Posts Tagged ‘developers’

2016: Chicago Plan or Chicago Way?

August 7, 2009

On the front page of the Chicago Tribune today is an article about a Chicago Olympic committee member who is also a real estate developer and how the Olympics will help him develop numerous parcels near Douglas Park, an Olympic venue site. On page 11 is an article about the city’s landmark commission voting against landmark status for the Michael Reese hospital complex, site of eight buildings by Walter Gropius and site of the proposed Olympic Village, which the city will deliver to another developer after spending about $100 million on acquisition and demolition.
MRH friendS
This is all more of the same, a familiar pattern in Chicago, which has every right to become a world city but seems intent on doing so without disrupting its long reliance on politically connected real estate deals. Not surprising, not necessarily illegal, but disappointing because it treats the physical fabric of the city as a liquid asset, not a character-defining element.
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This is the 100th anniversary of the Plan of Chicago, the 1909 Burnham and Bennett document that crafted such a compelling vision for the future of the city that we still refer to it more often and with more affection than any city plan since. There are two pavilions spending the summer in Millennium Park as part of the celebration of this centennial, along with a whole slate of other activities.
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Chicago’s strong candidacy for the 2016 Olympics should be an opportunity to rekindle the visionary spirit of Burnham and Bennett, and there are aspects of the plan that do so. I am enough of a realist to understand there will be deals cut and politicians will take advantage. To a certain extent they did that 100 years ago, but what survives today is a bold plan that rose above petty temporal interests. What will we leave for 2116?

I regularly share with my students the October 1992 issue of the journal Chicago Enterprise, in which Rob Mier and Laurel Lipkin interviewed seven major figures in Chicago real estate. They were asked what their vision for the city was as they redeveloped it in the decades after the Second World War. In their own words, they professed NO VISION AT ALL. Harry Chaddick, who wrote the city’s second zoning code, defining its land values and development potential for a half century, said “I took on the job of rezoning Chicago because Parky Cullerton asked me to when he couldn’t get anyone else to do it. I worked on it for five years, developing a complete inventory of the city’s land use. I did it with no vision in mind, merely figuring out how the city’s land was being used.” Ferd Kramer, who redeveloped huge swaths of the South Side, said “I never had a vision for the city exactly. I guess you could say I had one for the communities I worked in.” Marshall Holleb described “street deals” that developed loads of lakefront land and Miles Berger said “I can’t take credit for any kind of vision for Chicago.” Phil Klutznick, who built Park Forest and Water Tower Place, claimed the latter “was not a visionary project” and Marshall Bennett said of postwar development: “It didn’t take vision because the market was fantastic. You had to be an idiot not to make lots of money. Really. I’m not kidding.”
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Well, I guess that’s the Chicago Way. And that is why we don’t remember the plans made since 1909. Maybe the developers who have reshaped the city in the wake of the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s would come off better if asked the same question today, and certainly Chicago’s positive trajectory since the 1980s stands in contrast to the decline that preceded it. But reading the newspaper today gives little cause for hope.

2016 could be the opportunity for another grand vision for the Sustainability Century, one that encourages the reuse of city fabric and requires development to reveal its true costs to taxpayers and to the environment. Or not.

Skill Sets

September 4, 2008

We had our Landmarks Illinois Issues Committee meeting today, which included a presentation on why a nice 1887 Romanesque loft building had to be demolished for a Ronald McDonald House, the ongoing challenges of preserving ANYTHING on the North Shore and a classic dodge in Robinson, Illinois, where the locals used state/federal money to build a new gym while keeping the old one. Then, when the new one was done, they demolished the old one for playing fields. Very clever. You see, if they had announced they were going to demolish it before they built the new one, the project would have been reviewed under Section 106 (federal) or Section 707 (state). The average municipal hack would simply have stiff-armed the 707 or 106 process and bulldozed anyway, but the Robinson hoods went that extra step and avoided the review altogether.

I guess that makes them more clever than the people who wanted to redevelop Doctor’s Hospital in Hyde Park. This one has been an issue for a few years now, and it really sits elegantly along the northern reaches of Jackson Park. Locals stymied a plan for two highrise hotels on the site and pushed for a hotelier who could redevelop it – a pro bono plan showing how that could be done was also completed. But the hotel developers can’t make it work with their system – because their system has no flexibility, no creativity.
This avoidance of creative thought has bothered me throughout the quarter century I have been in preservation. Even as a twentysomething punk I would rail against those UNCREATIVE developers who couldn’t think about how to make an old building work. It bothers me even more in middle age because I think of all the things I have done and all of the adjustments I have made in thousands of days of living and here someone can approach a multi-million dollar project with a single, inflexible system. It’s immature. When I was young I thought these people were incapable of creativity or designing a solution around an existing condition. But after a dozen years as a full-time educator I have a hard time seeing people as incapable. Resistant and obstinate and lazy, yes, but not incapable. It is a studied ignorance.

That resistance is something we associate with stagnant bureaucracies so why does it infect businesses? Isn’t capitalism dynamic? Well, not always, because some cogs in the market can survive by bottom feeding on cost reductions and precision cost calculations. They eliminate uncertainty and the loans and VC flows because what you see on paper is what you get in the real world.
But Hyde Parkers knew they didn’t want a portion of their community to LOOK like that spreadsheet, especially since right now it is beautiful. Two spreadsheet designed towers from EVERYWHERE AND ANYWHERE would cheapen the community and give motive to every other owner to bottom feed as well, to remove uncertainty, chance and creativity from their property.

Do you know what elimination of uncertainty looks like? Do you want to live there?