A ground breaking even this past Friday marked the beginning of the end for a large vacant lot in the far Northwest Side community Sauganash. Located along Peterson Avenue adjacent to the Sauganash bike trail (technically the Valley Line Trail) and two and a half blocks west of Pulaski Road, the project dubbed Sauganash Glen is a much-needed boost to the neighborhood. It fills in a huge hole along Peterson Avenue and will provide new housing in a neighborhood popular with families because of its proximity to good schools, green space, the Loop, and north suburbs. The project, however good it is for the community’s growth, totally missed the mark in regards to design though. Although it incorporates some smart design elements, the overall project fails to do the absolute best to improve Sauganash. Alderman Margaret Laurino is probably thrilled by the project, as it will show she’s good on development during her re-election campaign, but it also is indicative of her failure to really push for truly stellar results.
The plan, developed by K. Hovnanian Homes, calls for 35 homes along a cul-de-sac extension of Kildare Avenue and along Sauganash Avenue. The homes, which will likely range from $700,000-$900,000 each, will be build in pseudo-historical styles based on the mixed architecture of the neighborhood–the area is dominated by homes built during the middle decades of the 20th century. Homes will range in size from about 2,500-4,500 square feet each with a detached three car garage.
Despite a number of very traditionally suburban characteristics, the project certainly does maximize on potential density considering it consists entirely of single-family detached homes; it also departs from the walled off community design visible across the street in the Sauganash Village subdivision. Rather than place all the homes behind high brick walls facing into the project site, this subdivision will be a relatively open plan without major barriers to the street, indeed along Sauganash Avenue the homes will be street facing rather than into the development. This will make for a significantly more active and human scale street scape compared to the other side of Peterson. Additionally, the homes designs appear consistently tasteful and will hopefully offer enough architectural variety to not verge on being cookie cutter.
Beyond these details, the developments design still leaves much to be desired and it is disappointing there was less pressure from the alderman’s office to ensure the best design possible. There are … things in particular I would have changed with this design:
1) Street-facing houses on Peterson: All along Peterson and Caldwell avenues from Devon to Rogers homes face the street. Considering private alleys would eliminate the need for either driveways onto Peterson or on-street parking, facing the front façades towards Peterson would’ve been a wise move. This seems like urban planning 101. This was an easy opportunity to counter the walls that suck the life out of Peterson on the Sauganash Village side of the street. It would also help promote using Peterson at a more human scale. In fact, it could have been used as an impetus to improve Peterson and begin employing more complete street design elements along a busy corridor with a number of business including better on-street parking, new bus shelters and landing pads, new planted medians with pedestrian islands and possible curb bump-outs at Peterson and Sauganash.
2) Build bike/pedestrian access to Sauganash Avenue: This is a huge sticking point for me. The project plans to build the extension of Kildare as a cul-de-sac. Okay, fine, but why was a pedestrian/bike path not included so people could directly gain access to Sauganash Avenue? This is an entirely ridiculous application of suburban planning practices in Chicago’s grid system. Even the inward facing Sauganash Village on the south side of Peterson includes access to both streets it opens onto.
3) Less parking: I admit, it is unclear at this point if each residence is automatically going to include a three-car garage as reported in DNAinfo Chicago, or if that is an option, but in an area accessible to a bike trail, which is part of a growing network into the city and suburbs, a 5 minute walk to the Pulaski #53 bus, adjacent to the Peterson #84 bus and a less than 10 minute bus or car trip to the Metra Milwaukee District North Line, there seems to be no reason to build homes with anything more than a two-car garage. Although that in its own right might be considered large by some, a two-car garage maximum is about right for this community. Sauganash won’t become a biker’s paradise anytime soon, but it doesn’t have to become more car-centric either.
4) Better access to the bike trail: According to DNAinfo Chicago, the reason a fifth bike trail entrance isn’t getting built is because the proposed site is controlled by ComEd, which was unwilling to cede access to build an access ramp. Although that is obviously out of the control of a lot of parties, it is still troublesome no alternatives were sought. The Sauganash bike trail is part of a potentially expansive network on the Northwest Side and into the suburbs and poor access would be a huge disappointment.
Good urban planning need not always be big and bold; nuance and subtlety can achieve quite a bit. This project has its better elements, but it is painful to see something being built that lacks basic elements of successful urban design and ultimately falls into the bad habit of employing excessively suburban practices in an urban environment. Sauganash may be a thoroughly residential community, but it too needs to be treated as part of the urban fabric and one that gets the best out of smart urban planning practices.