Posts Tagged ‘Chicago 2016’

Olympics in Chicago 2016

September 30, 2009

It is potentially foolhardy to predict the future, even on the Orwellian internet that allows you to rewrite history as fast as you can type, but the fact of the matter is it is September 30 and Chicago has not been awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics but the POTUS is going to shill for the city at the IOC meeting in Copenhagen so I think we are the team to beat.

Some of my friends are totally against this, for reasons ranging from the obvious public cost and funding issues to the landmarks issues, which include permanent alteration of the most intact Frederick Law Olmsted landscape in Chicago – Washington Park – to demolition of a bunch of Walter Gropius buildings for the Olympic Village. Those issues are still there and they are not finalized, although the city is proceeding with the demolition for the Olympic Village with typical clumsiness, most recently half-demolishing the Laundry Building with a comically clumsy asbestos-abatement that involves a lot of plastic wrap blowing in the wind. Hmmm. Seems to defeat the purpose.

I was in the Bird’s Nest and outside the Water Cube this summer in Beijing. Heck, I saw them last summer from a distance. For Beijing it wasn’t about money, it was about pride. They ALMOST won the right for the 2000 games – that was a tough loss and they knocked it out of the park in terms of an event and promotion of the home nation and even the home city.

I guess it is pride that makes me lean toward wanting the Olympics. The funding issues don’t bother me – Millenium Park was four years late a hundreds of millions over budget and two weeks after it opened it didn’t matter. Every citizen felt a part of that place and made that place their own and the park is kicking off 20 times its construction cost in nearby rehab and development.

The landmark issues do bother me. Gropius is not my favorite architect, but he has a lot of the 20th century resting on his back and to have a near south side in an American city with a chunk of Mies on one side and a chunk of Gropius on the other side is an architectural historian’s fantasy island. Forget the Wiessenhofsiedlung: check out Michael Reese and IIT.

Washington Park is an area of concern. Our best bet after the temporary stadium goes is a 2,500 seat amphitheater that might disappear like the ha-ha of a Jacobean castle. Might. From some angles. I still don’t get why they can’t put it on the mostly empty blocks just east of the park – and closer to the ‘L.”

I traveled the world 23 years ago and everyone asked me whether Chicago was near Los Angeles or New York. And how was Al Capone. I came back and realized Chicago is as worthy of attention as any great city I have seen. It is what it is, and it is a city that can sit with Barcelona and Rio and Beijing and Athens and Rome and London and Seoul and Sydney.

22 years ago Le Monde said Chicago’s great contributions to world culture were the blues and architecture. Yes. Sure you got the wink-wink politics (that ain’t beanbag) and development deals that seem crafted out of Play-Doh in a nursery school and a funding scenario that looks like it is sailing off the edge of the earth and some real important historic resources that may – or may not – be ruined in the less-than-transparent process, but…

maybe sitting on that stage will remind others to make us realize what we have.

FRIDAY AM UPDATE: The decision is a few hours away. Eric Zorn’s piece in the Trib today nailed it: having the Olympics is like having a child. It doesn’t make practical or economic sense; it is about love. Colleague Craig Downs put it well on FB: if we get it I will be happy; if we don’t, I will be relieved. That’s about right.

10:22 AM. Apparently Chicago flubbed the final presentation. Rio is now the favorite.

11:37 AM. Totally flubbed it. We finished last. Yow. Now what are we gonna do with those Gropius buildings? Good news for Washington Park. And cricket.

12:23 PM. Rio wins. I guess that was sort of obvious in retrospect. Sex appeal. Nobody beats Rio in terms of sex appeal. Eric Zorn was right about the nature of the decision, just wrong about who the IOC wanted to impregnate.


A Better Plan

August 18, 2009

One of the things that has made Landmarks Illinois an effective preservation organization has been its ability to transcend the primal impulse of many preservationists – the “Just Say No” response – and provide a more intelligent way to proceed. When a developer/institution/politician/agency says “This is what we want to do” the preservationist in all of us just wants to shout “no!”. But that is neither effective nor even a complete response. Much, much better to say: here is the better plan that achieves your goals and saves historic buildings.

This is what Landmarks Illinois did this week with their new plan for the 2016 Olympic Village on Chicago’s lakefront – they picked the best Gropius buildings – not all of them – and came up with a more intelligent and sustainable plan – you can see it at or click at the link on the right.
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The organization actually has a long history of doing this – coming up with a more sustainable plan than what is first proposed. And the plan is usually a compromise – it doesn’t save everything the most ardent preservationists want to save, as is the case here at Michael Reese Hospital campus. Landmarks did it way back in 1980 when the City of Chicago proposed demolishing Block 37. They picked 4 of the 8 historic buildings and proposed a development that met all of the city’s requirements for the block. The city ended up demolishing the whole thing and then letting it sit vacant for 18 years.

They did it several years ago with Soldier Field – developing a new stadium for the Bears while holding onto the history – and National Landmark status – of Soldier Field. The Bears went ahead and modified the field and lost the landmark status.

They did it again with Cook County Hospital, showing how the old hospital could be adaptively re-used for needed office space. That one got enough traction that it came to fruition – albeit with the loss of the rear of the building. But that is what I like about Landmarks Illinois – they know how to save something by coming up with a better plan. You can argue that they should have saved more, but you can never argue that the original plan was better. And it meets the opposition to preservation on its own terms: What do you want? How many square feet, what uses, what plan requirements? Let’s take all of those parameters and do it WHILE saving the best historic buildings.

This is what good planners, good designers, good developers do. They take the MORE creative approach of looking at how all of the programmatic goals can be achieved without starting from scratch. Creativity is not measured by how blank the canvas was at the start. Heck, the vaults of the Sistine Chapel are a huge impediment to a decent painting.

It is a measure of the maturity of an organization like Landmarks Illinois that it chooses to argue for preservation by doing a BETTER job of planning than the opposition. You can argue about the significance and beauty and innovative epoch-shattering character of a building, but it can all be for naught if you can’t show them a better way. As baby preservationists, we first just see those arguments of history and architecture and beauty and human scale. Eventually we learn that we have to speak the language of those who would throw away those qualities. It is a language Landmarks Illinois has mastered over the years.

Longworth’s Caught In The Middle

August 12, 2009

Royce Yeater, Director of the Midwest Office of the National Trust, lent me Richard Longworth’s 2008 book Caught In The Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. It is a compelling read, thanks both to Longworth’s skill (I saved and filed every one of his 2002 Chicago Tribune articles on Europe) as writer and researcher, and also because of what it portends for the future in terms of regionalism, planning, and the survival of place.

Royce warned me that it was depressing, and indeed the book clearly states that many Midwestern towns, cities and places created during the 19th century for an industrial/agricultural economy will not survive into the future. He describes many places that are already emptying out – in the age of globalism there are global cities and there are places that don’t matter so much. Chicago is lucky – it is the global city in the Midwest and it has already adjusted to the new economy, but cities like Cleveland and Detroit are half their historic size and shrinking. Smaller cities dependent on certain industries, like the auto industry swath that stretched from Flint down into Akron are in similar straits, and the era of the megafarm has made hundreds of rural agricultural towns redundant.
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As places become redundant and people leave them, they become ghost towns to some extent. Their buildings and streets become redundant and fall into disrepair, or they become meth labs and plunge headlong into despair. Young people go to the big cities, even in the 1980s when I lived in Wicker Park it seemed all my friends were from Michigan. Heck, almost everyone in Manhattan is from somewhere else.
main st hotelS
The reason the outlook is grim for preservationists is obvious – if you have an historic town like Galesburg that loses its industrial raison d’etre – a lot of historic buildings will go vacant and die as well. Longworth describes some smaller towns that survive because they are within commuting distance of a big town that still functions as an agricultural processing center. And of course, in the age of the internet certain people can live anywhere and stay in touch and in business electronically. I recently visited an old friend who does just that near Savanna, Illinois. But the idea of business people living anywhere came with the telegraph, not the internet, and the reality – as Longworth notes – is that people want face-to-face contact and the successful global cities attract lots of creative young people who want to be around others.

Much of the book describes the trains that have already left the station – the family farm is not coming back, and subsidies to farmers accelerated that process. Yes, organic farming and local farming via farmer’s markets is more sustainable and has made headway, but that is still a tiny boutique portion of the marketplace. The corn and soybeans of the Midwest are in competition with China, the Ukraine and Brazil , or even Saudi Arabia as a full tenth of the corn becomes ethanol.
illinois corn processS
The industrial transformation is even more dramatic and complicated. Not only has tons of industry abandoned the Midwest – we were talking about the Rust Belt three decades ago – for the South and China, but the industry that remains is really, really different. Caterpillar is still in Peoria, Harley-Davison in Milwaukee and cars are still in Detroit, but they are modern industries. Gary produces more steel than ever – but it does so with one-tenth of the workforce. Moreover, modern factories no longer employ high-school graduates – you need at least a couple years of college to operate the computers that operate the machines on the assembly line.
Longworth is particularly damning of the educational system – most Midwestern states spend more on prisoners than students, and even the so-called public universities – the great land-grant schools like Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and Indiana – are now major research institutions that are becoming increasingly private as research grants grow and state support vanishes. By next year, the University of Michigan may get as little as 3 percent of its budget from the state. That’s not a public school anymore. He chides the Midwestern ethic of “it’s good enough” for perpetuating an educational system that got people through high school so they could work on assembly lines or farms – but that doesn’t cut it anymore.
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Longworth’s primary frustrations have to do with the fact that the Upper Midwest is – and always has been – an economic and cultural region, but it is hopelessly divided by outdated political divisions. In terms of education, he longs for a California system that would allow various Midwestern schools to play to their strengths rather than duplicating each other – and giving all Midwest students “in-state” tuition. Given the extent that states DON’T support their schools, the idea makes complete sense.

He is similarly frustrated by governmental divisions determined by horses and buggies. Counties and townships and even state capitals often make little sense in a global world and indeed impede our ability to compete globally. He repeats the legendary story that county seats were located so that young couples could travel there for a marriage license and get home by nightfall, thus “forestalling any twilight hanky-panky among the hedgerows.” He advocates getting rid of the redundant counties while retaining the old courthouses as museums “which is what they really are.” Thus the recent Richard Driehaus initiative through Landmarks Illinois, saving and drawing attention to the historic courthouses – but they need new uses, especially as their counties depopulate.
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Globalism’s most obvious aspect is the urban-rural split (look at China), which in the Midwest is already a long-running political battle that the new economy has only made worse. Chicago’s epic battles with Springfield are symptomatic, but other states are also divided, and the economic divisions exacerbate the split: Most of Wisconsin’s economy is in Milwaukee and the forty miles north of the Illinois border – a huge chunk of the Indiana economy revolves around Indianapolis. Old political divisions haunt the REAL economic divisions of the Midwest like ghosts of a bygone era. Chicago is famous for having 1200 separate units of government. I have a friend who got rid of one of those, but he is the exception. The worst aspect of the multiple jurisdictions is that they compete with each other for economic development – which drags the region down because they are fighting over scraps rather than banding together to land real global industries that would benefit the region and play to its strengths – like bioscience industries which by all rights should be in and around the Midwestern farms and research universities but end up in California because that’s where the VCs are. If the Big 10 schools got together and the Midwestern states got together they could lure the VC to the Midwest and create Soybean Alley or Switchgrass Plains or whatever you want to call it but right now the money sits on the coasts and collects all the good talent from the Midwest.

This is a great read and a call to action. It is also a dire prediction for a wealth of historic resources in a series of shrinking communities. But that is always the preservation challenge – finding the new use in the new economy for the embedded energy and place quality that survives from the past as a physical, economic and aesthetic resource.

I like the Midwest and I think Chicago is making a go of it in the global economy – as much as we wring our hands about the details, I think we will get the 2016 Olympics seven weeks from now, in spite of the local political culture – BECAUSE of one local politician who is currently the most impressive leader in the world. The real future challenge lies with our politicians and university administrators and their ability to see the future and make common cause. At the National Trust, we already see the Midwest as a region – maybe the Midwest will see itself that way as well.
chgo skyline SW vwS

A Sustainable Proposal

July 23, 2009

Since sustainability is the flavor of the year and perhaps the century, it is time we started applying it to HOW we do things and not just those THINGS we buy and sell. Essentially, sustainability is about HOW things are made, HOW they operate over time, HOW they are recycled into other things or just left as junk in the earth. But we tend to ignore the inconvenient aspects. I am sitting here typing on a computer and I might feel all high and mighty about saving trees but the fact of the matter is this computer was assembled thousands of miles from here with parts from thousands of miles further and it is being operated thanks to the combustion of coal and fission of uranium. I can plant trees and make more. Can I make more coal and uranium? No.

Similarly, we are justifiably excited about the new “net zero energy” house in Chicago, ably covered in the Tribune today by Blair Kamin. Here is the link via Blair: My good friends Doug Farr and Jonathan Boyer are the designers, and the house is good looking as well as uber-performing. They expect it will actually give power back over time. This is an excellent thing. And it is a THING, although Doug and Jonathan are smart enough to think about the impacts of sourcing materials, assembly and waste. Indeed, Doug is the AUTHOR of Sustainable Urbanism, which really looks at the SYSTEM and not the thing. We had him speak to our students this spring and it was great.

Unfortunately, the marketers and MBAs slapping green slogans on every new development in city and suburbia are not as careful as Doug and Jonathan. In fact, many don’t get the big picture at all. We need to conserve resources, and buildings and cities and sewers and streets and train lines are resources. They need to be conserved, not turned into landfill. It will waste less energy to do so.

Plus, the good thing is that most cities and streets and sewers and buildings from before 1930 were made well enough that there is NO SUSTAINABLE REASON for disposing of them like diapers. But we are subject to a strange weirdness in our legal disposition of real estate, one that came up in a lunchtime discussion yesterday with Tom Mayes, Deputy Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preservation laws were added late, and as a reaction to urban renewal. They were promoted by people who had spent years studying architecture and saving the homes of famous people, so they came up with historical and architectural criteria to use to define which sites and districts should be saved. But if we REALLY care about sustainability, isn’t that system backwards? Shouldn’t the default option be re-use of our communities, not their demolition? Same goes for the buildings within. For years developers asked for lists of buildings worth saving and preservationists provided them: we picked the best 17,000 building in Chicago through a survey that took 20 years and only asked to save 3% of the city. The result? TONS of those selected buildings are willfully destroyed each year – about one per day when we last counted a few years back. We give a list to save, and everything else becomes a target – even (perhaps especially?) the buildings on the list. The City of Chicago tried to redress this six years ago with the Demolition Delay ordinance, which has helped a little, but the fact of the matter is that the deck is stacked against old buildings and for demolition. Which is NOT sustainable on the face of it.

Shouldn’t it be up to others to come up with criteria for why a building should be added to a landfill, why it should be converted into metric tonnes of dust blanketing its neighborhood and materials hauled in from China and Brazil to construct, with more dust and debris, its replacement? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the destroyer to show why their decision is best, why the replacement will be a NET GAIN for the community? The idea of the net zero house is just that – it CONTRIBUTES to the community. Certainly there are many situations where demolition and replacement would meet the criteria and contribute to the community. How come I have to PROVE my case but they don’t?

The single greatest technological advance is right in front of you and me right now, and it is not the words or the ads or the sales pitches or even the endless apps. It is the unparalleled assembly and organization of infinitely more data than was available to the entire Enlightenment world. We have the metrics right here. It is no longer rocket science for you to calculate what your building costs in energy, what it represents in embodied energy, what it will cost in dust and debris to demolish and how many gallons of gas will be burnt hauling it away and bringing in the new stuff. This also applies to gut rehabs, to be sure.

The point is, this is all measurable today in a way it never was before, and just as our laws have to cope with the internet and data mining and knowledge clouds, our laws need to incorporate sustainable PRACTICES not just sustainable PRODUCTS. In a world where data is infinite but space and stuff is finite, it only makes sense that we develop a system that requires people to assemble the metrics on their projects, so the community can know the real, global costs of actions involving the physical resources of that community. We demand it of public projects all the time.

Such a system would answer the critics of landmarks laws who find architecture and history difficult to understand. Those critics seem to understand the more quantitative basis of zoning laws, although historically zoning and historic preservation were born at the same time of the same selfish economic impulses. (Ironically, the same selfish economic impulses that have led some to challenge those laws.) Zoning and preservation laws were born of a desire to secure community against the uncertainty of real estate development in the era of automobiles and trucks. Conservative Supreme Court justices upheld these laws because they protected wealth, pure and simple.

Now I have written before about the beauty of landmarks preservation in that it treats buildings and districts and communities like individuals; that its criteria and specificity give it a humanistic, qualitative approach that cannot be reduced to metrics or driven by data. That sentiment has not changed. The power of a story can always sway a legislative body despite data – it can sway an election, too. But I think the metrics are on our side – and I’m not so sure that we can’t use the cloud to quantify some of these formerly unquantifiable qualities. What does a landmark contribute to a community – how much does it enhance – say compared to a flower bed or billboard – the lives of those who walk by it each day, as well as those who live in it?

Our current system based on simple economics and ownership has led us to think that only an owner benefits from things like zoning and landmark laws designed to protect their investments. My own research in New York City suggests otherwise: renters also mobilize to preserve community assets. Why? Because they GET something out of those assets as long as they live in a community. Equity is an abstract concept, much more abstract than the path you take to work or the grocery; much more abstract than where you like to sit with friends over a cool glass of caipirinha. The fact of the matter is there are lots of measurable things out there that aren’t being measured by the cavemen seeking to control our complex environments.

The sustainable proposal requires those who would alter our communities to assemble the accurate metrics of their actions. They would love this – it would be like the zoning mavens of old, churning numbers and influencing legislative bodies. Preservation could remain the defender of quality, but we could also give the community baselines in terms of embodied energy and materials and transportation costs – stacking up a rehabilitation proposal and its effects on the local and global environment against a demolition and rebuilding proposal. And people could make decisions, such as it is better to demolish and replace even though it will take 33.4 years to recoup the environmental costs of that action because the existing building will only last 82.3 years and only with an infusion of 5 million BTUS every year. My hunch is that preservation – the sustainable approach – will measure up.

What do you think?