Wednesday, January 02, 2013

To Start 2013: Three (Small) Chicago Fixes

Chicago, like any other great city, has any number of severe, intractable problems:  the slaughter in our streets, the crushing inequality, the inability to educate our kids out of poverty, to name just three.  I have no easy answers, so I hope you'll forgive me if, at least for today, I leave these issues to those more comfortable pontificating on them on a daily basis, and begin 2013 with considering three much lesser problems, more easily remediable . . .
click images for larger view
I.  The Substation at 10 East Lake Street.    This electrical substation is gated off from everyone but the pigeons, a blank-walled dead soul of a building fronting an open space carpeted with guano-spattered, haphazardly placed steel street plates.  It's a slumming presence between the luxury Hotel Wit and the Page Brothers building and Chicago Theater on the other side of the street,
In form, it's not unattractive.  The back elevation facing an alley that, in the old days of Chicago, was known as Haddock Place, suggests its potential elegance.  Windows that are brick fill on Lake Street are actually glazed on Haddock.
In March of 2011, we wrote about about a team of School of the Art Institute Students working with architect/professor Odile Compagnon to come up with a plan to make the substation something other than an eyesore.  Almost two years later, it's still the same depressing pigeon roost.
The facility appears to serve the CTA as a Traction Power Substation.  Last fall, bids were let out for various mechanical improvements, but there's no indication the CTA is about to take responsibility for its anti-social demeanor.  They need to be pushed.  Without massive expense, this could be a charming - and badly needed - vest pocket public plaza.  Already, painted on the door, there's a figure that could both serve as a mascot and suggest a name:  Puffin' pigeon place . . .
II.  Stairway to Heaven (or at least Illinois Center)
We've written before about the rich potential of the upper level plaza at Illinois Center, and how it's completely isolated from the flow of pedestrian traffic down Michigan Avenue.  Nothing much has changed.  The stairway leading up from South Water Street remains boarded up.  A 2008 Chicago Loop Alliance proposal to create a Chicago equivalent of Rome's Spanish Steps that would lead up to the plaza from South Water has gone nowhere.  It would probably be expensive.
The small viaduct a bit further north on Michigan Avenue, however, really sticks in my craw.  Every time I pass it, I think of how relatively easy it would be to build a staircase/fire escape into that space that would become a lovely, inviting passage up to the Illinois Center plaza.  I'll suggest it again: let's have a small architectural competition to design the stairway, and then let's build it.   Illinois Center's upper plaza is currently an urban dead zone.  Could 2013 finally be the year that we take a few simple steps (literally) to let it unlock its potential as a bridge to River East and one of Chicago's best public spaces?

 III. The Chicago Casino

I can never think of the current urban obsession with gambling as the road to urban prosperity without hearing in my head Alabama Song from Brecht/Weill's opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny . . .

Casino gambling is a sucker's bet, both for the rubes and for the cities that seek to fleece them.  Governor Pat Quinn keeps standing on the stage trying to present a gambling bill as seemingly pure as  a Disney musical, but each time he's upstaged by Mayor Emanuel,  walking in from the wings singing in full Brechtian abandon . . .
Show me the way to the next casino hall
Oh, don't ask why, oh, don't ask why
Show me the way to the next casino hall
Oh, don't ask why, oh, don't ask why
For if we don't find the next casino hall

I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you
I tell you
I tell you we must die
We've been told for so long that a Chicago casino is inevitable that even I'm starting to believe it.   So I've found the perfect place. 
The former Lake Shore Athletic Club on Wabash has been closed for a few years now.  It sits atop a still active garage and next to a large surface parking lot.  The site appears to be about 60,000 square feet.  Building over Rush, Illinois and Hubbard could probably add maybe 10,000 more.  By the point of comparison, the gambling floor of the new Rivers Casino in Des Plaines is about 44,000 square feet.
The site is centrally located, steps from Michigan Avenue and major hotels.  The pedestrian entrance could be on upper Wabash, while vehicular traffic could be kept to Illinois and Hubbard on the lower level.  On that same lower level there'd be enough room left over for a large pipe, funneling cash from the casino down to the Carroll Street underpass on its ways to the basement of City Hall.
So, what do you think? Any other things you'd like to fix?


Anonymous said...

Interesting - these seem minor to me when I imagine the many areas I would find appalling as a visitor to Chicago. Navy Pier, the stretch of Michigan Ave just south of the river, the hideous stairs/railings on the east side of Michigan at Grand come to mind. I hate that Lawry's building as well.

Anonymous said...

The athletic club site is not nearly big enough. A casino would probably want an entire city block, or something even larger, so a site down by McCormick Place would be perfect.

I think there should be casinos downtown and at both airports. I know all the arguments against gambling, but right now the City of Chicago gets no benefit from gambling and all that money - tens of millions I'm sure - is flowing to the suburbs and Indiana. The gambling cat is out of the bag and we should be getting the benefits.

Lynn Becker said...

The Athletic Club site, including the surface parking, is, in fact, an entire city block.

Anonymous said...

Excellent list. I don't like th ecasino idea but then, I don't really want the casino at all. If you have it have it, though, I'm not sure that area can handle the added traffic, as I expect many casino visitors want to arrive by car. But I do like the idea of hiding it in the middle of the city, almost anonomously, so that no lake-front picture of the city ever shows it Great idea for Illinois Center; I walk home through that plaza daily and always consdier it a hidden gem. With better access and a little renovation work, it could be great.

Unknown said...

At least you're offering constructive advice. All I can do is complain.

Anonymous said...

Spot number 3 would make an awesome shooting range.

Matt Maldre said...

Lynn, I love all three suggestions. I work in the Tribune Tower and so every day I pass by the future casino from the red line. My window looks out onto the Illinois Center patio. And I walk home every night to the brown line and pass by the substation. You touch on three sites that are very close to me.

I agree with you so much on these three sites. Although personally, I don't know if I want a casino in the city, but that space is certainly huge. I always wonder what it's like inside that big box.

The Illinois Center patio, I tend to avoid, because it's mostly all smokers up there. But it could be a more thriving space.

The Substation is a weird little space. It seems if they opened it up into a patio, the students from Harold Washington college would love to hang out there.

Anonymous said...

Got any ideas for the old Post Office?

That behemoth might even make a better casino than the AC.

There could even be a train stop underneath.

Lynn Becker said...

Actually, proposing the Post Office for the casino has been floated by a number of people - huge floor plates, close to subway, buses, Metra and expressways. Right now, the facility is in its fourth year of the patented Bill Davies business model of buying an asset, announcing grandiose plans, and then doing nothing, year after after, until someone gets so fed up they buy him out at a substantial profit.

odile compagnon said...

About Puffin' Pigeon Place, I want to make sure that credit is given to the right person. This was really the initiative of Drea Howenstein, SAIC professor AIDAO and Arts Education. My following in her footsteps, together with Anders Nereim, John Manning, Greg Mowery, is a great illustration of how departments and faculty collaborate within the school and with other public institutions. Hopefully, as you wish, 2013 will see the realization of some of the schemes we came up with and are expecting to find the momentum, within and without the school, to develop. Drea and I are still working actively on this and we are grateful for your putting it on the top of your small projects "to do" list.