Chicago architects as political lobbyists

The tension between the art and business sides of architecture is evident in a new report from the Chicago Tribune:

A virtual who’s who of Chicago architects has given tens of thousands of dollars to City Council members who hold near-total power to determine whether their projects get built, a Tribune investigation has found. Architects even have hosted fundraisers for aldermen…

The bulk of the money flows to City Council members in Chicago’s fast-growing wards. The architects and their developer clients have reason to stay on good terms with aldermen, who hold the power to advance a project, send it back to the drawing board or kill it.

From the start of the current building boom in 2010 through mid-November of this year, those with an occupation listed as “architect” have given more than $180,000 to aldermen, their ward organizations, and other city politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois campaign finance records show.

The architects’ firms have donated even more, bringing the total haul for politicians to well over $350,000.

One sociological study of the field of architecture, Larson’s 1994 book Behind the Postmodern Facade: Architectural Change in Late Twentieth-Century America, discusses how architects found themselves in the postwar era needing business, therefore designing a lot of buildings with little aesthetic beauty or input, yet wanting to privilege the artistic and aesthetic side of the discipline.

This also echoes research on urban growth machines which tend to emphasize the role of business leaders and politicians in stimulating and carrying out urban development for the sake of profits. This report suggests architects are part of this game too; by donating money and hosting events, they can help ensure they see profit from new development projects (as opposed to other firms participating or projects not getting off the ground.

Does the knowledge that architects are part of the power games that help determine the physical and social structures of a city sully their work? Or, does it shed light on how cities actually come to pass where even those supposedly devoted to beauty and the experience of a structure participate in lobbying?

Naperville considers one of its last greenfield subdivisions

By the early 2000s, the large suburb of Naperville had relatively few large parcels of land where new subdivisions could emerge like they did regularly for decades. One such parcel of land is now up for discussion:

Single-family detached homes are proposed for about 105 acres of the site at Route 59 and 103rd Street, requiring the zoning be changed from agricultural to residential. The remaining eight acres would be rezoned for office, commercial and institutional use to accommodate a new Compass Evangelical Free Church, which already has two Naperville locations and one each in Bolingbrook and Wheaton.

Houses ranging in size from 2,300 to 3,539 square feet would be built on lots ranging from 6,838 to 20,065 square feet, according to plans submitted to the city. There would be multiple floor plans available, and Pulte plans on a “significant setback and buffer from Route 59 to lessen potential impacts on the properties,” the proposal said.

The two-story 38,000-square-foot church would be built at the corner of Route 59 and 103rd Street. It would have a 600-seat worship center, a children’s ministry space, a multipurpose room or gymnasium, second-floor offices, a 5,000-square-foot coffee shop and 307 parking spaces, according to plans.

The requested use deviates from the 2002 Southwest Community Area Plan, which identified the future land use as commercial, senior housing and mixed-density residential. That said, city staff found the Pulte development to be “well-suited and complementary” to the city’s long-term plans, city documents said.

Two reasons why this proposed development makes sense and fits with the existing character of the community:

1. A residential subdivision is consistent with Naperville’s development since 1960. While Naperville has also approved other kinds of developments in certain parts of the suburb, much of the land to the south and west of downtown is now within subdivisions of somewhat sizable homes.

2. The space for a church is not unusual and could be a preferable neighbor compared to commercial or industrial uses. While the church does not generate tax revenues like other possible uses, it also does not present the same kind of noise, light, and traffic issues to nearby neighbors.

One reason the proposal may not make sense for the community:

1. Without many big parcels left, Naperville has limited opportunities to promote other land uses. Another subdivision is consistent with the suburb’s character but is this the long-term direction Naperville wants to go? The reference to the Southwest Community Area Plan is notable as the suburb had thoughts of creating a mixed-use node and even second social center for the community (next to the downtown) on the far Southwest side. Instead, this subdivision will simply add more homes and residents.

In sum, while this may just be another suburban subdivision, this could be a momentous choice by a mature suburb. If Naperville uses this big parcel for homes, does this mean they will seek denser development in their downtown?

Fox Valley Mall “near Naperville” Part 2 – development requirements

A store at Fox Valley Mall prefers to say they are “near Naperville” rather than the actual location in Aurora. How did this shopping center end up across the street from Naperville?

The Urban Investment and Development Corporation (UIDC) started purchasing property for a shopping center in 1966. At this point, Naperville was expanding to the south and southwest at a rapid rate but was nowhere near the size it is today. Similarly, Aurora had an established downtown but there was not a whole lot of development in this area. To help guide its growth, Naperville had developed regulations, particularly in residential subdivisions, to help ensure quality development.

In 1972, UIDC annexed the land they had purchased to Naperville. According to local officials in both communities, the developer chose Aurora in part because of fewer development regulations. Fallout from this choice ensued. Aurora and Naperville signed a boundary agreement to help limit such situations where a developer could play the two communities off of each other. The 1975 Naperville mayoral race included discussion of the loss of the mall. Additionally, the construction of the mall and the loss of status and sales tax money to Aurora helped spur Naperville leaders toward improving the community’s downtown. After the mall opened, Naperville was able to capture some status and money through the opening of stores on the east side of Route 59.

In sum, the developer of the Fox Valley Mall chose to locate in Aurora for some advantages in the early 1970s. Given the path of the two communities since then, I wonder if that developer would choose differently today. On one hand, a Naperville address would convey a certain status. On the other hand, locating just across the street might be the perfect solution: the developers could get benefits from Aurora while always claiming to be “near Naperville.”

The joint spread of McMansions and apartments in Charlotte

Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:

As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.

I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.

At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.

What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.

Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.

McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

From suburban to downtown growth in Aurora, Illinois

The suburb of Aurora grew tremendously in recent decades but now has little new land. Thus, to grow it must build up or become denser:

Today, the city’s once-booming growth has slowed to a crawl, census estimates show. Officials say there is room for growth, but that growth will look different.

There’s little room for more subdivisions to sprout across the community as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the focus will be on downtown and the city’s train line, building up, not out, said Stephane Phifer, a longtime Aurora city planner who now works with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning…

As growth slows, the city has an opportunity to focus on redevelopment of downtown and working with the city’s neighborhoods, Nelson said. Downtown is the “new frontier” for development, he said.

Interest is building in downtown Aurora, Nelson said. The area is developing its own identity, largely centered around the arts.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. A shift from such explosive growth – the population doubling in two decades – to less growth can be quite drastic. A community gets used to the new subdivisions, the new city employees needed to provide local services, the changes to local school districts, and other social impacts.
  2. The assumption in this article is that growth is good. This is a common sentiment across American communities. What if Aurora stayed at roughly the same population – would it automatically be a failure?
  3. Aurora is not the only Chicago area suburb facing this issue. For example, neighboring Naperville has been considering this shift in growth for at least a few years. Numerous suburbs closer to the city have had this issue for decades. Few Chicago suburbs have the potential to truly become huge suburbs – imagine Aurora at 300,000 residents with a really dense and interesting downtown along the Fox River. But, to do so will mean competing with other suburbs for residents, entertainment options, and amenities.

All together, this could be a significant turning point in the history of Aurora as a community. Will it pursue downtown and denser development in the same way it pursued suburban growth in the last few decades? Will it focus on quality rather than quantity?