Sunday, May 4, 2008

Preserving Indian Village Parking Lots: Behind the Powhattan, Narragansett, and Barclay

posted by chicago pop

The HPP intelligence network recently picked up a bit of electronic NIMBY chatter. Just a few whispers detected and processed at our global listening station, alerting us to the possibility that someone might decide to build a building near the Powhattan -- a tall one, maybe a little taller than the ones already there -- on some of the parking lots pictured below.

Prime Use of Lakefront Property

Whether the chatter is true or not, what is true is that the current use of this land for surface parking only is economically inefficient, and even wasteful, from the perspective of the local economy. Land given over exclusively to surface parking lowers the residential density of a neighborhood, which reduces the local trading area and makes it harder to do shopping close to home.

And it just looks like hell.

What do you think about the fact that in one of the sections of Hyde Park-Kenwood closest to the Lake, home to some of the most impressive interwar and post-war residential high-rise architecture in Chicago, and with some of the neighborhood's best access to public transportation, significant chunks of city blocks look like this:

Barclay/East End Parking Lot from Intersection of Cornell and East End Avenues, and 49th Street

The only reason these blocks are public eyesores paved for private parking is because this little area has been a real-estate black hole for nearly half a century. But, as an urban planner friend of mine put it when he saw these lots, "those aren't going to remain parking lots forever."

Local folks might want to get used to the prospect. At some point, someone is going to buy them out and allow them to pay to park in someone else's building.

On land this close to the lake, with such abundant transportation infrastructure, and already designed to accommodate high urban densities, it's practically inevitable. And it's probably a good thing.

A Little Piece of Manhattan (+ Surface Parking)
1640 E. 50th Street -- The Narragansett and Powhattan Buildings

Surface Parking Lot for 4940 S. East End and 5000 S. East End Avenue -- the Barclay and East End Buildings

Replace these parking lots with density of housing, and auto congestion will flatten or even decrease. Because whatever new building shows up on any of these lots, it will have its own parking, which will probably hold most people's cars stationary, going nowhere, for most of the week. It would also likely house things like convenience stores, or more amenities like Istria cafe.

It's all basic stuff. Which you'll know if you scan hipster-liberal zines like

As parking lots proliferate, they decrease density and increase sprawl. In 1961, when the city of Oakland, Calif., started requiring apartments to have one parking space per apartment, housing costs per apartment increased by 18 percent, and urban density declined by 30 percent. It's a pattern that's spread across the country.

In cities, the parking lots themselves are black holes in the urban fabric, making city streets less walkable. One landscape architect compares them to "cavities" in the cityscape. Downtown Albuquerque, N.M., now devotes more land to parking than all other land uses combined. Half of downtown Buffalo, N.Y., is devoted to parking. And one study of Olympia, Wash., found that parking and driveways occupied twice as much land as the buildings that they served. (Katharine Mieszkowski,, October 1, 2007).
So if and when the day comes that someone wants to build something reasonable on any of these parcels -- say something comparable to the Powhattan or the Newport in size or shape -- don't be fooled by cries of "Congestion!" or "What about parking!"

These are the neuroses that keep Hyde Park's biggest NIMBYs tossing in bed at night, but like most neuroses, they have little to do with reality.

The cry that you probably should take seriously is this one: "Not another high-rise to block my view of the Lake!" In the 4th Ward, we've seen the lengths to which people will go to protect the "views" over which they have no proprietary rights.

Trees illegally felled near 44th Place and Lake Shore Drive, allegedly to open a view of the Lake from nearby 4th Ward condos.

If anyone already living in a high-rise between 51st and 49th Streets cries out about another high-rise going up next door, we'll be able to expand the NIMBY taxonomy beyond the owners of quaint Victorian frame houses on Harper Avenue.

The new species, if it is ever discovered, may well include inhabitants of vintage Deco towers, and perhaps a few Modernist ones. Specialists at that point will have to recognize this species as a local variant of the world-wide "last one in the door" genus (from the Greco-Latin nimbyotopus rex) or:

"I've got mine, now you stay out."


Miles said...

I was just over there the other day delivering to 4800 Chicago Beach Drive. I couldn't help but think how horrid that parking lot looked. Cavity is a great description. I really hope something goes in there soon, cause something obviously was there before, likely a victim of urban renewal. I can't wait for that new "controversial" building to be erected on Cornell/56th and fill in that other lot.

Richard Gill said...

In the lakefront area between 5100 south and 4800 south, the east tier of buildings have the lake views and they already block lake views to pretty much every building to the west. So, if other buildings are built, screams about lake views will be knee-jerk and largely baseless in fact. I would imagine they are already baseless in law.

The Barclay is an exception, because it sits behind the low-rise Ramada (which seems to be a huge parcel that's ripe for development). But that's no basis for holding up a viable project that would enhance the neighborhood.

The area in question is indeed close to public transportation, but is rather isolated on the north end. There is no pedestrian access to the train station, bus stop and stores at 47th & Lake Park, except through the often-soggy park/baseball field. I don't live close to that park, but if I did, I'd ask the Alderman to see about building a sidewalk or hard-surface path along the west edge of the park, to 47th Street.

Wait, wait, protectors of every square angstrom of green space, this isn't gonna hurt. Next to the extension of East End Avenue is a chain-link fence, five feet east of the curb. Immediately east of the fence is a row of trees. The sidewalk (it need not be a wide one) could run behind the batting cage at the south end of the park and hug the east side of the trees all the way to 47th Street. It would not interfere with the park (which, by the way is largely occupied by permit-use-only baseball fields. You can't sit at shortstop and have a picnic).

The sidewalk would actually improve access to the baseball bleachers and other areas of the park, especially for the many elderly people nearby, for whom a sidewalk would provide easier movement. Equally important, the sidewalk would help to connect the neighborhood together.

That's what I'd ask for.

chicago pop said...

A sidewalk along Cornell between 47th and 49th is a great suggestion. Very well put.

Every day I see people walking -- in the street -- up and down Cornell. It's like a country road and anyone that tries to walk that stretch is risking their life. (There is a secret path that goes along the Metra tracks from the Newport to 47th, but you have to know about it and like walking in the woods).

Thanks to you, I just might mention this idea to Preckwinkle.

Elizabeth Fama said...

C-Pop, "Walking in the woods" in the city can't be a good idea.

Say, the 5550 S. Dorchester building blocks my view of the lake when I'm standing on my roof, and I think it ought to be cut down.

chicago pop said...

"Walking in the woods" in the city can't be a good idea.

Yeah, I guess it's only crazies like me, a few WWII war brides who like to tend to their gardens along the tracks, and a half the Kenwood baseball team. I haven't found any bodies up there lately.

Otto said...

What do you think about the fact that in one of the sections of Hyde Park-Kenwood closest to the Lake, home to some of the most impressive interwar and post-war residential high-rise architecture in Chicago, and with some of the neighborhood's best access to public transportation, significant chunks of city blocks look like this [...]

That the resident owners (well, I can only speak to the Narragansett) really like their parking spaces and can well afford to keep them around?

Seriously, from some time I spent housesitting at the N. a while ago, I picked up on exactly no ambient concerns about the lack of "convenience stores" or similar amenities. Freewheeling French pharmacies, perhaps.

As a practical matter, one is always going to have to be able to get large moving trucks up to the backs of these buildings; the Naragansett access, as I recall, is through the smaller lot to the west off East End, so that at least would seem to be unlikely to be going anywhere. I'm not sure what the Powhatan requires.

chicago pop said...

Seriously, from some time I spent housesitting at the N. a while ago, I picked up on exactly no ambient concerns about the lack of "convenience stores" or similar amenities.

Hmm. Maybe you should conduct another house sitting ethnography to see if you get the same results. I happen to know that the ambient desire within a 2 block radius of the N. is greater than 0, and so suggest that you might want to refine your thick description, and probably broaden your sample size.

Espcecially since we know, from all the recent survey samplings of Hyde Park-Kenwood residents, that desire for more retail is very widespread throughout the neighborhood.

As far as loading docks, I can tell you the Barclay & East End Bldgs doesn't need an entire city block, and most of what the Nara. has on the lot you mention is for surface parking. You can load a 30+ tall building with a dock about the size of the Medici Restaurant (like the one we used in the 30+ building I used to live in.)

LPB said...

Richard, you're absolutely right that there is no pedestrian-friendly pathway between 4800 South Cornell and 47th Street.

However, given how many times I've seen drivers take out the lightposts and city trash containers that sit along side the windey street, I would still be too afraid to actually use any theoretical sidewalk that backed up against that road.

Even though I'm sure various residents in the area will base some of their resistance to another high-rise on greater congestion, I wouldn't mind a little more congestion on that stretch of Cornell before the Slumada. Currently, drivers often blow down the street in the mornings as if Cornell were an on-ramp to Lake Shore Drive (which it sort of is, but it's also a residential street). More congestion would likely slow down the traffic so that there's a lower likelihood that I (along with our dogs) would get run over when taking a morning walk. Believe me, I have long pestered Alderman Preckwinkle's office about how to slow down traffic on Cornell. She didn't like my suggestion of speed bumps.

chicago pop said...

LPB makes a good point about the issue of congestion in this area, especially along Cornell; like a lot of one-way streets, and especially one that is a feeder to the Drive, congestion per se is not a problem here, but rather speeding. It would be useful to know how many times a year the street light at the north end of Cornell Square, where Cornell curves west along the tracks, gets knocked down by speeders. More traffic, if anything, would help slow that down, and improve crosswalk safety at the nearby intersections.

These are not controversial arguments.

The only problem with gridlock per se, or "congestion" in this area exists not as a result of people going to and from the high-rises in Indian Village, but as a result of people getting off the Drive at 51st and heading to points west at rush hour. Ditto at 57th Street and the Drive.

Presumably, many of these people don't have the luxury of walkable access to the Metra or #6 bus, but that would not be true of residents of a new tower on the lots in question.

As for "congestion" resulting from high demand for free, on-street parking, that is a problem. Throughout the universe. There's a solution for that: pay for what you use. Otherwise, tough luck.

Anonymous said...

How sad that the city and their conspirators are now calling for these valuable, historic parking lots to be torn up and replaced! They represent one of the most endangered forms of architecture in the city: CHA-modern. From the cool black asphalt to the green steel fencing, this masterpiece is a Chicago treasure and must be preserved!

chicago pop said...

I love the subheading from this week's Herald: "Indian Village parking lot owners object to high-rise proposal."

"Parking lot owners."

Now there's a marginalized, oppressed minority speaking out against rampant development and the trampling of property values.

Where is their Cesar Chavez, their Victor Hugo, their Martin Luther King? Who will speak for the people (and their parking lot??