Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Doctor's Hospital and Urban Claustrophobia

It's been a while since we've read anything from Notable Local Guy, J-Spice, who has no official Cabinet position in the Establishment junta, but acts in a variety of capacities -- including, in this instance, adviser to the venerable Hyde Park Antiquarian Society.

At issue in the most recent letter from J-Spice to the Herald (September 7, 2007) is the burning question of how to respond to the University's plan to demolish the Doctor's Hospital and replace it with a high-rise Marriott hotel.

In the great tradition of Hyde Park activism -- or, considering the disintegrating revetments at the Point, perhaps the not-so-great tradition -- alternative plans for the Hospital site have been drawn up that purport both to accommodate the University's plans, and to re-use up to 80% of the original structure. This new-found spirit of compromise is certainly better than the pure obstructionism that has left the Point slowly washing into Lake Michigan, and so we say let's have a look.

We hope that the alternative plan, in addition to preserving the facade and layout, preserves the spirit of the place as well. Its unique ambiance should be adapted to the building's new functions as a hotel, perhaps anchored by an Amputation Lounge for the white tablecloth crowd; a Pathology Bistro for more of a quick fix; and, for Starwood Preferred guests, room selection from among the Polio, Smallpox, or Consumption Suites, with possible upgrades to penthouse lake views from the Blunt Head Trauma Deck.

Turning now to our leading theme, the classic Hyde Park phobia to which J-Spice gives such eloquent expression in this week's letter: "urban claustrophobia."

Establishment Individual Experiences
Urban Claustrophobia

What is urban claustrophobia? That penned-in feeling people get when they try to pretend that they are living in a bucolic, suburban parkland, when actually living near the heart of a metropolis of 8 million people. It's something the Marriott would cause, but the Doctor's Hospital doesn't.

In simple terms, it is a distaste for too many buildings, too many people, and too much congestion. Indeed, too much of anything. This urbano-phobic condition should not be surprising in a letter contributed on behalf of the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society which, being antiquarian, necessarily celebrates the semi-suburban heritage of Hyde Park.

The problem that can arise, however, is that celebrating the semi-suburban heritage of Hyde Park can lead one to try to preserve Hyde Park as a real suburb. As we have pointed out before, Hyde Park is not, and has not been a suburb for over a century. Preserving intrinsically suburban aspects of our neighborhood may actually do a disservice to the community, leading to pernicious effects when pursued in an area that has become fully integrated into a vast metropolitan region.

For J-Spice, the advantage of the existing Hospital building over its proposed replacement derives from the fact that its "set-back softens its impact on the street and ensures that any new, larger building added to the site would be even further west and away from the street, causing less urban claustrophobia and blocking fewer views."

*(The views in question are presumably those from the Vista Homes. We would prefer it if there was something blocking views of Vista Homes.)

The first question we would put to anyone suffering from "urban claustrophobia" is, quite simply, Why do you live in a city?

But more fundamentally, the preservationist drive in this case is tied to anachronistic design principles. Is there a need to "soften [the Marriott's] impact on the street"? Why? What does this mean concretely? How is this "impact" a problem, and according to whom? If a building built to the sidewalk generates claustrophobia in J-Spice or anyone else, that's rather unfortunate. But this particular hang-up requires therapy, or perhaps a stint in some sprawling suburb. It shouldn't determine how we site city buildings.

On the contrary, a building that comes directly to the public space of the sidewalk, and thereby encourages pedestrians to inhabit the space rather than merely travel through it or use it as a buffer, has multiple benefits to the sidewalk culture that is the most basic strand in the social fabric of cities. The most popular neighborhoods in Chicago have this quality, and newer projects are reverting to it. For Jane Jacobs, the sidewalk was the atomic unit of urban planning.

The stretch of Stony Island in question is barren and uninviting. There is very little pedestrian traffic. You want to get in a car and leave. The call for major buildings to be kept off or pushed away from the street is classic Urban Renewal, and like it demonstrates how this preservation effort is driven by fundamentally anti-urban sensibilities. It seeks to insulate, push back, cut off, turn in. Ultimately, this attitude represents a profound distrust of one's neighbors.

It may be possible to preserve and adapt an old building that only antiquarians could love. But let's not import bad suburban ideas into the city at the same time.


Famac said...

Since Jack Spicer is so civic minded, perhaps he could lend a hand at the Point.

Mr. Spicer runs a gardening service.

He's also one of the chief engineers of the demise of Point renovation.

Perhaps Mr. Spicer could back his words with action and spend a tenth of the time he devotes to our community weeding the Point.

How about it Jack?? The place is a mess in great part because of your efforts.

You've got the crews, too.

That's the problem with the activist community; tough to find when they have to foot the bill on some "preservation."

PS: do we really want a Marriot rising out of Doctor's Hospital ala Soldier Field?

curtsy said...

C-Pop -- although the views of J-Spice elicits the usual suspicions, what exactly are YOUR "credentials" as far as urban planning are concerned? I'm just wondering.

On the subject of Doctors Hospital, when was Vista Homes "grandfathered" their inalienable rights to an unobstructed view in perpetuity?

LPB said...

I like living in the city because the urban density allows me to have a lot of amenities within walking distance. Or, at least it did until I moved to Hyde Park, where there are very few amenities nearby my home. If some neighborhood residents don't want greater density, then they need to move to the suburbs where they can sprawl, drive, and park to their hearts content.

chicago pop said...

famac: yes, despite Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin's distaste for the current trend of "facadism," it has been embraced by the NIMBY-preservationist element here in Hyde Park. The inability to countenance modern requirements (be they for safety, access, functionality, economies of scale, what have you) leads to all sorts of hyrbrid, bastardized projects that resemble the remade Soldier Field. It will be interesting to see how J-Spice and crew combine a 300+ room hotel with a musty old hospital.

crusty: as to your question, I have some exposure to the field. That's all I'll tell you, given your demonstrated penchant for cyber-stalking. The "I know where you live" thing is never a hit with the ladies, by the way.

lpb: right on. Cities = lots of people + division of labor + division of culture. If people can't handle that, there's always Kane County.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Jack's Cook County Hospital example (in his letter to the editor) isn't perfectly analogous to this situation, is it? I thought they DID build a new hospital on a new site, and so the discussion about rehabbing the old Cook County building is for a different use. But I'm not following that one closely.

Elizabeth Fama said...

My last comment wasn't very clear. What I meant to discuss was the issue of how easy or difficult it is to reuse a building for a different use. Jack says that demolishing a viable existing building is a waste of energy and materials, but that statement relies heavily on the definition of "viable" with respect to the new use of the building. In purely financial terms it must often be the case that tearing down and building from scratch is cheaper (it definitely would have been the case with our house, in retrospect!). I hope those are issues he addresses when he unveils the suggested architectural plans.

chicago pop said...

re: Elizabeth's last comment, it's interesting to see how preservationists are stretching to link up with the green building movement. But the two things don't necessarily fit together easily, as you remark. The idea is that, in terms of carbon footprint, or in terms of overall energy consumption, it is more sustainable to reuse existing buildings. But the viability issue you raise is exactly the problem, and in this case it's not clear that preservation and green building are in harmony. Most signature green buildings are new and custom built; I'm not sure if it's been established that reusing/refitting/ refurbishing existing housing, for example, as opposed to building more McMansions in cornfields, is actually cheaper -- though it is probably less energy/resource intensive.

curtsy said...

C-Pop -- as for your allegation regarding "cyber-stalking", I DO find it amusing that people post all this readily accessible "personal" information about themselves (just a click or two via links) and then act alarmed when others express familiarity with this information. I, for example, have openly shared that I dwell on the Monoxide Island in a previous post. Should I be surprised if someone subsequently references my address?

Elizabeth, I hope you were not disturbed by my reference to your truly lovely "fairy castle" (which I have long admired) and which anyone familiar with the neighborhood would instantly recognize in your pic posted on your linked web page.

On another note, perhaps J-Spice has had "some exposure to the field" of preservation? Just a thought.