“Urbs in Horto”: Or, maybe not

city_of_chicago_sealDespite a municipal ordinance against building private infrastructure east of Lake Shore Drive the City of Chicago is courting a privately built and owned museum. Although the city has a notoriously low ratio of parkland acreage per capita it is seeking authority to give more parkland to other private interests. Despite the fame of its park system and having the motto “Urbs in Horto” (Latin: City in a Garden), the city has shown little love for its parks lately and is currently moving towards a period in which public land is seen as developable with no recognition of public interests.

Without a doubt, the City of Chicago, its residents and government, should be excessively proud it was considered for cultural institutions like the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts and can bid for Barack Obama’s presidential library (site yet to be determined). These two institutions would be giant jewels complementing the city’s already rich cultural offerings. They will likely act as economic engines, adding jobs, and hopefully bringing more people to the oft overlooked South Side, where they’re most likely going to get built. But, and that is a big BUT, the city is treading dangerous water by so willingly offering already established public parkland for private uses.

The legal issues already facing the Lucas Museum, one of the two institutions proposed on Chicago Park District land, are being clearly established as the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks (FotP website) brings a lawsuit against construction of the museum (museum website). The site sits between Soldier Field and McCormack Place and is currently used as a parking lot. It has started roiling debate about what’s more important: attracting cultural institutions or retaining [lakefront] parkland. If FotP succeeds in preventing the construction of the museum on this site it remains unclear if George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise and museum patron, will look for another site in Chicago or find a waterfront site elsewhere. Access to the lakefront property is apparently one of the biggest keys to Lucas choosing Chicago for the museum.

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The first proposed design for the Lucas Museum (available on the museum’s website) depicts what the site looks like looking south from Soldier Field with McCormack Place in the background.

The University of Chicago announced plans today to acquire the rights to build on 20+ acres in either Washington Park or Jackson Park near its campus in Hyde Park as part of its bid for the Obama presidential library is also proposed for CPD land. It contrasts with many other Chicago based plans that looked at non-park sites to build and indeed include plans to increase parkland and other amenities, not decrease them (see UIC plan; alternative link). The U of C’s plan is backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also backs the Lucas Museum plan, and although public meetings about the acquisition of parkland are planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday at Hype Park locations it seems unlikely that Emanuel will backdown from his support for this proposal and will hold back on handing over the sites to the U of C. It is unclear what type of action the Friend’s of the Parks will take, but it surely will not be in support of this proposal.

In a scenario where both projects go through the city is set to lose something like 30-40 acres of parkland at the hands of private institutions. The sites will both include green space, yes, but no new green space and both will be privately owned and run, cutting off a slice of public land from universal access. While a total of 40 acres maximum seems small considering Chicago has over 12,400 acres of parkland (split between city, county, and state land) the per capita ration of parkland to residents is incredibly low in Chicago. Of high-density cities in the United States, Chicago comes in 13th for the ratio of parkland to people according to the Trust for Public Land. While that doesn’t seem too low, it should be noted that Chicago isn’t even in the top 50 percentile; the average number of acres per 1,000 people is 4.6 acres in Chicago. The median acres per 1,000 people of 18 high-density US cities is 6.7 acres–two acres greater than Chicago. Comparatively Minneapolis has 13.4 acres/1,000 people, Washington, D.C. has 12.8 acres, and Philadelphia has 7.3 acres/1,000 people. Even Detroit has double the parkland average per capita and Pittsburgh has slightly more than double Chicago’s per capita acreage of parkland.

Granted, the city did recently open a new 22-acre park in Little Village called La Villita, it opened the redesigned Maggie Daley Park on the northeast corner of the larger Grant Park, and is slowly opening Northerly Island as it develops through 2017, which will add a total of 91-acres of parkland. Additionally, the 606, commonly know as the Bloomingdale Trail, is scheduled for completion some time next year and will add over 2-miles of linear park on the Northwest Side. This is all wonderful progress on the part of the city to increase the amount of urban parkland, however none of this excuses the slow consumption of existing parkland either. There is indeed a net increase in parkland acreage, but not a total increase, which should be the city’s real goal. The city is well behind some of the countries most desirable cities in terms of parkland acreage, which hurts the city despite its cultural institutions, especially as Chicago competes for investment and looks to retain residents.

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The Michael Sorkin designed proposal for a presidential library in Woodlawn, just south of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, puts the library in close access to parks, other cultural institutions and transit and includes green space and trails using empty lots woven together. The UIC plan has a similarly ambitious plan to go well beyond its campus and includes multiple West Side neighborhoods, green space expansion, and new transit options.

There is more a concerning trend out of City Hall though indicating the city’s mayor and Aldermen hold little value in parkland and protecting it. The municipal support for using parkland for private interest goes well beyond being a numbers game. It is an important moral issue facing the city. Regardless of what the numbers say, the use of parkland for private interests show a frustrating and unhealthy precedent for the future that says parks are open for development. This is just another area in which City Hall has shown its willingness to forego public ownership of various assets and hands them over to private interests dressing those new uses up as for the betterment of the city. Eventually this will get even more out of hand than it already has if proposals like the two under scrutiny are not stopped and made examples of.

Chicago needs to value its key existing assets–parkland, educational institutions, public safety–more than it values private interests and institutions, even when they are cultural institutions. Obviously getting these institutions would be huge boons to the city, but at what costs? The city is jumping to potentially dangerous solutions and it is clear that the public interest is of less importance than private ones. Alternatives exist for both projects! If the city was serious about these projects it would look at other past proposals offering more acceptable options (see Michael Sorkin’s proposal, alternative link, for the Obama library and Blair Kamin’s thoughts on the Lucas Museum site), yet the go to solution is using parkland. Its insane. Under Rahm Emanuel’s governance its questionable if alternatives have even been discussed: or, is the glitz of high-profile institutions that blinding?

By putting these two proposed projects ahead of park preservation and investment in existing infrastructure and institutions, the city is going for a gimmicky approach at getting new investments and cultural institutions to establish themselves in Chicago. The city does need to work to draw such things to the city, but the goal should be to attract new institutions by the attractiveness of the city’s merits and not by what assets the city hands over to private interests. The result will be a city that better serves its residents and institutions that have a stronger respect for the city and its residents and the values they hold dear. It is what a city that doesn’t sacrifice public parks for private interests looks like. And clearly, the current power structure of the city has little interest in the public trust and the public’s interest, and that should be hugely concerning. The Obama library’s foundation, the University of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, George Lucas: all these figures need to recognize the problematic roles they’re playing is threatening the long-term vitality of public assets in Chicago and their role in affecting the serious moral issues at hand as does the public, who need to make their voices heard at these debates may creep quietly under the radar.

Urbs in Horto means being a city rich in trees and gardens, and now includes acting in sustainable ways, but at its roots it means being a city of parks–places to play, relax, escape the concrete, and discover nature. Urbs in Horto is the result of building parks for the people, because if it was up to the private interests in Chicago’s past, Grant Park would be a freight rail yard.

Obama’s presidential library: Make it a part of a South Side ‘master plan’

As we get within sight of the Obama’s last year as President the next campaign is heating up: the site for his presidential library. While bids have been presented by the University of Hawai’i and Columbia University in New York, the sheer number of bids coming out of Chicago in addition to the stronger connection the Obamas have with the city put it as the clear front-runner. The potential to have the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago is a boon for the city’s educational, cultural, and tourist scenes and if done well, the project could become a catalyst for positive impact in some of the city’s South Side neighborhoods and ones that need the most help. The bid has one glaring weakness though and it is the fact that beyond the location and the architecture and maybe some minimal streetscape changes, the bids as presented so far indicate little as to how the library can be used to create other improvements to life on the South Side.

This bid has the potential to be a great for the South Side, but it needs to go well beyond the area immediately surrounding the library’s site. Really, a master plan needs to be developed going forward that will be a cumulative effort on the part of the City of Chicago and the City’s local and regional planning agencies, the organizers of the library, and the communities involved to make sure the library isn’t just a one-off that gives quick short boost in economics. The library will in all likelihood be one of the more popular presidential libraries and really bring the number of cultural institutions on the South Side more in line with those in the Loop and on the North Side. The library alone won’t bring the improvements necessary for long-term growth and positive changes in community quality of life however, if it is just plopped down and the rest of the job left to fortune. The plans for the library need to consider two other major factors in improving the areas livability and solidify the South Side’s continued ability to grow: transportation access and green space access.

The reason a master plan that has the presidential library as its catalyzing element better prepares the South Side for redevelopment is that it can be the tool best fit to guide planning for the site in a manner that considers how the library can help long-term goals for positive change on the South Side be reasonably attained. While huge portions of the South Side need investment, the most practical place to begin is Hyde Park. It is one of the better connected and already more developed areas south of the Loop and arguing for more investment here that connects the neighborhood to the Loop and other parts of the South Side makes the most sense. By situating the library in this area not only is it conveniently located to the University of Chicago (and the Obama’s home) it would add to the growing number of sites already there: the Robie House, the Museum of Science and Industry, the DuSable Museum, and Jackson Park. Couple this with increasing development and tourism heading south and better connectivity to the rest of the city can be reasonable demanded, but is better supported because it would be in an area where it can be feasibly implemented.

One of the biggest problems for the area and areas further south is the limited access to transportation into/out of the South Side. A series of moderate to somewhat more intensive changes, but nothing on the scale of the Red Line south extension could dramatically improve transportation access on the South Side. With increasing need to get there, one of the first changes that could be made is turning at least the South Shore/95th Street and the Blue Island branches of the Metra Electric routes into high-frequency mass transit routes. Without even having to invest in new infrastructure the routes could be made into all-day speedy routes simply with new train sets designed for higher speeds and frequency. Think of it as an alternative version of the “L” serving the South Side. Such a change done in conjunction with the presidential library would not just serve people going there, but also thousands of transit users on the south/southeast sides of Chicago. Another potential option is to extend the Green Line all the way east along 63rd Street to the Metra Electric with a terminus at Jackson Park. This would serve as an intermodal transportation hub in Hyde Park/Kenwood that would better connect the CTA Green Line, Stoney Island busses, the Metra Electric routes, and South Shore Line.

Making sure green space is improved and not taken advantage of as developable land is also key to the success of a presidential library on the South Side. As of now, only two proposals call for using parkland for the library, both presented by the University of Chicago. If the goal of the City of Chicago is to improve quality of life for its residents, then the City must actively improve parkland. This should be the basis for preventing further intrusion into green spaces by any sort of building, public or private. However, this doesn’t mean that some green space wouldn’t be improved by such things. The site in Jackson Park should be off-limits to build, but the site proposed by the U of C at the South Shore Cultural Center actually is perhaps one of the few areas in the city where public parkland might be improved because of new construction.

Building the library here would do three things: first, it would help invigorate the South Shore Cultural Center with new life and could potentially be built as an addition to the current building lessening the need to build new structures. Second, it would potentially lead to the conversion of the golf course that currently surrounds the SSCC into a full-blown park accessible to the entire public and bringing continuous green space all the way from Hollywood Avenue in the north to 71st Street in the south. A plan for the library which includes using land fill to complete the small gap between 71st and 75th streets and connecting Jackson Park/the SSCC to Rainbow Beach Park would mean continuous park land all the way to 81st Street and potentially further considering the South Shore development site calls for lakefront park all the way to 95th Street. Finally, it would bring such a burst of activity to the park and cultural center that this spot could truly become a center for culture and community on the South Side.

Community, green space, access to transportation, better quality of life for Chicago residents (especially on the South Side): these are all things that fall within the political ideologies of the Obamas and improving those along side his presidential library would be a true way to honor the President as well as his family. The proposal for a Obama Presidential Library in Chicago need not exist in a vacuum and indeed it may be better done at a level that looks at how it can be a means to make other improvements to positively impact the communities there other than just bringing in tourists. The examples presented above are just a few amongst many potential improvements that can be made first in Hyde Park/Kenwood and then extended beyond those neighborhoods’ boarders into the larger South Side. Without a master plan that considers the long-range goals of the library and the ways in which those goals will be achieved the plans for the library will only be partially successful.

Improving American rail: Chicago’s Union Station, pt. 4 – Let there be light

Perusing photos of Denver’s recently renovated Union Station and newly built platforms reveals one predominant trait: light. The station is amply illuminated by natural light and lots of it. The airy white concave canopy that shelters the platforms below is like a swoop of fluffy clouds moving in from across the high plains. A giant central open-air skylight lets in not just unobstructed views of the big blue skies above, but also the Beaux-Arts head house from the late 19th century. The station is another victory for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s (SOM) strong recording in architecture and urban planning. It is also a victory for American intercity and urban passenger rail, because it reminds us that certain things should not be sacrificed when building train stations: passenger comfort, beautiful aesthetics, the interests of the public and light.

Americans seem to have all too gladly embraced the habit of selling air rights above our major rail stations and terminals, especially in larger cities, to developers. The results may include profits and the rents of tenants located directly above platforms, but this is done by sacrificing the ability to provide natural lighting to stations and turning passenger areas in our stations into confusing and unwelcoming networks of corridors and tight platforms. Let there be light, open up the air space above platforms again and the most fundamental experience of the train station, boarding and disembarking from trains will return as a joy to rail travel.

The renewal of Denver’s Union Station is a sign that we’re moving back to what once was. Americans can experience the impact of looking up at light filled, great spaces above them when they arrive at their destination. The adoption of this new model at DUS represents a major cultural change in the USA that may be one of the most important in how we approach passenger rail travel: it gives renewed respect to the places, people and world of rail.

The platforms at Denver's recently redeveloped Union Station will be flooded with light by the open, above ground nature of new canopy over the tracks.

The platforms at Denver’s recently redeveloped Union Station will be flooded with light by the open, above ground nature of new canopy over the tracks.

This is a small victory for American passenger rail. In Denver, the reality of things may be that the amount of available space, the ease with which a renovation at a little used station, and the ample room for future development around the station were what allowed the city, Denver’s Regional Transportation District and Amtrak to go the route they did. This is the route Chicago needs to go in order to improve Chicago Union Station to its former glory. The importance of such a change here though will mean so much more for passenger rail in the USA than smaller victories at places like DUS and hopefully 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, which will also be redesigned for future redevelopment by SOM. While these small changes lead to a greater change nationally, the changes that take place in cities like Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago set precedents and guide trends in less visible places.

Albeit, smaller changers and incremental improvements may do just as much to increase efficiency and facilitate the movement of people and improve inter-modal connections at CUS, the removal of high-rises above at least a portion of the platforms at Chicago’s Union Station is vital for the long-term renaissance and viability of American passenger rail, because of the symbolic change it represents for the city and the country. It also offers the city the change to re-imagine the station in the same light as the world great stations. (One feature of which seems to be the ability to let natural light into the station.)

While Penn Station in New York City may be the more famous example of station deterioration in the United States, the focal point of so much passenger rail in the USA on Chicago’s Union Station puts it next to Penn Station as one of the most important station’s in the entire national system and as a gateway to the city and a transfer point for thousands of travelers and it represents the meeting point of the American passenger rail network. Yet we have a place that is defined by inefficiency, unsightly aesthetics and crudeness, dysfunction and faults. The willingness to put a light-filled, shed above the platforms at Union Station in Chicago would speak volumes to the renewed emphasis on comfort, passenger experience, efficiency and the complete aesthetics of traveling by rail in the USA. It would put us back onto level playing ground with our peers across the globe.

The platforms of Chicago's Union Station on the other hand are darkened by a low, dark ceiling with limited natural light entering from the open walls of the eastern walls. The ceilings also trap diesel exhaust fumes.

The platforms of Chicago’s Union Station on the other hand are darkened by a low, dark ceiling with limited natural light entering from the open walls of the eastern walls. The ceilings also trap diesel exhaust fumes.

Making such a move in Chicago would be particularly indicative of this change because of the sheer complexity of such a change–such complexity seems to be missing in the Denver and Philadelphia models of station renewal.

The platforms at Chicago's Union Station are hidden below high-rise office buildings like that pictured above, which is directly opposite the older head house.

The platforms at Chicago’s Union Station are hidden below high-rise office buildings like that pictured above, which is directly opposite the older head house.

The office tower above Union Station on the 300 block of south Canal Street is rather larger. However, the city is not devoid of free office space and indeed, there may be no better time to take an active role in spurring change and discussing the demolition of that particular building and moving forward with plans to open the airspace above that block and returning it exclusively to allowing natural light into the platforms of Union Station below. The West Loop and Near West Side of Chicago are showing signs of renewed growth and the space is available to redevelop less important and under utilized blocks into office buildings. A new 75 story tower has even been floated as a possible addition to the western edge of the city’s skyline and the still empty Old US Post Office building is begging for love and development. Develop even a portion of that space and move the offices in building above Union Station there and multiple problems are solved in one fell swoop: the Old Post Office is revitalized, the offices currently above Union Station find a new home near their old homes and life goes on.

The old concourse of Chicago's Union Station allowed ample light to enter  the platform areas of the station.

The old concourse of Chicago’s Union Station allowed ample light to enter the platform areas of the station.

That’s not to mention the open office space in the head house of Chicago’s Union Station that sit empty. Not only could they absorb some of the offices currently located east of the head house, the availability of store front spaces and spaces adjacent to the Great Hall have the potential to house some of the banks, shops and restaurants above the platforms of Chicago’s Union Station. Fill these and the Great Hall is revitalized as well. Put small kiosks at either end of the Great Hall, preserving the large swath of open space it provides, and again, life is brought into that space while shops that would be displaced by the removal of the office tower above the platforms find convenient new homes.

There is no reason why Chicago cannot remodel its Union Station after that in Denver. The infrastructure availability means displaced offices in the tower above the platforms have the means to find new spaces convenient to the station. The station’s head house provides some of this infrastructure and this would add much-needed life to that space.

Symbolically it would elevate the train station to new heights and rejuvenate the role they play in American urban spaces and transportation culture. Doing this in Chicago would also so such changes are possible at all levels and in all cities across the country. It would indeed show that passengers are cared for and rail given the respect it deserves. Great spaces and great experiences are as important to the vitality of rail transportation as efficiency and affordability. It becomes a case of, if built, people will come.

It is without a doubt a dramatic proposal though; to remove all the office towers even on one block of land in the West Loop would be a logistical mess and need to be completed with the utmost efficiency, care and speed. However, if this could be pulled off, which it can, it would say quite a bit about the possibility of actually achieving dramatic change (for the betteR) in the renewed efforts to truly impact how we approach rail infrastructure in the US.

So, let there be light.