Still looking for innovative solutions to empty big box stores

As some South Side Chicago residents lament the closing of two Target stores, the Chicago Tribune calls for the city of Chicago to follow the lead of other communities and find productive uses:

In Waukegan, Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a Catholic school that serves mostly middle-income and minority students, refurbished an old Kmart for a modest $10 million. Architects added windows and skylights, flooding the space with natural light while economically redeploying the building’s existing features.

In Cleveland’s Collinwood community, the city bought an empty Big Lots store and turned it into a recreation center with fitness classes and an indoor water park.

Milwaukee lured a light manufacturing company to an abandoned Lowe’s store. In another part of the city, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin opened a clinic inside a former Office Depot.

In Muncie, Ind., U-Haul opened an office and storage facility in a former Kmart.

Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., hosts a senior citizen resource center with adult day care in a former Walmart. You’d never know, looking at the creatively adapted space, that it once included a garden center and aisles of baby diapers and toys.

These are all good examples but it downplays the difficulty of the task at hand: everywhere from Manhattan to suburbs to small towns are dealing with empty retail and big box locations. Just a few of the issues at hand:

  1. Will the new use generate taxes in the same way as the retail use? Religious groups and community centers are not going to bring in similar monies even if they are helpful sites for the community.
  2. What will it cost to redevelop the property for other uses and who will pay that cost?
  3. Will neighbors always approve the new use? They moved next to what they thought was one thing and even the exit of a big box store may not automatically lead to a more desirable land use in their eyes.
  4. In the long run, how can a community overcome the loss of status and revenues from losing businesses? Again, community uses are good but many communities build their reputation on having businesses and certain revenues.

Perhaps one of the best answers to this issue is to not approve as many retail and big box uses in the first place or to require that the buildings be built or connected to surrounding neighborhoods in such ways that a new use would not be a major shift. The typical warehouse, strip mall, concrete box option surrounded by large parking lots is not easy to fix up.

The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

Chicago’s clout extends to receiving more news coverage of cold even as Minneapolis was colder

Despite concerns at times, Chicago is indeed a leading global city. This week suggests another way this might play out: the cold temperatures and wind chill in Chicago received a lot of media attention while the colder temperatures in Minnesota and north of Chicago received less.

 

There are several ways to think about this:

  1. People expect Minnesota and places north of Chicago to be colder so when they are extremely cold, this is less noteworthy.
  2. Fewer people live in the cities north of Chicago so the cold affects fewer people.
  3. Chicago is a much higher-status city and any news in Chicago is going to outweigh news in Minneapolis.

Perhaps all of these factors may be at play and interrelated. Reasons #2 and #3 are connected: Chicago has a higher status in part because of its larger population. Similarly, leading global cities tend not to be located too far north or south (connecting reasons #1 and #3).

This may help Chicagoland residents feel better about the severe cold: people throughout the United States and even the world note the cold you are experiencing because of your city’s status.

Three thoughts on Naperville having “white supremacist policies”

Newly-elected Illinois State Representative Anne Stava-Murray made strong comments about Naperville:

The 81st District representative, who also has launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dick Durbin, says what she sees in Naperville — and the Chicago area as a whole — is “white supremacy in an unclad kind of way, without its hood on.”

She points to what she calls racial profiling during traffic stops, questionable police hiring, discrimination in housing and home showings, largely white teacher populations, high rates of black student suspensions and low rates of black student enrollment in advanced placement courses as evidence of “white ignorance” in Naperville policies…

Many Naperville leaders, including Mayor Steve Chirico, who has worked to diversify membership on the city’s advisory boards and commissions, say her claims of “white supremacist policies” are far from the truth…

Some say the criticism of harboring white favoritism doesn’t fit a city becoming known as a hub of Indian-American business and culture. Naperville demographics show the city is 68.3 percent white, 17.9 percent Asian, 5.7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3.2 percent two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2018.

Three quick thoughts based on my own study of the large suburb:

1. Naperville had issues in its past with race including opposition to a fair housing ordinance in the late 1960s and a discrimination complaint filed by several black workers transferred to the new Bell Labs facility in the 1960s. Some of these comments could be referendum on whether Naperville has changed sufficiently in fifty years and also reflect changing ideas about diversity over time.

2. Naperville today is certainly more diverse than in the past: it was 99.8% white in 1960 and is now 68.3% white. At the same time, the population of Naperville does not match or approach national figures in several areas. It has fewer black and Latino residents (roughly one-third of national averages) and more Asian residents (three times the national average). It is very wealthy with a median household income of around $110,000, double that of the United States as a whole. And the poverty rate is less than one-half of the country as a whole. On the whole, it has more racial and ethnic diversity than in the past but is also at a higher social class than many suburbs.

3. It seems like it would be helpful to speak less to leaders of the suburb – and leaders rarely would admit problems in their own community like racism – and more to a variety of  minorities in Naperville. For example, read “What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.” Is there a common experience across racial and ethnic groups as well as social classes? My guess is that experiences can differ.

Confronting and remembering Chicago’s 1919 race riots

It can be hard for American communities to acknowledge bad moments in their past. Numerous museums in Chicago are planning to help the city and region think about the 1919 race riots one hundred years later:

One hundred years ago this summer, a black teen on a raft crossed an imaginary line into a “white” section of a Lake Michigan beach, was stoned by white bathers and drowned. The interracial battle on city streets that followed caused 38 deaths and set the stage for decades of segregation, discrimination and civic dysfunction.

Yet if you search the city for a commemoration of the Chicago Race Riots, as the events of July 1919 are known, you’ll find just one small marker, according to organizers of an upcoming series of events. Along the lakefront near 29th Street, affixed to a boulder there is a plaque — funded by suburban high school students — that says, “Dedicated to All the Victims of the Race Riot That Began Near This Place.”

The city’s collective neglect of this dark and seminal moment in its history is a topic that the Newberry Library and 13 other Chicago institutions hope to address with the yearlong project “Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots,” an initiative that the partners in the project will announce formally next week.

The goal is to use seminars, film, spoken word performance and even a bicycle tour to help “understand a history that frankly has been forgotten, has purposely not been remembered and certainly has not been commemorated,” said Liesl Olson, director of Chicago studies at the independent research library. “Most historians are kind of appalled by how little is discussed about this moment. There’s a lot of shame in it, really.”

My own research in suburban communities suggests this neglect of certain past events is often deliberate misremembering, particularly when these events involve race. Typically, a community’s history is presented as a collection of high points: the area was settled, the community was founded, good things happened here, here, and here, and all this helped make the great community we have today. Yet, communities are often shaped by negative events, moments involving conflict, disagreement, and even violence. Chicago’s engagement with race involves many of these moments and these exhibits have the ability to suggest much of that later activity – think bombings when blacks moved into white neighborhoods, riots in poor neighborhoods in the 1960s, virulent reactions to MLK marching in Chicago in 1966 – has its roots in the 1919 riots. The true measure of a year of exhibits may be how much the future retellings of Chicago’s history includes the 1919 riots as an important moment.

Other cities learned from Chicago’s privatization of parking meters

Failures in one city can help other cities learn what not to do:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aggressively pushed to privatize 311 in 2015, telling journalists it would save the city “about a million dollars a year” to run the system using contractors. Hiring an outside operator would save the city from shouldering the cost of sorely needed improvements to a 20-year-old system, he suggested.

City officials weren’t thrilled at the idea. A famously unpleasant privatization effort was still in people’s minds. About 10 years ago, Chicago made an 80-year deal to pass control over its parking meters to a private firm in exchange for a $1.2 billion lump sum. The firm promptly made more than half that lump sum in revenue for itself—and still has 70 years of returns. (I wrote about this in WIRED last year.)

But that parking meter deal has been remarkably generative: It has dampened enthusiasm for privatization in cities around the country. Left to its own rational profit-making devices, a private company will systematically squeeze services to the bare minimum and avoid additional investments. That’s fine for margins, but not always great for the public.

And so when Emanuel proposed privatizing 311, scores of Chicago aldermen felt emboldened to fight.

At least other cities and Chicago now think twice before privatizing certain services. This could also lead to at least a few interesting interesting research questions:

  1. Part of the pitch for privatization was increased efficiency. Would more reluctance for such deals hold back cities in certain ways?
  2. How have private companies shifted their efforts now that cities may be wiser about making such deals? I assume this means that profit margins on such deals are smaller…

Pass through “Viadoom” for a better Seattle waterfront

A number of projects are underway at Seattle’s waterfront and while they are all intended to help the city in the long run, they may lead to short-term transportation issues:

The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.

The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)…

As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.

It sounds like this will be a win for the city in the long-run. A few years ago, I was some of the locations mentioned in the article and I could see how these changes would benefit both residents and visitors.

At the same time, I could imagine many residents would want to know why this all seems to be happening at once. This is a complaint I have heard regularly in the Chicago area: why is there construction on multiple major roads at the same time that then makes it very hard to find alternatives? People can get the idea about the long-term benefits and still experience frustration at the day to day difficulties these projects pose.

Additionally, what are the odds that all the projects finish on time and on budget? Major infrastructure projects in American cities can end up with significantly larger price tags and seem to last forever as circumstances (and budgets) change. Again, these projects often need to happen but residents may perceive that officials and those involved in the construction do not care much for their time or pocketbooks.

Of course, an easy solution to all of this is to simply pursue these projects far before they become such boondoggles. That, however, is far easier said than done.