Vanishing Urban Corners

The Need to Preserve Chicago’s Historic Corners

History: Give me your tired, your poor…

As major corporate chains return to the city, a battle to preserve Chicago’s historic urban corners has begun. The frenetic expansion of big box retail chain stores is gobbling up these important neighborhood anchors, which often contain some of Chicago’s most beautiful and historic buildings.

Chicago’s rapid growth following the Great Fire of 1871 fueled an ever-expanding industrial economy. Immigrants flooded into Chicago, bringing with them artistic skills and a desire to build a better life.

In turn, neighborhood shopping districts arose to service these burgeoning communities. As prosperity grew, larger and more elaborate brick and stone structures began to appear. But, the building type that began to predominate was the Chicago Commercial Corner.

These large corner buildings also served as gateways into the neighborhood, or became neighborhood beacons. Often heavily ornamented, the best featured locally crafted terra cotta or elaborate brick patterns. Corners were considered a feature to be celebrated and often featured conical turrets, tall peaked roofs, multi-storied angled projecting bays with elaborate pressed tin or copper spandrel panels.

The exuberance and excitement of this young and expanding city was expressed in even the tiniest of its architecture and this artistry belied the fact that Chicago was basically a working class town.

Consciously, or unconsciously, architects, merchants and builders recognized the beauty and logic of an intersection framed by attractive corner buildings.

Unfortunately, intensive automobile-oriented development now threatens these uniquely pedestrian-friendly environments and greater efforts need to be made to ensure that they are preserved.

Current Threat: Creating Anytown, USA…

As consumers have returned to the city, they have been followed by the national retail chain stores. Unfortunately, their planning models date from the 1950’s. Retailers are demanding that urban stores conform to their suburban counterparts, including free-standing stores dominated by large parking lots and drive-through windows, even in areas of high density pedestrian activity. These concepts force the structure to be placed at the rear of the lot, which deadens the sidewalk of street activity. Not only is bland boxlike architecture becoming the norm, these new structures hardly approach the architectural excellence they so often replace.

So why is this happening?

Corporate planning is done in such a narrowly focused way that some chains will only identify a single corner on which to locate. If that corner is unavailable, they will often wait years until that property comes on the market, refusing, in the mean time, to even consider other locations.

Other chains insist on providing enormous parking lots, far larger than necessary in order to give the illusion that the store is really empty and will therefore ensure a quick trip in and out.

These self-serving, uncreative and arrogant business practices are detrimental to urban revitalization and often lead to senseless demolition of otherwise sound, beautiful and reusable building stock.

If these trends continue, the unique character of Chicago will be lost in favor of the bland banality of Corporate America. The loss of these important buildings also creates an economic void, eliminating the kinds of small storefronts that are an incubator for “mom and pop” businesses.

These small local businesses are vital to a healthy economic mix as well as providing the kind of shops and stores that give Chicago its character, and the kinds of businesses that lead to neighborhood economic revival.

It’s important to remember that most jobs in this country are created NOT by giant corporations, but by small businesses.

And once built, these single-use big-box retail stores cannot be easily recycled like the multi-function, easily-dividable commercial corners that they replace. If automobile oriented development is allowed to take hold in urban neighborhoods, once-vibrant corners become physical and psychological voids, inherently unfriendly and undesirable to walk down.

People no longer run into each other on the way down to the corner store because there is no corner store.

Bad Public Policy: Making Little Plans…

All too often, American corporations view their architecture as a depreciable asset. Standardization is, in theory, a sensible idea because it cuts out waste and increases efficiency. However, architectural standardization makes for very dull cities.

More often than not, communities are not consulted about development issues and chain stores bet on little or no organized community resistance.

Politicians have been all too willing to accept anything that promises quick economic development and a healthy tax return, often ignoring the long term impact of irresponsible development and bad design.

Furthermore, antiquated zoning often rewards bad development, and most neighborhoods lack any kind of a long-term, detailed growth plan, which preclude sensible growth strategies.

Until recently, communities have been powerless to do anything to stop this kind of illogical and wasteful development. But that is changing. Communities are beginning to empowering themselves through education and advocacy, and Preservation Chicago is proud to be a partner to that process.

Recommendations: Empowering Communities through…

  • the creation of Historic Landmark Districts for endangered commercial areas.
  • encouraging the development and preservation of existing pedestrian-oriented commercial corridors through re-zoning.
  • the encouragement of better and more innovative corporate architecture, which responds to an urban, rather the suburban, environment.
  • continued community awareness, education, and outreach.
  • the creation of long-range neighborhood Master Development Plans.