What do 1920s gangster John Dillinger, actor Johnny Depp, and firm co-founder John Houseal have in common?
This week, Houseal Lavigne Associates moves into its new home on the second floor the Randolph Tower, located on the corner of Randolph and Wells within Downtown Chicago. Here are some fun facts about the historic skyscraper, formerly known as the Steuben Club Building.
It’s a cathedral in the sky.
The Steuben Club Building (1929) was designed in the gothic revival style, an architectural flavor that became re-popularized in the early 20th century. The style co-opted medieval design elements and applied them to the skyscraper in a manner that emphasized verticality. The 45 story building contains pointed arches, gargoyles, quatrefoils, and stylized buttresses commonly found in cathedrals.
It’s a symbol of a German-American patriotism.
German-Americans migrated to Chicago in droves in the 19th and early 20th century. During and in the years immediately after World War I, however, many Americans questioned their loyalty to the United States. The Steuben Club was formed to provide a respectable social and civic organization for German-Americans. Needing a distinctive headquarters, the group financed construction of the Steuben Club Building, which was completed in 1928. It contained an ornate dining room, recreation facilities, office space, a swimming pool, and more.
Its distinctive shape was influenced by Chicago’s landmark 1923 zoning code.
The Steuben Club is essentially a spyglass-shaped tower above a large box. Afraid of creating dark canyons, the City passed a 1923 zoning code to regulate the height and volume of buildings. This had a significant effect on the design of Downtown Chicago, introducing the usage of setbacks and slender towers above the main mass of the building. Take a closer look at the historic skyscrapers within the North Loop, such as the Jewelers’ Building (1927), Wrigley Building (1924), or Mather Tower (1928). All have this “base + tower” massing with a fairly consistent cornice line.
It was a hangout for the prominent 1920s gangster, John Dillinger.
Dillinger once dated one of the coat check-girls who worked at the Steuben Nightclub, and he was a regular in the building during their courtship.
It’s a movie star.
The building’s former Steuben Nightclub was depicted in the 2009 film “Public Enemies,” with Johnny Depp staring as John Dillinger.
It’s a fantastic example of adaptive re-use and is now the home of Houseal Lavigne Associates.
By the end of the 20th century the building had fallen into disrepair, with chunks of terracotta falling off of the façade onto the “L” tracks. Its unique floorplate and lack of modern amenities made it difficult to market. However, with the resurgence of interest in living downtown, the building was ideal for conversion into residences, with office and dining uses on the lower two floors (and Houseal Lavigne occupying part of the second floor). A $148.2 million dollar rehab completed in 2012 has brought back the building’s glory, and today it stands as proud as it did in 1929.
What makes an expert?
This morning I was at the gym taking a swim. I was in a lane next to a kid, maybe 12-13 years old, who was getting coached by a young woman. As a former collegiate water polo player and high school swim coach, I noticed the woman’s coaching methods were not working for this kid. She wasn’t offering anything constructive to fix his form, and I thought to myself, “You’re doing it wrong.”
Being good at something does not necessarily make you an expert. As my husband and I watched my beloved Golden State Warriors take on the Cavs in the NBA finals, my husband mentioned how weird it was that Mark Jackson was commentating on the game. Just the year earlier he was coaching the team, and he was mediocre at best (he did, however, lead the Warriors to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, but he also had the Splash Brothers). Jackson was a great player, but as a coach, he couldn’t lead his time to the finals. As a coach, he was doing it wrong.
Using sports analogies got me thinking: what make a planner an expert? Planners generally go to planning school where they learn about common issues, and learn strategies to solve these issues by applying planning theories. Does getting an “A” in an Economic Development class mean you’re an expert? Robert Moses and Pruitt-Igoe have shown that past “experts” did it wrong. A planner that knows a lot about planning theory and was academically successful is NOT an expert. Planning, to be successful, takes a team. We rely on community members, city staff and officials, and motivated stakeholders and community leaders. Much like Steph Curry needs Clay Thompson to be the Splash Brothers and Steve Kerr has effectively used all the players on his team, planners need a team of people, which should include other planners, to be successful. Expertise comes from a broad understanding of issues and the exchange of ideas for possible solutions.
The swim coach at the gym should have watched how other coaches work with different swimmers. She should have consulted with the kid’s parents to understand the best way to communicate with him. She cannot be a good coach without having a community of people helping her understand what coaching techniques could make this specific boy a good swimmer. Similarly with planning, without out a community-based approach that combines known planning strategies, we could not be considered experts; we’d be doing it wrong.
And on that note:
There is a renewed commitment within cities across the country to make it safer and more convenient to get around on a bike. Dedicated on-street bike lanes are an important component of this effort, together with strategies that include bike sharing programs, sharrows, better bike safety and awareness programs, and so on. However, once bike lanes are provided for cyclists, are they property protected for their intended use?
It is not uncommon for police to issue warnings or tickets to cyclists and skaters for riding in areas where such activity is prohibited. In fact, the ticketing of cyclists is on the rise as the popularity or urban cycling increases. However, is there a rise in the number of tickets being issued to those who obstruct the bike lanes? Maybe cities should focus their efforts on ticketing those that prevent the bike lanes from being used as intended.
In this short video, Casey Neistat humorously and painfully makes a good point regard the ticketing priorities of cities and the challenge of navigating the unintended urban obstacle course.
Enjoy…and thank you Casey.
Nearly every single trip made by nearly every single person on the planet begins and ends with walking. I myself left car-centric California for the (mostly) pedestrian-oriented streets of Chicago. Since I gave up my car, I walk, take transit, and ride a bike to get around the city. While walking is not my sole (see what I did there?) form of transportation, it really irks me when the actions of others not only inconvenience me but also put me in danger. Thus, I continue the “Ped-Peeves” series. You can also read Sidewalk Rage I, Sidewalk Rage II, and Sidewalk Rage III.
Ped-Peeve #10 – Double Wides.
Although I don’t even have a baby, let alone many babies that would necessitate a multi-baby stroller, my childless self believes that double wide strollers are completely unacceptable on city sidewalks. And it appears that I am not alone on this topic (google: “double wide evil”).
The average sidewalk, per ADA requirements, are 5 feet wide. Yet most double-wide strollers take up the majority of this space. Take, for example, the popular double-wide Bob stroller (the single-wide is a favorite amongst my mommy running friends). This smooth rolling, baby-pushing mechanism comes in at cool 31 inches in width. That’s over half the sidewalk. Add in the necessary buffers so as not to roll into traffic or parkways, and you’ve got complete stroller sidewalk takeover. Then factor into the equation that the mother/father/caretaker is overseeing two young children, managing the stress of daily life, and navigating busy city streets, and it’s a recipe for, “I will mow down anyone in my way!” behavior. This means that must I either jump into the streets or someone’s yard to avoid being steamrolled as a double wide comes by. Now I understand the need to transport your tots, but may I suggest a double-long stroller?
Babies: adorable. Double-wides: evil.
Ped-Peeve #11 – Unshoveled Sidewalks.
Dear neighbors and business owners that don’t shovel your sidewalks: I hate you. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word; nevertheless, given the vast amounts of snow that have covered the Midwest and completely buried Boston, sidewalk shoveling is essential. In Chicago, under Municipal Code 4-4-310 & 10-8-180, property owners and occupants are responsible for keeping sidewalks clear of snow and ice. Sadly, many property owners do comply and the code is rarely enforced.
Many of my neighbors and myself rely on walking and transit as our primary way to get around, and without a wide, clear path through snow and ice, the simple act of being a pedestrian becomes a difficult and dangerous endeavor. But for me, it’s not simply the unshoveled sidewalks that bother me, but a greater issue of people not being connected to their neighbors or neighborhood.
Sidewalks are public space. They are a place where I run into friends and greet neighbors. I’ve rarely, if ever, have seen any of the people that live in the houses with unshoveled sidewalks. This is because these residents who live in million dollar homes amidst humble multi-flats like mine generally commute and run errands by car. They go from their house to their garage, never setting foot on the sidewalk in front of their home. They do not see the kids going to school who are struggling over mounds of built-up snow, don’t know the names of the adorable greyhounds that walk past every morning, and have no idea that they have shut themselves off from the neighborhood. Being a pedestrian and property owner means being part of a community and understanding that having shoveled sidewalks matters to all of us.
Shoveled and unshoveled sidewalk obstacle course.
I have two kids under the age of 4, so with the recent bout of super cold weather, I have been watching more than my fair share of “family movies”. These include the usual Disney hits as well as several films featuring the Muppets that I have now seen dozens of times. This past Sunday, as I sat cutting up hotdogs into bite size portions, The Muppets rendition of We Built This City came on. As an urban planner, I have always found this song amusing, but never given the concept much thought. For some reason, as I watched Beaker chirp in fear as he ran from a vacuum in tune with the music, I realized that building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would probably be a horrible idea.
Knee Deep in Something
The song is from the Starship album Knee Deep in the Hoopla (No I am not a total ‘80s nerd, I googled this), but it is more likely that the band’s Rock ‘n’ Roll City would be knee deep in something else. If hanging out with some of my musically-inclined friends has taught me anything, “rockers” are not the most reliable at anticipating needs of others beyond the next round of beer (at best). Building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would undoubtedly result in a reactive (not proactive) approach to infrastructure development with roads, water, and sewer going in wherever the next band decides to drop its gear. As Rock ‘n’ Roll City grows, insufficient capital improvement funding and capacity issues would likely result in frequent boil water alerts and a not-so-attractive riverfront where an overburdened combined sewer system found its course (“One pipe should do it right? Yeah, let’s go jam”).
Diversity is an Asset
And, if we can build a city on rock ‘n’ roll, surely there must be others building cities on country, or R&B, or punk, or jazz, or classical… The point is you can’t have a reliable tax base if its built on a single industry. As soon as a couple big bands leave or retire (please don’t do it yet Rolling Stones), your tax base is in peril and you’ve got out of work musicians considering workforce development programs to target band openings in other communities. Sure, Dubstep City is booming now, but if it doesn’t diversify, it becomes tomorrow’s Hair Metal Town.
Then there is the Guitar Center vs. local music guy debate. Yes, despite the anti-commercialism bent in Starship’s hit song, big boxes would still probably exist in Rock ‘n’ Roll City. There is a growing fear that “the man” will squeeze out small shops without proper planning. But what should be done? A specialized district with incentives for small businesses? An outright ban on any new big boxes? Is a white elephant ordinance needed for when Guitar Center decides to expand and move down the street? The solution that is right for Jazz Town or Country Village may not be the right fit for Rock ‘n’ Roll City and targeted community outreach, complemented by market research, will be needed. The smoke hazed debate at the coffee house/city hall continues.
What are cities really built on?
The point of all of this is not to shame those who truly love Starship’s ‘80s pop classic (you know who you are). It is to underscore that cities are complicated organisms. As planners we must balance the desires of a diverse group of stakeholders (not just rockers) with the resources available and our knowledge of best practices and what has worked in other communities. The next time you hear We Built This City, or another smash hit from Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, hopefully it reminds you that a lot goes into creating and maintaining the quality places in which we live and work. And hopefully you can hit skip.
If you haven’t already seen this music video, you’re welcome!
German Brewery Workers & Restaurant Roulette in Cincinnati
I spent part of the holidays in the Cincinnati region and visited some of the most rapidly redeveloping urban neighborhoods in the nation, generally north of the city’s traditional Central Business District (CBD), although there are a number of places Downtown experiencing a lot of reinvestment as well. Over the Rhine (commonly written as OTR) is a national treasure, containing the largest amount of Italianate architecture in the United States and with nearly 1,000 contributing structures, it is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the country. This neighborhood, originally settled by primarily German immigrants and home to a major pre-prohibition brewery district, covers dozens of city blocks and is one of the U.S.’s most well preserved historic areas, often cited as possessing a similar character to New Orleans’s French Quarter or historic Charleston, South Carolina, although distinctly early-American in style.
Once the location of some of the most persistent blight in the metropolitan region, OTR has now transitioned into an area experiencing rapid reinvestment, creative adaptive reuses and renovations, and even major infill development, including a recently announced $75 million multi-phase project. OTR has helped link existing regional assets, like the University of Cincinnati, Findlay Market, and Cincinnati Music Hall, to the CBD, traveling along Vine Street and feeding other areas of recent redevelopment, like Fountain Square in the heart of Downtown as well as to the Banks project on the riverfront, situated between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. Recent investments include adding a bicycle sharing program called Red Bike, a streetcar line slated to open soon, and a $48 million renovation of Washington Park in OTR, which reopened in 2012. By all accounts OTR is one of Cincinnati’s recent success stories and garnered the city deserved national attention.
But while I was there, a local newspaper article documented an experience I’ve navigated a handful of times before – the article dubbed it “restaurant roulette.” Simply, OTR’s success has become so widely known throughout the Cincinnati region, even to the point of drawing out-of-towners like me whenever I’m visiting, many of the quaint restaurants that line Vine Street post 2 to 3 hour waits for a table; further, many do not take reservations. The idea of “restaurant roulette” is to then split up your dinner party and place your name on multiple restaurants’ wait lists simultaneously, and then take the first one that opens up – even then, the waits can be long and the strategy has created complications and frustrations to both diners and proprietors alike.
This phenomenon made me think about OTR’s unique (and rapid) success story and the interesting dynamic that just about the same amount of startups and small businesses actually fail at their first significant period of rapid growth and expansion as they do in their early, fledgling stages. Simply, growth often smothers a rapidly growing small business, not the lack of customers.
I see similarities with a new startup venture and a neighborhood revitalization effort like OTR. The earliest examples of reinvestment started small, carried the highest degree of risk, and in the short-term, were a bit of a grind with low rewards. Then seemingly one day everybody knew about OTR and everybody – whether a business owner, or real estate developer, or consumer – wanted to be a part of that success. OTR now faces growth management as one of its central challenges.
So what role does urban planning play in ensuring continued success in this situation?
Planners do often work with the consequences of fast, uncoordinated growth and how the short-term benefits may not outweigh their long-term negative impacts (i.e. an unbalanced land use mix and its tax burden impact on homeowners). But we typically address this dynamic in rapidly developing suburban or exurban areas that are churning through greenfields and farmland.
But these challenges carry a lot of similarities – how can OTR continue to develop, but do so strategically in a way that preserves its recent successes and builds on those accomplishments? How does it handle unique challenges, such as a nationally-precious but finite supply of historic structures, and ensure that each project is professionally completed with a focus that maintains past quality? How can the community balance the demand for more restaurants and more projects more quickly, against ensuring that future projects are not done so focused on the short-term, they ultimately undercut the long-term viability of the neighborhood?
Throughout History plans and planning maps have shined a light on what different people thought was important, inevitable, likely, desired, or essential. From interesting, to funny, to frightening, many of these plans and maps provide insight into a world that could have been, but never came to be.
Like many planning professionals, as an urban planner I am fascinated by exploring the world that might have been had certain plans been implemented. Plans and maps are powerful, and looking back at what others have considered undertaking is an eye opening exercise that reveals the potential impact of our planning actions.
My stepson, who lives in NYC sent me a link to an article written by Matthew Tglesias of Vox. The article, 20 maps that never happened is great. An enjoyable and fascinating read…I loved it! In the article, Tglesias highlights 20 maps (plans) that were never implemented. Some more realistic and viable than others, they highlighted maps covering everything from war strategy to infrastructure in the Big Apple.
Read, enjoy, and think about the impact our maps have…even if never implemented. Who knows, 50 years from now someone may look at one of your maps and say “What the hell were they thinking? Thank God they never did that!”
Here are a some of my favorites…
Drain the East River (1924)
A Russian professor’s vision of US breakup
Late-1960s map depicts Robert Moses’ plan for the LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway)
Meg Ryan and the Big Box
This is the first blog that is part of the ongoing series Planning in Other Disciplines posted a few weeks back.
[Spoiler Alert]-this article includes detailed discussion of crucial plot points in the films discussed.
In 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, their third and to this date final film as co-stars (though they are set to appear together in the 2015 film Ithaca). Despite only having appeared in three films together, also including 1990’s Joe and the Volcano and 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, the pair is cemented as a staple of 1990s romantic comedies, often panned as lacking substance in favor of simplistic plots and romantic clichés. From a planner’s perspective; however, the film provides an all-too-real application of a topical planning issue.
Adapted from the 1940 film Shop around the Corner, which was in turn adapted from Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, the film follows the struggles of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who owns a small book store which faces closure due to the opening of a Fox Books megastore, a big box book retailer owned by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks).
The film parallels the professional struggles of Kathleen Kelly with her developing romantic relationship with Joe Fox. In their private lives, Kathleen and Joe have become romantically entangled as anonymous pen-pals who met through the internet. Even as Fox Books puts her out of business, Kathleen finds herself learning to love Joe Fox, and by proxy his company, both as the man she met online as well as the man who ruined her career.
From a planner’s outlook, the film offers an individual perspective on the big box debate. Modern day planners are readily familiar with the plight of the big box stores. With the popularity and success of big box retailers, how do planners deal with the expansion of these companies? How will a big box affect a specific municipality & do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
Within You’ve Got Mail Kathleen Kelly’s struggle clearly mimics one effect of mega-retailers, stealing small business consumers while providing low wages and limited benefits to employees. To Kathleen, Fox Books is a threat with no easy solution. Giving in means giving up.
Yet In an uncanny way, Kathleen Kelly’s struggles embody that of modern American cities. On one hand, big box retailers are a threat to local economies and small business while requiring massive parcels and huge parking lots. However, Kathleen falls in love with Joe Fox, just as cities fall in love with big box retailers. At the end of the day, very rarely are cities able or willing to regulate big box developments. These new stores provide affordable options for lower class residents, provide new jobs for the region, and act as catalyst for further redevelopment.
As planners, it is important to understand the love/hate relationship cities have with big box retailers. To say they are necessarily bad or good is rarely easy, but this is the dispute planners must direct. Despite rarely having the final say in the development of a big box chain, planners must learn to navigate this issues, providing solutions to help mitigate these new investments. Making decisions based on all the facts and how they may affect future conditions, a planner can alleviate tensions surrounding the big box retailer. Just as Kathleen Kelly learns to move beyond, and even love, Fox Books and the man behind it, cities must learn to work with and even strive off of big box developments and the benefits they can bring.
While big box developments may be a difficult reality, some communities have found ways to deter large department stores and chain retailers. Houseal Lavigne is currently working with a city that used strict regulations in their downtown to block big box developments and preserve locally owned businesses, in particular, a small local bookstore. Utilizing design regulations and zoning designations cities can control the type of development allowed in certain areas, helping to protect and grow small businesses. Through community wide support, cities are able to directly shape their identity.
I built a play table for my two daughters a few years ago with some shelves and a play rug from IKEA. Over time my girls began constructing a Lego city on top of the mat, so to make the surface a little more “Lego Friendly” I had a large piece of plexi-glass cut, and one afternoon I took their Lego off and put the plexi-glass on top. Then, I started to rebuild their city for them….using the rug as a guide, as my “Master Plan.”
My kids were devastated…I had ruined their city…I had ruined their life…
Where did I go wrong? I mean I know how to build a city, right?
A Poor Plan
The plan was flawed. I reconstructed their city following the IKEA mat religiously, without questioning its design. That was where I went wrong. I now recognize the design is terrible and my daughters had every right to be upset, here is why:
- This road goes out into the water for absolutely no reason. How did the environmentalist and fiscal conservatives even allow this to get into the plan?
- I like the crosswalk to the beach, but maybe it should be on the east side of that busy arterial street…you know, to where the larger beach area is…where you’ve shown the umbrellas?
- The traffic circle serves absolutely no purpose. It should be moved a little more to the west to align with the intersection. And while you’re at it, take another look at the road striping…something just isn’t right.
- I like the urban agriculture here, but I think you could have taken it further. Based on how strong the wind is blowing, as evidenced by the flags throughout, maybe some turbines? While you’re at it, how about some solar panels in the desert, and tapping into that molten lava for some geo-thermal heat.
- A tunnel through a mountain, next to a volcano that is spewing ash? What for? Economic development? It’s literally going through a desert. Delete.
- I know it’s nice to have some local commercial throughout the city, but a store in this location is just unrealistic.
- A lot of cities have brought their stadiums into their downtowns to spark revitalization and activity. The stadium here makes absolutely no sense. Was the impact of the city’s only neighborhood even considered? While it reminds me of Orchard Park (Go Bills!), I think it’s a bad idea. Relocate.
- This is a prime opportunity site in the middle of the city and we are leaving it empty? Don’t tell me its “too rocky” – you’ve already demonstrated that money is no object. Why don’t we level this site and put something special here? A town square or central park?
- Not sure what this is – a permanent circus? A bazaar? A gypsy town? This recommendation needs a little more info.
- Some large lot zoning might be okay here, you know, to preserve some of the cities natural resources, but is this just promoting sprawl? Must be nice to be king…private road, private lake, private forest…I think this is a lot of infrastructure for one house. Redesign with more density…with clustering
My girls as it turns out, wanted a “Main Street”, not some sprawling spaghetti bowl asphalt mess. So they ignored the plan and built the city they wanted over top. And good for them. Stay tuned, I’ll be following up with my review of their city.
Planning is often considered a discipline of disciplines. Any professional planner has had that struggle when someone asks “So what do you do?” To say you “plan cities” just doesn’t seem enough, yet how do you begin to explain land use, comprehensive planning, design regulations, or NIMBYs? Do you talk about working for a city and convincing elected officials of the necessary planning actions, lest they think you’re a politician? Do you mention capital improvement plans and public works budgeting, lest they think you’re an accountant? As planners, we face this struggle because the profession is so vast. Planning a city involves handling all the elements that make up a physical location, including a broad range of professions and disciplines.
With planning so extensive; however, the sources for new ideas, new concepts, and new ways of thinking about the city or the profession are endless. The professions with nothing to say about urban & regional planning are few and far between, while the possibilities for new inspiration in planning efforts seem endless.
In this series of blogs, we will explore the unusual, unexpected, and underutilized connections between planning and various professions and hobbies. Considering how bizarre connections can be made to interesting topics can help planners identify new ways of thinking about the city and create new ideas to tackle planning issues in the future. More importantly though, planning should be fun. Through this blog, we will explore some of the fun, interesting applications of planning to the world around us.