history and function of the peninsula is, likewise, the sort of thing a non-Chicago resident just wouldn’t know about. The island hosted Chicago’s second World’s Fair, in 1933, but all traces of that event are long vanished. A couple of Google searches reveal that the “long-gone” airport, Meigs Field, closed down just a few years ago (in 2003), and under some bizarre and shocking conditions. Mayor Daley, wanting the peninsula for park land, cited bogus concerns about terrorism and apparently ordered work crews to go out in the dead of night and bulldoze a series of Xs into the airport’s runways, rendering them nonfunctional. It worked, too; he got his way. The airport ceased operation, once 16 stranded aircraft were cleared out via the taxiway. The city essentially pulled this off with only a slap on the wrist from the FAA. Now there’s talk of the island being a venue should Chicago’s 2016 Olympics bid go through. How conveeeenient!

Meigs terminal building

Today, the former airport is a flat space, a replica prairie land (built, ironically enough, on landfill.) A few biking/walking paths loop through it, and a trio of sculptures rise from the grasses. Various structures from the airport remain, including the control tower, various storage fences and sheds, and the terminal building, an unremarkable MidCentury Modern affair of precast concrete panels and glass, enlivened by a nice interior arrangement and a few stock 60s details.

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Paths and sculpture

The island is nothing stunning or enormously special, but it does offer a nice respite from the hustle of the city, particular as under-utilized as it currently is. The views of the skyline are also unparalleled. If you live downtown, this truly is the place to get away from it all.

Downtown beach

Also hidden away on the peninsula is the 12th Street Beach, a quiet little corner of the lakefront that offers the surreal sight of the Adler Planetarium looming over the sandy beach. It’s outlasted the World’s Fair, the airport… and might outlast the prairie, if the Olympics come tromping across Northerly Island.

Another eternal question

It’s obvious I’ve got some savvy Chicago natives reading this blog, so maybe y’all can help me comprehend the incomprehensible, as my Google-fu has failed me:

How the heck do they switch the direction of the Interstate express lanes?

I understand they’ve got a series of gates at the entrances to the reversible lanes, which swing shut to keep traffic from pouring into them. But given the non-stop nature of Chicago highway traffic, how do they clear those entrance ramps long enough to shut the gates? At virtually any given moment, it seems like there’d be someone driving into the entrance, who’d unavoidably smash through one or more of the closing gates. How do they do it??

"The Shame of it All…"

Oh, the shame of it all!

I never saw what was here before; it was gone by mid-2005 when I first saw the sign. Whatever it was, it was nice enough to inspire this protest from the neighbors:

The shame of it all…

1830 West Lunt was an 1890s single family farmhouse SOLD and DEMOLISHED to be replaced with TWO houses

“May those who love us, love us
And those that don’t love us, may God turn their hearts.
If he doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles,
so we will know them by their limping.” — an old Irish saying

Pleaes let us know if you see any developers, realtors, solicitors, or profiteers limping about.

Contact Alderman Joe Moore at the 49th Ward Office…with your opinions about zoning that allows this type of development to continue.

Neighbors for Responsible Zoning (“The Zoners”)

Oh, the shame of it all!

The new houses aren’t much to write home about, at least from the outside. They’ve got stagefront brick facades, with vinyl siding behind (because no one can see the side of the house. It’s invisible, don’tchaknow.) Why brick? I don’t know!! None of the houses around them have brick. I guess brick automatically equates to “quality”, and who can argue with quality?

They’re not out of scale with the neighborhood or anything; in fact they’re a bit too small to stand comfortably alongside the three-story older houses that surround them.

What makes the whole thing even more darkly hilarious is that the two new houses have sat empty for over two years now. One isn’t even finished — it only recently got its front porch, which still hasn’t been painted. One of the houses finally sold a month or two back, and the builder’s sign now reads “Only one left!” Yeah, better hurry there, folks.

The larger issue, of course, is how one should handle the eternal flux of city neighborhoods. This particular block is immensely valuable, because it’s right next to a Metra stop. 20 minute access to downtown? That’s an irresistible pull for developers. It’s amazing this hasn’t happened to the rest of the block.

Cities are always changing. Sometimes it happens slowly, in small bits and pieces like this. I don’t always like the results, but I have my doubts about the alternatives. Can you really constrain a city, tell it where to grow and where not to? Should the city remain physically stagnant? Where should growth be allowed? At what point does a building have enough architectural and historical merit to be worth curbing that growth?

All are questions with no fixed answer, but as I see endless protests and complaints about the supposed scourge of condominiums (people with money are moving into the city?! OH NOEZ!!), I find myself wondering just what people do want to happen in their city. Should it remain the same forever?