Archive for July, 2006

I Don’t Believe You

July 27, 2006

Berwyn Bank Exterior

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Yesterday Chicago’s City Council – known primarily for outlawing multitasking (cell phones while driving, smoking while drinking, foie gras while dining) – passed a living wage ordinance for big-box stores by a veto-proof majority. There are political implications (they went against the Mayor, oh my!) and of course the Retailers Association and various big-box spokespersons predicted that the stores won’t locate in the city, depriving it of tax revenue, non-living-wage jobs, convenience, etc..
The next chapter in this story was suggested by another news item buried deeper in the paper. It seems that the Berwyn City Council has 17 offers for the re-use of the historic Berwyn Bank Building, a fact that allowed it to reject an offer from Applebee’s restaurant to rehab the building, spending $2.5 million. The Berwyn Development Corporation touted the emergence of developer interest caused by media attention and preservationist word of mouth.
That’s a big turnaround from 1998 when it was on Landmarks Illinois’ 10 Most Endangered List, and from 2003 when Berwyn aldermen favored a plan to demolish the building, and even from the first Applebee’s proposal, which was demolition. The building was saved by pluck and luck, notably when the alderman pushing the demolition got caught in the bathroom accepting bribes.
Tell the developers they have to save the landmark, remove the corrupt pols, and all of a sudden you have 17 deals on the table.
The point of all this is DON’T BELIEVE THEM. Dire predictions have a pleasant habit of not coming true. The economics are fairly obvious: There is a threat (tear down old Berwyn bank; build slave-wage Wal-Marts in Chicago) and that means THERE IS A MARKET. Just because a local government suddenly grows sack and decides to put parameters on the development does not kill the market.
Theoretically, the rules you place on a development could be so onerous that they would stop the development. But these arguments, made yesterday in Chicago, are heard 150 times for every 1 time they come true. Developers always threaten to walk away if they don’t get what they want and they ALMOST NEVER DO.
Of course, any good retail or real estate industry shill will look for the best deal possible, and in some guileless communities, they will get buried in incentives – but often those are the places they abandon after a few years, because the market wasn’t there.
Neither Chicago nor Berwyn’s City Council would have NEEDED to place parameters on development unless the MARKET was there.
I have actually seen developers walk away when they don’t get what they want, and it is AN EXTREMELY RARE OCCURENCE.
“I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”


Adler and Sullivan’s Harvey House saved! (Go back a couple of blog entries for the story) Turns out the divorce that was pushing the redevelopment in more amicable and the house will continue to be used by the owner. Saves the big embarrassment of spending Louis Sullivan’s 150th birthday (Sept. 3) mourning yet another lost Sullivan.


News from Oak Park – two of my SAIC colleagues (Don and Tim) were on opposite sides of a two-house demolition in the historic district – which prevailed. I wanted to save one of the houses, so I guess I fit somewhere in the middle– like lukewarm water.


Chicago Olympics

July 17, 2006

sold fd 1964s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Chicago revealed its bid for the 2016 Olympic Games last week, with plans for an Olympic Village on the near south lakefront and events in Soldier Field and McCormick Place as well as a new temporary track and field stadium next to Soldier Field. Chicago officials proposed an opening ceremony where athletes would march from the temporary stadium into Soldier Field.

As Blair Kamin noted in Sunday’s Tribune, this was a “boneheaded” plan to sell more seats and get more revenue from the opening and closing ceremonies. But for me the real “Duh” moment of the Olympics proposal was the new temporary stadium.

Chicago realized it needed an 80,000 seat track-and-field stadium in order to host the Olympics. They looked around, didn’t see one, and decided to build a “temporary” one next to Soldier Field.

DUH! News Flash! Chicago had an 80,000 seat track and field stadium. They built it in the hopes of luring the Olympics to Chicago! In 1925! It was called Soldier Field!

By 1927 everyone realized it had lousy sightlines for football, having hosted an Army-Navy game, but it continued to be used for high school football and even college football. In its fifth decade, in 1972, Soldier Field managed to lure the Chicago Bears (founded 1920) away from Wrigley Field.

I used to go the north end of Soldier Field, where you could see the 20,000 seats beyond the infill, the remnants of the original 80,000 seat Olympic stadium.

This year Soldier Field lost the National Landmark status it won 19 years ago, thanks to the $632 million ($400 million taxpayer) rehab that finally turned it into the second smallest football stadium in the NFL. With sightlines.

If Landmarks Illinois had won its lawsuit and stopped the project, Chicago would have:

1. Saved $400 million.
2. An Olympic track and field stadium with enough seats to host the Opening Ceremonies, topped by colonnades reminiscent of the first and last Olympics (Athens 1896, 2004)
3. Bears ownership exposed for the business failure they earned.

Forget the aesthetics of the Soldier Field rehab. It is an historical misfire.

River Forest

July 14, 2006

winslow house river forest

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I guess River Forest hasn’t had enough teardowns yet because the Trustees are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a preservation ordinance. The proposed ordinance is the typical weenie milquetoast kind that places like Kenilworth or River Forest propose. While it allows designation of landmarks, it requires owner consent, which sort of defeats the purpose. The owners who would consent are not the ones causing the trouble.

What River Forest leaders fear is the idea of a preservation ordinance, not the reality of one. Reality is much more everyday, like the familiar experiences of thousands of communities that have had such ordinances for decades.

You also hear a lot about private property rights. This is an idea too, with no foothold in reality. It is a Karl Rove issue: sounds good; seems important; has absolutely no impact on your daily life.

The purity of the roperty rights idea is abridged the second you allow electricity, gas, water, sewer, telephone or cable lines onto your property. Any law dude will tell you that property is a bundle of rights: the right to use; to buy or sell; mortgage or subdivide; build or demolish. Preservation ordinances often (but not always –there is no always in reality) restrict the last of these, while zoning ordinances restrict the first and third and the market restricts the second. If people were really concerned about their abstract rights, they would get rid of the zoning ordinances that restrict the height and use of their property.

Zoning has, throughout its history, had a much more dramatic impact on property values than preservation. In 1957 Chicago doubled the allowable density downtown and a few years later New York City was zoned for 16 million people. Talk about government largesse.

The market is even wilder. Wicker Park became a National Register district about 1980 and a Chicago Landmark district about 1990, but could not compete with the tripling of real estate values that happened in undesignated Bucktown – just across the street – in 1987.

Preservationists are fond of pointing out that historic districts improve property values, although some could argue that they simply recognize areas where the value has started to increase due to rehabilitation. A bit of a chicken and egg problem.

The real issue in River Forest is that some people have made a killing flipping property and some other people who think they might don’t want to miss their chance. Same thing is happening in Lincoln Park’s Sheffield, and it is getting very ugly there. I mean UGLY.

But windfall property profits are also more idea than reality. The people who actually make a killing are the real estate hustlers, and the current crop has taken a page out of the 1960s blockbusting book. Back then, you bought two houses on a block for twice their value, sold them to African-Americans and then bought every other house on the block for half its value, and then resold it to African-Americans for twice what they paid. White flight was much more profitable than integration, at least for the hustlers.

Teardown mongers do the same thing, without the racial aspect. Overpay for one or two houses on a block, knock them and build some oversized Playmobil Palazzo and sell it for two million to get all of the neighbors thinking: hey, I could make a killing.

By the time half the block is done the ambiance that the original McMansions borrowed their value from is gone, and so are the hustlers, who have taken the money and run to the next town.

The truth about blockbusting and teardowns is that the neighbors never make the killing, only the hustlers. But the IDEA of making money makes the neighbors – and The River Forest Trustees – think preservation is going to take their money.

Who is getting taken here? Who are the professionals?

It is a shame, because River Forest has some gems, and not just the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright but also local luminaries like the Buurma Brothers. Better go look at them soon, because the hustlers are circling.

Sullivan at 150

July 11, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Louis Henri Sullivan, the architect who transformed the modern world with his prescient designs and philosophy of the skyscraper, who made Chicago the first city of American architecture and inspired the Chicago preservation movement, was born 150 years ago. How are we celebrating this most important of native sons?

By tearing down one of his few remaining houses, on Stratford Place on the North Side. For reasons inexplicable, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is not moving to designate the house, nor even to act on Marty Tangora’s very reasonable approach that would allow a builder to erect something on part of the lot in order to save the house. Even the Alderman, Helen Shiller, not known as a preservationist, is interested in saving it. Why would the Commission on Chicago Landmarks be the last one out of the gate?

Is this any way to celebrate a Sesquicentennial?

Granted, it is not the coolest or most innovative Sullivan design, and it has been altered. But for Louis’ sake, we tore down most of his earth-shattering skyscrapers and innovative houses decades ago. Richard Nickel literally gave his life for Sullivan’s architecture (see the book by Richard Cahan) and watched and collected as the 1950s and 1960s demolished more Sullivan than we have left.

Louis Sullivan almost got the Euripides treatment, only it took 50 years rather than 2500 to erase 80% of his output.

So, let’s blow out the candles and let one more go.