Chicago hope: The Windy City offers an ideal urban model



LAST Saturday, as my girlfriend and I emerged from the Apple computer store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the sidewalks were buzzing with talk of a looming anti-war protest. As we rounded the corner onto Oak Street, a massive crowd began marching toward us chanting, whistling, waving signs and banners. For the next quarter hour we sat on a stoop, watching the spectacle of thousands of protesters walking past, and it struck me that even if so many Chicagoans dislike their country’s foreign policy, they do love their city’s downtown.

Although I had other business in Chicago, one of my intentions was to see what The Windy City has in common with the Chicago of the North.

Certainly Winnipeg’s Union Bank Tower, Lindsay Building, Electric Railway Chambers Building, and the Paris Building are scaled-down versions of the scores of original-era Chicago-style buildings that abound within Chicago’s downtown loop. But what impressed me more than the vestiges of a bygone architectural era were how scaled and sympathetic new buildings were to their surroundings. Usually brick exterior, they tend to follow a classic formula that has worked to enliven the downtowns of so many cities: ground-level storefront, second-floor offices, and anywhere from four to 18 storeys of apartment dwellings.

There is no reason why Winnipeg shouldn’t seize upon this winning formula. Obviously Winnipeg is a fraction of Chicago’s size, but we should certainly aim to mimic its urban successes on our own scale. No one’s suggesting we build to the scale of Hancock Center or the Sears Tower; depending on the street, five, seven, 10, or 15 storeys will do fine. Winnipeg already has many buildings of 15 stories or higher. Rather than spreading out to the Perimeter and beyond, it would make sense to restore not only densities lost in the latter half of the 20th century, but to build even more densely than we did in the streetcar era, thus adding to our tax base without having to expand services such as roads, sewers, garbage collection, snow removal, street cleaning, etc. It’s possible, indeed desirable, to add another 250,000 people into Winnipeg’s pre-1970 boundaries.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Blue West Construction, a condo development firm, has illustrated plans for the southwest corner of Main Street and Bannatyne Avenue that would see an existing three-storey heritage building incorporated into a seven-storey storefront-condo building. After a few hundred similar projects, downtown Winnipeg would seem much more like Chicago, at least as much as it did in 1920.

Chicago, too, has made its mistakes. Many of its new mixed-use buildings are taking the place of parking lots and strip malls that took the place of devalued buildings in the modernist era. Cabrini-Green, a giant housing project that epitomized the failure of public housing in America, has been mostly torn down for mixed-use buildings and new townhouses built in a traditional Chicago style. Peripheral downtown streets feature close, detached houses of various classic styles that could’ve been built in 1896 or 1996.

Chicago's signature 19th-century mixed-use storefront apartments. Photo: Dallas Hansen 2007

Chicago’s signature 19th-century mixed-use storefront apartments.
Photo: Dallas Hansen 2007

All this would be impossible without the services of the Chicago Transit Authority, whose subway and elevated rapid transit stations feed thousands from every station each day, sparing any need for automobile storage. Rapid transit alone is the difference between bustling, prosperous Chicago and desolate, failing Detroit.

Wicker Park, a neighbourhood on Chicago’s northwest side, was when I visited it last a decade ago rather rundown by comparison to today. Many of its buildings were abandoned, its storefronts filled with such services as pawn shops. Artists and bohemians moved in and gentrification followed, so that today Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park is lined with upscale boutiques, friendly watering holes, and trendy hair salons, in addition to the usual sorts of services, such as drug and grocery stores, that neighbourhood residents need. Above the storefronts are newly renovated lofts. Chain outfits such as 7-Eleven and Best Buy move into the ground level at the sidewalk rather than box stores with parking lots.

For all its walkability, Chicago is still friendly to the motorist. The main objective of this trip was to pick up a used car purchased via the Internet. Although parking was scarce outside our hotel in the northside neighbourhood of Wrigleyville, I did find a spot on the street overnight and area residents with a neighbourhood parking permit would have no trouble. A similar permit plan would benefit Winnipeg’s downtown and inner city residents with nowhere to park but on the street — yet constantly inconvenienced by parking restrictions.

Winnipeg would do well to strive to become known again as the Chicago of the North. Neither Calgary nor Edmonton could ever pull it off.

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Source: Winnipeg Free Press (MB), Mar 25, 2006, pa17

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