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 But, is this the true answer to a kind of development that is outdated and disliked?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.

 

Fighting McMansions with higher densities in Sydney

Australia has a reputation for McMansions but some Sydney neighborhoods and suburbs have seen a shift in recent years toward higher densities:

But while Sydney’s Hills District has been synonymous with the Great Australian Dream – life in the suburbs with a large backyard and Hills Hoist – it is quietly carving out a new identity.

Five years ago, in nearby Rouse Hill, 90 per cent of homes were houses. Today, it’s 60 per cent, census data shows. Houses in these suburbs regularly sell for Sydney’s median $1.15 million, while five years ago the prices were below $700,000.

Signs of change came as early as the opening of Rouse Hill Town Centre in 2008. At the time, there were plans for mixed-use apartments, but not all the locals were sold on the idea…

“Developers prefer the small lot subdivision, townhouse and apartment-style dwellings over the mansion style lots because there are more buyers than can afford them,” he said.

It sounds like the shift toward more housing units is not a backlash against McMansions per se but rather a high demand for more housing. Why build one McMansion when several townhomes could fit on the same lot?

In the long run, creating more housing units has multiple advantages: more people can access these communities, the townhomes are a better use of land opposed to detached houses and large lots, and higher population densities could support more vibrant street life. But, there could be one downside: how much will the new units help make housing more affordable? On the whole, more units in the metropolitan region should help reduce housing prices. However, if these new units are primarily concentrated in hot and/or desirable neighborhoods and the townhomes are more of luxury units rather than starter units, swapping McMansions for townhomes might not help many of the regions average residents.

Final thought: numerous people have suggested replacing McMansions with higher densities through a variety of means (teardowns, subdividing existing homes, building fewer McMansions in the first place) but Australia seems to be ahead of the United States in this regard.

Reviving the dead shopping mall with residences, hotels

Efforts to resuscitate dead shopping malls include adding living space:

Four years later, after failing to make that work, owner The Krausz Companies is pitching a new plan that would keep existing anchor stores but demolish vacant Kohl’s and Sears stores and significantly shrink the size of the mall. The concept plan, proposed in April, also calls for building 155 town homes and 256 apartments north and east of the existing mall…

Melaniphy said he thinks there also will be more redevelopments that shrink the amount of space devoted to retail and mix it with residential or hotel development.

That’s already happened at the former Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. It billed itself as the largest mall in the world when built in 1962 but struggled to keep up as more upscale shopping centers opened nearby. It relaunched as Randhurst Village in 2011, an open-air shopping center with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and hotel.

This sounds a lot like the retrofitting of suburbia suggested by Ellen Dunham-Jones. The key is to have a steady flow of people on the site – people who live there or who are staying at a hotel – rather than relying on people driving to the mall. If all goes well, it might be hard to tell decades from now that these sites were once large shopping malls. (At the same time: (1) these mixed-use developments might stick out in the suburban landscape and (2) the trickiest part of improving these malls might be linking the edges to the surrounding areas. Suburban developments often have fairly impermeable edges.)

A reminder: this does not mean that the traditional shopping mall is dead. There may just be a lot fewer and they will be concentrated in wealthier areas:

“The fancier malls are going to be healthy because there are always folks that want that aspirational lifestyle, but there’s still a lot of money to be made with people who might have more value-oriented customers as their focus,” Trombley said.

While food deserts were all the rage several years ago, we might talk of retail deserts in the future.

 

Why are 62 acres so close to Chicago’s Loop even available?

There has been a lot of talk about a new project on 62 acres on the Chicago River just south of the Loop. Before we get to what will go there, why was such a big piece of property empty near one of the major centers of the world?

The South Loop property was used as a rail yard, but has sat unused for decades.

The scraggly land was later owned by Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for imprisoned Gov. Rod Blagojevich who himself served a prison sentence after a fraud and money laundering conviction. The site was sold 10 years ago to Luxembourg-based General Mediterranean Holding, a firm led by Iraqi-born and British-based businessman Nadhmi Auchi. He was convicted in a French corruption scandal in 2003.

Last May, Related completed a city-approved deal to take over as lead developer, with Auchi’s firm remaining a joint venture partner.

From the city’s perspective, Related’s involvement brought credibility to the long-idle site. Related Midwest is an affiliate of New York-based Related Cos., which is building 18 million square feet in the Hudson Yards mixed-used development in Manhattan.

One thing that is striking about Chicago and some other Rust Belt cities is the amount of available or empty property. In particular, Chicago’s South Side has a number of large parcels including this site along the Chicago River, land southwest of McCormick Place with some small developments here and there, land on the Robert Taylor Homes site with a few buildings here and there, and the former US Steel site (and subject to a number of proposals in recent years – see the latest here) plus numerous empty or vacant properties scattered throughout neighborhoods. Even while development booms in certain neighborhoods (and the city trumpets the work taking place in the Loop), others have significant chunks of empty land.

The why: these properties are often available in poorer or more industrial neighborhoods and the properties are often located in or close to areas with higher concentrations of black residents. In other words, these properties are not desirable, even at cheap prices (such as $1 properties in Chicago), and the desirability is connected to the status of the location and the status of places in the United States is closely related to race and class. This particular 62 acres is a great example of how uneven development works; those who want to build (leaders and developers/those in the real estate industry) usually do so in order to profit as much as possible. Now, this 62 acre site is more desirable (meaning profitable) because the South Loop has done well in recent years and there are other new developments nearby.

On the failure of the High Line

Even as cities around the world attempt to emulate New York City’s High Line (earlier posts here and here), the creator discusses why he thinks the original failed:

But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”…

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

His organization finally did launch a series of “listening sessions” with public housing tenants in 2011. What people really needed were jobs, Hammond says, and a more affordable cost of living. Residents also said they staying away from the High Line for three main reasons: They didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.

While it is easy to link such conversations to gentrification, I think this gets at a deeper issue regarding development in urban areas: who ultimately benefits? The short answer is that it is not typically the lower-income resident. Urban sociologists have made this point for decades; for example, the concept of growth machines suggests development decisions are typically made by political and business leaders who are looking to profit. In other words, developments are judged by how much money can be made (whether through the sale of property or buildings as well as through increased tax revenues) rather than by how many members of the local population experience a better quality of life. Or, see the the sociological study Crisis Cities that shows how money to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina generally went to wealthier actors and made life difficult for the average resident.