Converting an architecturally-noted Chicago synagogue into apartments

The conversion of religious buildings into residential units is interesting to me (see earlier posts here and here). Here is another example from Chicago: an Uptown synagogue that was on preservation lists will be turned into apartments.

Originally built by architect Henry Dubin of the firm Dubin and Eisenberg in 1922, the former religious structure at 5029 N. Kenmore Avenue features a dramatic stained glass-lined sanctuary plus attached offices, classrooms, a commercial kitchen, and various multi-purpose rooms.

After closing its doors to the public in 2008, the building faced an uncertain future. Despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, water damage, vandalism, and deferred maintenance left much of the structure in poor condition. In 2015, the synagogue earned a spot on Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s most threatened architecturally significant buildings.

Chicago-based developer and adaptive reuse specialist Cedar Street Companies acquired the property last year for $1.25 million…

Branded as simply ‘The Synagogue,’ Cedar Street’s residential conversion is slated to include eight studio apartments, 32 one-bedroom apartments, and a 21-car parking lot.

Saying that you live at “The Synagogue” has a certain ring to it.

It would be interesting to think about if reactions of different kinds of religious buildings differ depending on the religious tradition. Certain religious groups have different conceptions of religious buildings. In other words, some see the religious space as more sacred or fundamental to their practices than others. For example, the academic literature on the white flight of religious groups in the post-World War II era suggests that different groups found it easier or harder to leave their structures. At the same time, I’m guessing that a good number of these reconversions of religious buildings happen a while after the building was used by its primary congregation.

The difficulties in changing bedroom suburbs into vibrant mixed-use places

What does it take for a bedroom suburb – the stereotypical placeless home to subdivision after subdivision – to change into something else? Here is a quick summary of the efforts in one Chicago suburb:

Bartlett was a typical “bedroom” community — people who worked in downtown Chicago took the train back and went straight home. The Metra station used to be surrounded by industrial buildings, said Tony Fradin, the village’s economic development coordinator. There was no reason to hang around downtown, and no practical way to avoid driving everywhere you needed to go.

The process of transit-oriented development, like the growing of a sapling into something that will provide shade, takes a long time and a lot of patience, said RTA and village officials. Bartlett got started by putting more development near its Metra station in 2005, replacing the obsolete industrial buildings with three-story condominiums and two-story mixed residential and retail space near the train. The complex includes the popular 2Toots Train Whistle Grill, which carries customers their food on a model train, and O’Hare’s Pub, which offers live music. The developments were backed by a tax-increment financing plan…

But the recession put a stop to further development. In 2013, Bartlett tried again to improve its downtown, applying for an RTA grant in 2014, and completing its TOD plan late last year, said Fradin.

Fradin said Bartlett hopes the plan, which includes ideas to improve pedestrian safety such as new crosswalks, will create a more urban, “walkable” feel. Bartlett plans to market a 1.8-acre site across from the Metra tracks and hopes to attract a developer in the next year or two for a high-density residential building, as outlined in the TOD plan. Another possible development site is a 5-acre, Metra-owned patch of land directly adjacent to the tracks, which Metra has held for years for possible parking.

Three things stand out to me from this example as well as the efforts I have observed in my research of suburban communities:

  1. These redevelopment efforts take time. The story above cites 2005 as the starting point of this kind of development and the suburb is still working at it twelve years later. One or two significant buildings or developments might be exciting but more is likely needed. The transformation of downtown Bartlett could take decades.
  2. Not all bedroom suburbs will be successful in developing a vibrant downtown, even if they follow all or many of the steps that characterized other successful suburbs. Sometimes it works but a lot of things – including internal decisions as well as outside forces that are beyond the control of a suburb – have to go right.
  3. Even if this more vibrant, around-the-clock downtown develops, it would be interesting to see what happens to all of the community since many do not live right downtown. Do these new developments around the train station cater primarily to young professionals? Do people from the edges of Bartlett regularly go to their own downtown or do they seek out other suburban spots (like Elgin or Woodfield/Schaumburg or the I-90 Corridor)? Do all residents want the quiet character of their bedroom suburb to change or feel that resources should be diverted toward

“Epic Fail”: demolishing Charlestowne Mall for housing units

A failing suburban mall is slated to be turned into residential units – and it is has a humorous/sad sign in its empty corridors:

A handful of mall walkers represent the only foot traffic. There are faint signs of music emanating from a fitness center. A poster inside a former store directory sign displays what might be a fitting epitaph: “Epic Fail,” it reads.

The words in the World Wildlife Federation poster are a plea to preserve freshwater sources. Right now, St. Charles officials are more interested in protecting the economy on the east side of the city. It’s been six months since the mall owners provided the public an update on their mission to revive the site.

Mall representatives in May told city officials it’s time to abandon the idea of rejuvenating the mall by attracting new stores. Instead, they’ll keep the movie theater, Von Maur and Carson Pirie Scott. They will demolish all but 150,000 square feet of the structure to make way for 155 townhouses on the north end of the property and 256 apartments on the east end…

Rogina said Krausz would “engage a large, national residential developer” to handle the apartments and townhouses. He declined to name the residential developer since the deal may not yet be complete.

While this could be a good illustration for the overbuilding of retail around the turn of the 21st century (the shopping mall will be gutted even though a number of the surrounding businesses – including Walmart, Target, and numerous restaurants – will live on), it could turn into a good example of retrofitting suburban spaces. Adding residential units to this property could help create a vibrant location where residents can walk to a movie theater, stores, and eateries. Imagine a mixed-use area where once stood a solitary shopping mall surrounded by large parking lots.

At the same time, I could imagine how constructing these housing units could turn out poorly. Two things, in particular, could be problematic. First, the new housing units may be constructed in such a way to be completely disconnected from the existing uses. The opportunity to create a mixed-use, walkable environment could easily be lost. The suburb would end up with a case where walking is inconvenient or even strongly discouraged. If this happens, it is similar to the construction of many other suburban housing units: they exist in private realms. Second, the housing could turn out to be luxury units or expensive housing. St. Charles is a fairly wealthy suburb and the developers may want to make units for young professionals, young families, and empty-nesters or local retirees. Yet, this suburb – like many others – needs more affordable housing and the location near a lot of retail options could be nice for those who do not want to have to rely on cars all the time. (Granted, if they want to get to central St. Charles, a car is needed.)

Almost all suburban residents’ concerns about redevelopment expressed in one meeting

Naperville is pursuing a redevelopment project just south of the downtown train station and a recent public input meeting provided almost all the typical suburban concerns about redevelopment:

Land use and traffic are emerging as top concerns about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue near the Naperville Metra station.

But close behind are issues of stormwater, green space, pedestrian access, the commuter experience and parking…

Promises to take time understanding and synthesizing resident wants and concerns seemed to only somewhat satisfy residents at Ryan Companies’ fourth group input session Friday afternoon. Some who attended said they want very little to be built on the land, which they see as a solution to flooding, traffic congestion and a lack of nearby park space.

“I don’t want high density,” neighbor Dana Aldrich said. “Our schools are already crowded.”

These are all common concerns. Too much traffic. Water issues. Parking. A desire for more green space. The city or developer not taking the concerns of residents seriously. Not increasing the burden on local services (and presumably property taxes), particularly schools. The only thing missing? The suggestion that property taxes will be negatively affected. Given this particular location and wealthy community, it is unlikely the proposed project would reduce property values – but realities do not always stop suburban residents from raising this specter.

It is also interesting to consider how suburban governments can proceed if residents tend to raise the same concerns almost regardless of the project. Something is likely to be done with this land since a good argument could be made that it is not serving the community as well as it might. (Redevelopment can incur new costs but it can also generate new tax revenues.) Development can be tweaked to try to assuage concerns. However, at some point, community leaders may just decide to override residents’ concerns. Perhaps the concerns are limited to a small number of vocal residents. Perhaps they would argue that as leaders they have the greater good of the community in mind.

Naperville cannot easily rebrand and revive East Ogden Avenue

Naperville is considering ways to improve East Ogden Avenue on the suburb’s northwest side:

The city, along with the Naperville Development Partnership and the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, sponsored an open house Tuesday to gather opinions on a streetscape renovation plan — and how to pay for it — from property owners, business owners and nearby residents.

Those who stopped by Tuesday morning said they liked elements of the proposed facelift for the stretch of Ogden between Washington Street and Naperville’s eastern border east of Naper Boulevard, but they worried the cost could prevent it from happening…

The idea is to update the look and feel of intersections and parkways along East Ogden Avenue so drivers know they’re in Naperville, shoppers find the area more inviting and businesses see it as primed for development, said Christine Jeffries, president of the Naperville Development Partnership…

Each [intersection] could receive some sort of sign for “Uptown Naperville,” some with large silver letters spelling out “NAPERVILLE” or referring to the city with a tall “N.”

As usual, there are questions about how to pay the $5 million the plan requires. That is one issue.

But, I would suggest there is a deeper issue: can these kinds of improvements truly lead to more development and a stronger sense of community? East Ogden Avenue is like many sizable suburban streets: it is fronted by numerous businesses (ranging from restaurants to auto care facilities to big box stores to home converted to offices), there are signs and buildings everywhere, and has numerous cut-outs to the road. To many, this look is not very attractive. These are the sorts of streetscapes that wealthier suburbs today try to avoid even if they were common several decades ago.

Does putting signs at intersections, putting in new landscaping, burying power lines, and rebranding the stretch “Uptown Naperville” really change what is there?  It may look nicer. It may tell people more clearly that they are in Naperville (God forbid that they are in Lisle). But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked? I am skeptical. Just contrast this stretch to downtown Naperville where a certain level of density and vibrancy leads to an exciting scene. The stretch on Ogden is too long, too broken up, devoid of attractive residential units (though they are often just behind the businesses), and difficult to connect.

An alternative approach might be this. Take one of the busier intersections, like the northeast corner of Washington and Ogden. There is a busy strip mall there with a Jewel grocery store and a Starbucks in the outlot. Why not build a mixed-use residential development just to the north or east. Make this small area a bit of a destination. Increase foot traffic (and who right now really wants to walk or bike along Ogden). Provide more anchors to a transient stretch. If this is successful, keep the idea moving to the east. This is a much longer project and it may not be possible to always put in attractive mixed-use buildings. Yet, there is demand for residential units in Naperville and units along Ogden are not that far from downtown or the downtown Metra station for those interested in commuting.

Apple: new Chicago store will “transform the riverfront”

The claim that Apple stores can serve as town squares is questionable and another claim about the new Apple store on the Chicago River might be as well:

During the keynote address, Apple’s Angela Ahrendts claimed that the new store will “transform the riverfront.” And in typical Apple fashion, the new store combines form and function to deliver perhaps the most transformative retail offerings in years. Similar to designs for other Apple flagship retail stores, the new Michigan Avenue store boasts a glassy, transparent box shape. However, it is capped with a curved roofline that resembles the lid of its Macbook laptop computer.

The new store has taken over a large portion of Pioneer Court, an outdoor office plaza which had previously served as the location for large-scale art installations. Construction on the new store officially kicked off last March, and after a year, the store began to take shape as workers installed the store’s large glass walls.

Apple is known for its focus on design, and its big move and new location is notable for not just being on the river, but for adding more to Michigan Avenue south of the Magnificent Mile. Once a quiet stretch, the length of Michigan Avenue between the Mag Mile and Millennium Park has gained significant momentum with the delivery of a new apartment tower, a new hotel, and the planned overhaul of the Tribune Tower and its surrounding properties.

This one store has been talked about for months and certainly has a striking design. Yet, can it truly “transform the riverfront”? That remains to be seen. Part of the issue could be exactly how transformation is defined. Is it simply operating an iconic building? Does it involve attracting a lot of people? If it does bring in a lot of people, what if those people primarily stay inside the Apple store rather than lingering on the riverfront and frequenting other spaces and businesses? Is it bringing in big money (sales as well as tax revenues)? Is is transferring the high status of Apple to a development project – the Riverfront – that could use some status?

Let’s see what happens. My guess that this will be an iconic store for Apple but the Chicago Riverfront is going to need much more than this to truly be a destination in its own right.

Replace Houston McMansions and sprawl with what?

At least a few of the homes flooded in Houston are McMansions. For example, see this video of rescue efforts in one neighborhood where water is past the first floor of McMansions.

Once the waters recede, what will happen to these McMansions? Critics of such homes argue that they are often poorly built. Are they worth restoring and rebuilding or will homeowners pursue other options? What will communities approve and will they promote other options beyond big single-family homes?

Rarely do suburbs and big cities have opportunities to rethink past development decisions on a large scale. Houston is known for sprawl and a number of commentators (including me) have already suggested that such an approach often does not work well with flooding and water issues. Yet, overturning decades of sprawling suburban development is a difficult task and is likely even harder when residents just want to get back into their homes.