A Way to Fix That Empty Feeling...?

January 12, 2010

St. Mary's Church, 47th and State, 2006 (photo by Lee Bey)
St. Mary's Church, 47th and State, 2006 (photo by Lee Bey) 

The word "empty" describes some of the city these days. There are empty buildings such as the old Main Post Office that hovers over the Eisenhower Expressway in the West Loop. Shuttered Cook County Hospital is a few minutes southwest of there. The former Kennedy King College campus sits vacant at 69th and‚  Wentworth. Even the Three Arts Building at tonier 1300 N. Dearborn is padlocked.

Now add acres of empty land to the list. There's the 37-acre former Michael Reese Hospital campus under demo on the South Side. And the old US Steel South Works site--all 570 acres of it--further south at 79th and the Lake. There is block after block of emptiness on State Street north of Garfield Blvd where the portions of the old Robert Taylor Homes public housing high-rises once stood.‚  And more.

We want to see something new built in all of‚  these places. But should we?

Earlier this month, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation offered an intriguing idea in an op-ed piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. As hard times stall economic growth and force people away from homes and businesses, Moe fears cities will mindlessly bulldoze the empty structures and neighborhoods left behind--irrespective of‚  history, or significance. Moe suggests "rightsizing" the cities instead.

Moe said a rightsized city would undergo an urban masterplan that would determine what neighborhoods and historic places will be kept and which ones won't. Demolished communities could become sites for urban agriculture, "reforestation and parkland creation," Moe said. Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman and others have suggested a similar approach in Chicago for years.

"The complicated process of shrinking a city requires thoughtful planning, employing the same rigor and careful analysis that would be used to manage population growth," Moe writes. "It should be carried out in the context of a carefully conceived master plan -- one that encourages input from all stakeholders and takes into account a range of considerations, including the historic value of the housing stock, in determining what stays and what must go."


26th and Lake Park, 2006 (photo by Lee Bey)

What do you think? Could rightsizing happen here? Should it? How? (I would suggest using a better word than the circa 1990 corporate-speak‚  "rightsizing.") Chicago's population total reached a peak of 3.6 million in 1950--and the city was largely planned with the hope we'd reach 8 million. Now the population sits at about 2.8 million, which means enough people to equal the population of Dallas TX have walked away from Chicago since 1950.

No wonder we have land to spare.  Now what are we going to do with it?

PS: Listen in this morning in the 9am hour of Eight Forty-Eight, where I'll join host Alison Cuddy and urban strategist Aaron M. Renn to discuss what can be done with empty and underutilized spaces around Chicago.