Saturday, February 04, 2006

Sightlines. Urban Intimacy vs. Suburban Sprawl

Round and Round We Go. Now What?

So I guess I'll see everyone this Monday at 7pm for this week's version of The Circle Jerk Show. Let me know who'll be late and I'll try and save you a seat. They seem to be at a premium these days. Maybe the show is just getting more popular.

Here are the rules to play. All contestants will be required to sit on their hands and ask as few qustions as possible. Each reasonable question raises the heat in the room by 5 degrees. A softball question or endorsement lowers the the temperature by only 1/2 a degree. So, as you can see, there is no way to be informed and stay comfortable at the same time. But you guys didn't need to be told the rules. You've all sat in the sauna before. Well, they say it's good for your health.

And the subject for this show is the re revision of the development of the Pivot Point building that shouldn't even be here but is because the developer didn't want to spend the cash to take it down after the Passage family sold it under the threat of eminent domain even though the original plan didn't include it and the original developers couldn't shoot straight so a new developer started working on a plan none of us knew about. Whew! Are you still with me?

Ok, so let's get a little serious and ask WHY are we going to yet another meeting for a building whose fate we thought was decided years ago?

I'm No Genius

I love the Pivot Point Building. The graceful Art Deco styling and lobby are beautiful and could probably not be reproduced today at that height within the ruthless bottom line budget analysis that dictates all current development. The prevailing theory is that the Pivot Point building is and was, in the wrong place at the wrong time and should have come down to create unobstructed sightlines for the new and improved architecture of the Gateway Mall.

I believe that theory is backwards and in fact, it is the suburban concept Gateway Mall aesthetic that is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

North of Howard is an urban neighborhood within a city not a recently plowed under cornfield in Naperville. The "unobstructed sightline " theory is a suburban sprawl, corporate driven, free advertising, don't drive by too fast and miss the entrance idea that allows anchor tenants like Dominick's, to demand instant visual and minivan accesibility in exchange for their tenancy. That might be ok in places like Naperville or just off a highway in ANYWHERE USA, but it isn't right in an urban neighborhood like ours.

Pardon my smart aleck, but I don't think most of us forget to remember where Dominicks is. We don't need unobstructed sightlines to remind us that it's still there. We need more interesting retail tenants, lush landscaping and a sense of place and of well being to remind us how enjoyable it is to spend our money.

The premise for the sightline theory in this case was supposedly that all the shoppers from Evanston that were rushing to shop at Gateway, would have a clear vision of our architectural masterpiece. Sorry to have to break the news, but no one who lives in retail rich Evanston is shopping at Gateway.

People who shop here drive or walk to Gateway via west on Howard Street and what do they see? Are you with me? Visualize it. Once you pass under the viaduct and pass the bus terminal exit you see what.......................................................? Do you see Dominick's yet because I don't. You don't see Dominicks until you pass the oversized building and turn left, once you get to the sign, which I always almost miss. No unobstructed sight line on the north entrance.

Let's drive north on Clark, ok. You pass the great Rogers Park Fruit Market and you see what................................................? Visualize it. Do you see Dominicks yet because I don't. Again, I almost always miss the entry and from this entrance we don't see Dominick's until you park and get out of your car.

So this suburban sightline theory applied in this urban setting, in my opinion is hooey. This whole design is inside out. The people who shop at Dominicks are local neighborhood people and we've been given the worst sightlines. The people who don't shop there from Evanston were almost given the best sightlines and thank the developer for that.

I've done this little excercise not to bemoan the past but to let you know that these conclusions could have been arrived at by almost any one of my neighbors given all the facts and a set of blueprints prior to development. It's a little intimidating at first, but it's not rocket science. If five of us layed the bluprints out on a big table and started asking each other questions, we could come up with more issues than I did.

We're smarter than we are being given credit for and I think we should tap that common knowledge. The Alderman likes to refer to people like me who have a little information as dangerous, as he does Hugh. I'm not, in any way putting myself in Hugh's category since I think he has more information than Google. I'm just a regular person like you are and we are all capable of deciphering real facts and making rational decisions.This announcement has been brought to you by "the plant a seed department."

The Mistake By The Lake

Successful urban environments thrive on the intimacy and population density created by a hodgepodge of buildings of varying heights and styles that are home to businesses and people. Sometimes, with careful planning ( hint, hint ) this success can be achieved but some successful and enjoyable urban environments in my opinion happen by "accident". Buildings, services, landscaping and people that have evolved over time that come together and for some reason, just click.

Unfortunately, the Gateway Mall project and it's underwhelming suburban aesthetic is not a wonderful, intimate, urban accident waiting to happen but a terrible helter, skelter, wrong theory applied urban mistake.

It sits there, half empty with no no nod to history, no sense of the former Howard Street commercial vibrancy that it was supposed to renew and built with a straight line to profit plain box retail aesthetic that has no one rushing to shop there or sign lease space in. And ironically, it was built at a time when mall operators across the country were realizing that if their shopping plazas were to stand out from all the rest, there needed to be that differentiation from the next mall down the road. New malls and existing ones were built or retrofitted with a sense of place. But not Gateway.Why?

Because NOH was so starved for investment dollars and an economic booster shot, that the political leadership bought into Dominicks corporate and suburban sprawl theory and they didn't have to. I don't blame Dominicks, although I disagree with the theory applied here. They were just negotiating the best deal they could get and they got it and they knew they would. But it was a mistake and it has and will continue to cost us big time.

Maybe, a few more sets of eyeballs could have helped leadership and the development group from making some of these mistakes by reviewing the plans.

The Gateway Mall sticks out like a sore thumb, in my opinion, not the Pivot Point Building. The Pivot Point looks out of place only in relation to the ill conceived mall concept and awful design and I'm glad the developer decided to save his money and not demolish this beautiful building.

It should remain and renamed "The Mistake by the Lake". And it should be a constant reminder to us of the consequences of bad decisions, of no comprehensive planning and a fatal, short term thinking, profit driven rush to judgement, that has declared everything new is better than what we already own. This is nothing more than propaganda for profit and it needs to stop.

I know the developers are reading this and think they are reading another "hate all the developers" rant. I am not in that camp. Your responsible investment is needed in Rogers Park.

But I believe a balance must be found between Progress, Profit and Preservation within the context of a comprehensive plan for the 49th Ward.

by GaryFuschi@yahoo

Note: For those of you who have just visited the site and possibly agree with some of what has been written, please visit 24/7howardwatchers . There are more posts on that site that I intend to cut and paste to RogerParkReview. I've just been too busy banging my head against the wall. And I promise that all posts won't be as long as this one.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Room Without A View

A Serious Investment

I have been writing recently about the less than mediocre plans and buildings that have been popping up almost overnight in our city and our neighborhood. Architects choose from an assortment of in stock, ready made buildings from a program and plug in relevant data, push the print button and voila'. Ink jet printed architecture. They can do this from the comfort of their ergonomically designed swivel chair and never, ever have to leave the office to inspect the neighborhood or visit the site that this building will occupy.

This is what I expected to see last night at the meeting to review the new proposal for the building at 7015 North Sheridan Road. But it wasn't. When the development team was presented, I realized that this was not going to be a meeting where the "deer in the headlights" unseasoned architect blurts out the truth and the poor developer gets pulled into the hallway to be read the riot act by Mr. Land. No, neighbors, this was well connected and expensive help and it showed.

The building design was so seriously considered and bold in it's concept, it was almost shocking. The detailing was incomplete but what was obvious, was the commitment of capital, invested time and the desire to make a design statement right there on Sheridan Road and right here in Rogers Park.

I found myself fighting my desire to like it. A rooftop, glass enclosed greenhouse restaurant with an offset roof perched on top of a minimalist styled 2 tone faced building with 4 residential units and covered parking. What's not to like? Well, the height, I reminded myself again and again. It's the height and the fact that if this building gets approved, it will require a zoning variance that voids a provision in the Lakefront Protection Act which is unacceptable in my view.

This proposal represents a significant investment of risk capital and a genuine desire , in my opinion, by Connie Abels to create a legacy in Rogers Park. I appreciate her willingness to take this gamble because that's exactly what it is, a gamble. Her architect is proposing a "statement" building that will put north Rogers Park on the investement map again and hopefully encourage investment further north.

A Committee of Public Opinion

Having said all that, there are serious flaws in the mixed use concept and financial risk department that make me a little concerned about Connie Abels retirement plan. As her new financial planner, I think the overwhelming speculative nature of this proposal would not allow her to live her retirement in the lifestyle she is accustomed.

If you were fortunate to be seriously looking at one of those 4 condominum units, would you want to live below the restaurant or above the parking garage? Noise above you until 11pm every night and honking horns below. Not a good choice is
it? Are there separate entrances and elevators to the restaurant or will you be sharing those with customers. With proposed retail shops below, there is only a limited amount of space for doorways and something has to give.

Because the restaurant is located on the roof, a large portion of the interior core of the building is taken up by the elevator shafts removing valuable condominium square footage. And in this plan, the only guaranteed income are the 4 condominiums, and those are questionable sales. The restaurant is not leased, nor are the retail spaces at ground level. Those are mighty big ifs in my opinion.

The 26 parking spaces not reserved for the condo owners are to be rented. But I believe any experienced restaurant investment group would demand those spaces as a requirement for the success of the restaurant considering how difficult it is to park in that area. So that parking income is also questionable.

I was walking someone home from the meeting last night with all these conflicted thoughts in my head I kept thinking about the view, the view, the view that was whole pretext for the height of the building . So I turned towards the lake to see............................................................nothing! It was 9pm, which would be the middle of the dinner rush and there was nothing to see. It was pitch black. I think this might be an issue.

This Project Cannot Fail

We Need a Winner

So much is riding on the success of this project it is difficult to grasp and I had difficulty sleeping as a result. Let's see what's on our plate . The Lakefront Protection Act, investor confidence in Rogers Park will hinge on the success or failure of the restaurant or the whole project and let's not forget the reputation of the alderman during an election year. No small potatoes.

I have some suggestions that I think can pave the way for all of us, the community, the architect, the Alderman, The Lakefront Protection Act, Connie Abels, her investors and the reputation of Rogers Park as safe place to invest. We can all come out winners in this deal.

There are too many flaws in this proposal. We cannot afford to have this project fail and we should not allow the Lakefront Protection Act to be violated. Not once. Not ever.

We need a proposal that has better chance of success than this, overspeculative, all too risky plan. Imagine how you would feel if the zoning was changed, the condos didn't sell and or the restaurant wasn't successful and the project ended up as a big white elephant on our newly violated lakefront. There is no guarantee of success in any business plan but we must do our best to put forth a proposal that has the best chance of success. I don't believe this proposal has the best chance as it stands.

The View, The View, The View

The entire pretext for the height of the building is supposedly the view of the lake. But considering the limited time that customers will be able to take advantage of that view, or see the view unless they are sitting at a window table, I don't believe that potential benefit is as great as advertised. There is a large building to the east that blocks 25% of the lake and there is frequently fog and low cloud cover.When this fact is recognized by customers, this restaurant will lose its cache' value in a hurry and this is a huge risk.

The one visual that did not appear in the presentation was the verification of the view as advertised. I think we need to see that to make thorough evaluation.

A Win,Win,Win, Solution

For this project to be successful I beleive we need to rely on a much simpler plan that has what people want most. Condominiums and a great place to eat at ground level. This plan is trying too hard to please certain perceived community concerns by adding parking at the expense of almost guaranteed condo income. The risk reward ratio is upside down putting the entire project at risk.

If they used the entire engineering and construction budget that was earmarked for the rooftop restaurant, elevator shafts, plumbing and sprinkler construction and used that budget towards creating a "statement' building within the existing zoning guidelines, with the restaurant at street level, I believe this would have a better chance of success. The added square footage created by the removal of the elevator core could be added to condominium square footage and add much needed, almost guaranteed return on investment. The larger units could be historic "home like' , multi bedroom, media room, pantry units that would sell for much more than the current "above a parking garage" plan. Those units would be desireable for an entire family. the residential portion of the building would be private and quiet, which would add value rather than the odd restaurant, garage sandwich that is being proposed. Parking can be added to the rear and probably could be covered.

In this more traditional building there would be 2 very distinct entrances, which is visually as well as pracitically important. A private entrance for the residential portion and the restaurant entry.

The restaurant might have an expanded ceiling, adding visual interest at the street level and dampening the noise to the upstairs residential units. Maybe the restaurant windows could open to the street during the summer. At street level, the restaurant could be larger, adding to the possibility of success and would increase the number of local jobs.

I don't or won't pretend to know all the answers. I am simply offering alternatives so that everyone can possibly benefit from a serious investment in capital but at the same time, uphold and maintain the law of the lakefront.

Make A Statement

I think the Alderman needs to make a statement to our community that he will not allow this variance and that the Lakefront Protection Act is Law. I think the community needs to make a statement that we want the lakefront protected and that this plan needs to be revised. I think the architect can make a bold, design statement with his building on Sheridan Road and with his commitment to great architecture. I think if the plan were less risky, the investors behind this project will be happier getting their bank statement. I think Connie Abels can make a statement to Rogers Park by showing us how it really should be done. The legacy of an incredibly successful project that possibly marked the long awaited turnaround of Rogers Park ,within the existing guidelines, will live forever.

The decisions all of you are making can change the course of our entire neighborhood. Please do not take that responsibility lightly.