Urban Renewal Returns!




lake meadow PS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Chicago is socked with its biggest snowstorm since 1999, and it seems we have been socked with big snows weekly all winter long. But we are also being blanketed with development. Well, development PLANS…
Developer Jerry Fogelson on his $4 B development near McCormick Place: “It’s the only vacant piece of land on Lake Shore Drive and it’s ugly. Our plan is to cover this entire area.” OOOOOKKK – works fine, unless it turns out ugly.
But it doesn’t end with the 23 acres between 14th and 22nd, because developer Draper and Kramer announced three weeks ago that they are redeveloping the 70-acre Lake Meadows complex between 31st and 35th Streets. This one is only a $1B development because they are demolishing the famous SOM towers built 50 years ago BY THE SAME DEVELOPER. The reasoning is also THE SAME as 50 years ago: gateway to the community, revitalize the area, etc. etc. And as much as preservationists and the general public lambasted the towers in the park – Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores were one of the SUCCESSFUL private urban renewal projects – even integrated, no small feat in 1960. Ira Bach’s guides to Chicago celebrated the modernist conceit of the highrise apartments by bragging that the buildings occupy only 10 per cent of the land, leaving 90 percent for open space….
Of course, Draper and Kramer today sees that formula – as we all do – as wrong, and so they want to bring back the street grid and low-rise, diverse housing and shops EXACTLY LIKE THE ONES THEY DEMOLISHED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
That is the beauty and tragedy of what I do: each decade unfolds another “I told you so” as the Santayana-deprived of the world unveil their billion-dollar developments and we ask why can’t you save some little piece of this it was once beautiful and functional and could be again only it needs money and care…

But that’s not how the economy works. The real estate economy – at the micro level of a billion-dollar 70-acre development – works best when it is wasting resources. The banks like new and the buyers like new and just like that there is capital to knock everything down and start again and if you ask the banks and buyers to invest in what we already have they see a smaller margin and would rather wait for someone to tickle them big-time because there is no party like the party where you plow it all under.
Of course, at the macro level, this is a bit dangerous for the economy, what with all the waste of materials and fuel costs, but that will only become actionable after a bigger climate change and a proper trans-species die-off that actually affects this macro level.

The ironies are piling up faster than the snow: A developer gets to do an urban-renewal sized project why?? Because that developer did one 50 years ago in the same place! Great work if you can get it – a money-printing machine; sort of like the replacement windows (you always have to replace them!) They should make sure during this round that the buildings only last 30 years. Hey, makes perfect economic sense…
Crain’s Chicago Business reported that “Lake Meadows could have the same catalyzing effect on the surrounding community as Dearborn Park, a big Draper & Kramer project in the 1980s that spurred the revival of the South Loop as a residential neighborhood.” Excuse me? The rehabbers in Printers Row didn’t revive the South Loop by spending HALF A BILLION in certified rehab projects between 1978 and 1988? What is that in today’s dollars?
Draper & Kramer did spur revitalization of North Kenwood in the 1980s – by proposing to tear the whole neighborhood down. That got the neighbors so upset they landmarked it, restored it and rebuilt it instead. At the time I thought that the sort of massive projects we saw in urban renewal were 20 years behind us. 20 years later, and they are in front of us, the largest residential development project south of McCormick Place. Welcome back, urban renewal!

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