Schaumburg and the City: Proposal Calls for a Giant Parking Lot at Elston/Fullerton/Damen with a Commerial Element

Travel east-west along Fullerton Ave. in Chicago and you go from Lincoln Park to Logan Sqaure, two incredibly walkable and bikeable neighborhoods. The same can be said for Damen Avenue; if you begin in Roscoe Village and go straight south you hit Bucktown/Wicker Park. But, right in the middle of this urbanism you find yourself in what appears to be Schaumburg. The intersection of Elston, Fullerton, and Damen is a cluster of strip malls, big box stores, and parking lots that is conspicuously suburban. Despite a redesign of the intersection to improve traffic flow there is no sign it’s going to get better. Indeed, a proposal for the site may make it much, much worse… farewell Schaumburg, hello Hoffmann Estates?

Whether traveling by car, bus, or bike getting through this intersection is no easy nor pleasant experience. Everybody slows down here and that is the whole purpose of a cut n’ dry redesign and rebuild of the intersection: move traffic through the area more efficiently than ever before and relieve the unbearable congestion that currently results from the awkward ‘almost, but not quite’ six-way intersection.

The only problem is what’s being proposed so far for the site. Announced yesterday by Curbed Chicago, the plan brought forth by Mid-America Real Estate and under consideration by Ald. Scott Waguespack’s (32nd Ward) office, calls for over 100,000 square feet of disconnected commercial space surrounded by 437 parking spaces (covering much of the project area). The project includes no multi-use components and spreads over almost six city blocks. The only dense component would be a three-story commercial building at the new intersection of Damen and Elston.

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This is a conceptual plan for the site showing the re-designed intersection and the location of parking lots and commercial developments. Image from Curbed Chicago.

Cue le sigh! As I’ve already made clear on Twitter, this whole proposal is utter insanity and quite frankly it’s hard to take it seriously. But considering Ald. Waguespack is holding a public meeting about it there must be some serious thought being put into it (at least within his office). This is troubling, because the site presents nothing but fantastic potential, yet the whole proposal is so regressive in its current form.

While certain big box stores still need to find an urban home, it is amazing to me that this style of development is the immediate go-to when it comes to the redesigned intersection. Building more car-oriented developments here will do nothing to help relieve congestion. Congestion is the result of an over-reliance on car use and development patterns that encourage car use and a lack of alternatives. Regardless of whether the intersection is redesigned or not, car use and congestion won’t mitigate until infrastructure is developed that decreases the need for car use all together or discourages people from uses cars unnecessarily.

By falling into a trap of a building more big boxes and strip malls, developers and the Alderman are reinforcing a trend recognized by planners and sociologists citywide that might be hurting us more than we thing: fewer housing units being built in desirable neighborhoods and related population losses. Unlike Ald. Pawar (47th) who recognized the need to increase the amount of housing in his ward, Ald. Waguespack has shown no indication there is a recognition for the need to increase and diversify housing units in this part of the city. With population loses citywide more housing units need to be built to recover from this and a diverse set of housing types need to be built to increase the social diversification that results in economic diversification and retain existing residents as their lives and needs change. And this site is ideal for such kinds of mixed-use development with massive residential components.

Condos and apartments can be built above grocery stores and parking without looking like a row of strip malls and big box stores in Anywhere Suburb USA. And Anywhere Suburb USA is exactly what should be avoided at this intersection. Why more big box style developments are needed is questionable, but fail not to realize even at their most unreasonable they still get built in the city.

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SoNo East and SoNo West were built along the North/Clybourn corridor in Lincoln Park, which was once dominated almost exclusively by strip malls and big box stores. These two towers and the under construction New City apartment tower will add hundreds of new units to the intersection in just three buildings and dramatically change the character of the area. A similar result could be produced at Elston/Fullerton/Damen with one or two well-planned multi-use developments.

A more (aggressive) progressive planning approach must (MUST!) be taken towards this intersection. Located within easy access of a number of desirable neighborhoods it could easily support a massive program of densification without taking away from the character of the surrounding communities.

In many ways, this intersection is the Roscoe Village/Bucktown answer to the intersection of North/Clybourn and Halsted in Lincoln Park. Yes, it’s surrounded by strip malls and rather mundane commercial developments, but packing in density is totally possible here and really rather appropriate. Between the SoNo East, SoNo West, and New City towers almost 900 units have been built in only three buildings in an area formerly dominated by strip malls transforming the neighborhood. On the new lots being created by the street redesign similar densification could occur without displacing a single business or residential structure nor overwhelming surrounding buildings. It would provide housing for multiple neighborhoods, and hopefully breathe some life into Elston Avenue.

Moving forward with the plan as proposed or even similar to the current proposal would be a huge mistake, but is all too within the realm of reality. Alderman play a big role in how developments in their wards turn out and right now Ald. Waguespack is giving no indication he is ready to embrace a dramatic physical change for this corner of the Chicago that embraces densification and people first infrastructure. This is especially frustrating considering the ripple effect a good development here could have on surrounding communities.

This isn’t an issue of terribly innovative urban planning. It’s practically a case study in logical urban planning. All the arguments against this parking lot development are perfectly available. The question is will that logic prevail, or that of a confused need for more parking?