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Gigantesque projet contesté à Chicago

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Only minutes from the Loop, the 54.5-acre Lincoln Yards property was once the site of a steel mill and other industrial companies. Now developers want to construct a dense cluster of office and residential towers along a bend in the Chicago River.


A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.

Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.

The latest plan for the $5 billion-plus Lincoln Yards megadevelopment, which would transform 54.5 acres of former industrial land along the Chicago River into offices, apartments, shops and entertainment venues including a 20,000-seat soccer stadium, doesn’t measure up.



Source: Lincoln Yards master plan proposal
(Kyle Bentle/Chicago Tribune)

It would be dramatically out of scale with its surroundings, piercing the delicate urban fabric of the city’s North Side with a swath of downtown height and bulk. It also would be out of character with its environs, more Anytown than Our Town.

And that’s what the debate over Lincoln Yards is really about — not just the zoning change the developers seek, which would reclassify their land from a manufacturing district to a mixed-use waterfront zone, but urban character.

What kind of city are we building? Who is it for? Does it have room for the small and the granular as well as the muscular and the monumental?

Armitage Avenue Turrets decorate colorful Victorian buildings along West Armitage Avenue in Chicago's Lincoln Park community area. The Lincoln Yards project would loom over the North Side neighborhood. Armitage Avenue Three- and four-story buildings line West Armitage Avenue, seen at Sheffield Avenue. Proposed for nearby Lincoln Yards: nine buildings more than 400 feet tall, with the tallest rising to 650 feet. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune photos)

These questions have simmered as Chicago allows high-rises to expand far beyond the historic confines of the Loop. Lincoln Yards brings them to full boil.

To be sure, the Lincoln Yards plan is not without good strokes — most notably, proposed public spaces that draw inspiration from the area’s hard-edged industrial past. But these are sweeteners. The core issue is density and what the public gets in return for allowing developers to build tall.

In October, I examined a cautionary tale: Cityfront Center, a 60-acre riverfront spread of office and residential high-rises between North Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier that was Chicago’s biggest project of the 1980s.

Cityfront Center’s developers got to erect more square footage than previous zoning allowed on land that once contained factories and warehouses. But more than 30 years later, the city is still stuck with its mediocre architecture and public spaces that are unfinished, underperforming and largely disjointed.

Cityfront Center holds a lesson for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his successor. Even the best-laid plans can go awry.

Yet the mayor and his city planners appear intent upon rushing Lincoln Yards through to approval around the time city voters elect the mayor’s successor next April.

Memo to the mayor: Slow down. Rethink. There’s a chance to do that as your urban planners negotiate with Lincoln Yards’ developers over further changes to the plan that are likely to be unveiled next year.

Memo to Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd, in whose ward Lincoln Yards would be built: Press for fundamental changes before giving this flawed proposal your blessing.

Lincoln Yards The high, bird’s-eye view perspective used by developer Sterling Bay de-emphasizes the height of planned Lincoln Yards buildings and draws attention to proposed green spaces like parks and a riverwalk. Some of these green spaces, like planted roofs, are unlikely to be open to the public. (Lincoln Yards master plan proposal) Lincoln Yards A lower view of Lincoln Yards, made by open-space advocates, depicts the sharp change in height and bulk the development would bring to west Lincoln Park. This view looks southwest over DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus to the proposed Lincoln Yards high-rises. (North Branch Park & Nature Preserve)


In a crucial way, Lincoln Yards is an even more complex undertaking than Cityfront Center.

Its long row of high-rises, which the developers estimate would house more than 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, would be sandwiched between two low-rise, historic neighborhoods, Lincoln Park to the east and Bucktown to the west.


That proximity has bred contempt.

When Lincoln Yards’ developer, Chicago-based Sterling Bay, unveiled the latest version of its plan at a Nov. 29 community meeting, many neighbors were not impressed by the company’s decision to give a rather meaningless haircut to the proposed high-rises.

The tallest of them would rise to 650 feet instead of the gasp-inducing 818 feet that the firm and its architects, the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, proposed in July.

The neighbors have every reason to be concerned. A 650-foot tower wouldn’t just loom menacingly over the little shops of the Armitage retail strip. It even would be out of scale with Lincoln Park’s tall buildings, which line the western edge of the park from which the neighborhood takes its name.

The skyline: Taller and thicker

Proposed skyscrapers in Lincoln Yards would exceed the height and bulk of high-rises along Lincoln Park. The difference is evident in the contrast between the Lincoln Yards plan, which calls for 20 buildings, and a half-mile stretch of 14 buildings that line Lakeview Avenue across from Lincoln Park.



Sources: Lincoln Yards master plan proposal; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat; Emporis.
(Jemal R. Brinson/Chicago Tribune)


Consider the stretch of North Lakeview Avenue between Fullerton Avenue and Diversey Parkway. Typical building heights there range from 110 to 384 feet. The tallest building, Lincoln Park 2550, tops out at 477 feet.

Lincoln Yards would have nine buildings in excess of 400 feet. One of them, a 596-footer at the project’s eastern edge, would be 12 feet taller than the twin corncobs of Marina City.

This isn’t the gradual shift between Lincoln Yards and surrounding neighborhoods that Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has talked up. It’s an excessive leap in height, which cannot be properly understood without reference to its urban context.

The 600-foot towers that line South Wacker Drive barely make an impression because they exist in the shadow of the 1,451-foot Willis Tower. Alongside Armitage and the rest of west Lincoln Park, a tower of that size is a monster.

Cities need to grow and change, but this is the sort of incongruous Dodge City growth you expect in Houston, a city infamous for its lack of zoning.

And it could have lasting consequences, likely worsening the traffic congestion that already plagues streets like Clybourn and North avenues.

What’s the alternative? The draconian solution would be to force the developers to radically shrink their plan.

Another route, less severe, would have them rearrange buildings to create a better fit with surrounding areas.

A third course would prod them to explore different types of buildings — not just towers with setbacks, but a mix of low-rises and high-rises, like the beautifully decorated, block-shaped buildings along the west edge of Lincoln Park.

During the post-Recession building boom, architects in Chicago have justified the construction of tall, slender buildings by arguing that they have better proportions than short, squat ones and leave more room for open space. That is Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s rationale for Lincoln Yards.

But as the architects’ proposal shows, that way of thinking can produce severe shortcomings, especially when it comes to making a sense of place.


Flawed in the sky, Lincoln Yards is more promising at ground level, though there is cause for concern there too.

On the plus side, the plan calls for extending new roads, bridges, public transit and public spaces, including an extension of The 606 bike-pedestrian trail, through the now-isolated site.


These steps, priced by city officials at $800 million, would be backed by controversial tax increment financing. It would reimburse the developers, who would bear the upfront costs of the new infrastructure.

Critics call such financing a form of corporate welfare because it would use the added property tax revenue generated by Lincoln Yards to pay for the planned infrastructure rather than conveying those funds to taxing bodies like the city of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools.

The footprint: Towers, new infrastructure

The 54.5 acres along the North Branch of the Chicago River would include a cluster of tall buildings, new road and pedestrian ways, parks and more. Here are the main features of the proposal.



Source: Lincoln Yards master plan proposal
(Kyle Bentle/Chicago Tribune)

But Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman persuasively argues that by improving access to the site, the new infrastructure would unlock the economic potential of long-dormant land next to vibrant neighborhoods and near downtown. The TIF wouldn’t just benefit Sterling Bay, he says.

Another positive is the open space plan crafted by New York-based James Corner Field Operations, co-designers of Manhattan’s High Line. It calls for more than 20 acres of parks and plazas, plus a milelong riverwalk, up from 13 acres in July.

Field Operations compellingly ties these elements together by treating the former industrial site as a kind of artifact, a “found object.”

Russet-colored gateways would frame views and harmonize with the industrial-era bridges that span the river. A promenade would incorporate railroad spurs that once led to factories like the old A. Finkl & Sons steel plant. A “foundry playground” would also allude to the industrial past with its tube-shaped slides.

Lincoln Yards slipway overlook Lincoln Yards’ public spaces would draw inspiration from the site’s industrial past, including a riverfront overlook, above, and a “slide hill.” City officials want to accelerate the schedule for such improvements to avoid pitfalls like the still-unfinished riverwalk at Cityfront Center, which has been delayed by the lack of progress at the former Chicago Spire site, below, at 400 N. Lake Shore Drive. (Lincoln Yards master plan proposal)
Site of the planned Chicago Spire and an unfinished riverwalk (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Here, at least, Lincoln Yards looks authentic rather than imposed on its site.

When might this tantalizing vision materialize? Certainly not all at once. Only a quarter-mile stretch of riverwalk would be built in Lincoln Yards’ first phase, which calls for three office buildings along the river.

Having witnessed the failures of Cityfront Center, where the riverwalk remains unfinished, City Hall wants to create an accelerated schedule for the new parkland. When almost half the project’s buildable area is completed, the city would require Sterling Bay to finish all the open space.

That’s an improvement over Cityfront Center, but it still leaves the proposed public space vulnerable to real estate recessions, a growing concern given the stock market’s recent volatility.

Public space advocates and some North Side aldermen also question whether Lincoln Yards’ open space will be enough for families in the surrounding neighborhood.

They back the creation of a 24-acre North Branch Park and Nature Preserve, which would be built on the scruffy General Iron scrap yard site next to Lincoln Yards. They urge the city to use some of the TIF funds to help buy the General Iron land and turn it into a park.

It’s a good idea. The park would prevent more high-rises from clogging the riverfront and begin to fill a nearly 5-mile gap between publicly owned parks on the river’s North Branch.

Last but hardly least on the list of ground-level issues is the need to fill Lincoln Yards with lively streets. With all the excitement over the downtown riverwalk, it’s easy to forget that such streets, framed by visually enticing storefronts and outfitted with pedestrian-friendly features like trees and benches, are the real building blocks of cities.

Yet the vagueness of the designers’ language — the streets are supposed to be “safe and welcoming” and have an “active retail edge” — is troubling. The guidelines need to be fleshed out if Lincoln Yards is to avoid Cityfront Center’s bland sidewalks and hulking storefronts.  

If Lincoln Yards doesn’t have good streets, it will never become a great urban place.

Active retail edge rendering Vaguely worded design guidelines call for Lincoln Yards, above, to have an “active retail edge,” but they need to be more specific to prevent the development’s buildings from repeating the hulking, pedestrian-unfriendly streetscape of Cityfront Center, below. (Lincoln Yards master plan proposal)
Cityfront Center (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)


The social and cultural architecture of Lincoln Yards is as important as its physical architecture. A vital district, after all, is inseparable from the activities that occur within it.

As is true in other cities, development in Chicago is often a relentless process of gentrification, with rising rents near new public works and high-rises near transit stations pushing out many longtime residents.

While the city requires developers of projects getting public monies or a zoning change to reserve 20 percent of their residential units for affordable housing, developers often get around the requirement by paying into a citywide affordable housing fund.

In contrast, Reifman says that at least a quarter of the required units at Lincoln Yards may be affordable, while at least another quarter could be built within 2 miles of the development. That would avoid the embarrassing irony of residences on former industrial land that working people could not afford.

How Chicago answers a related question also will affect Lincoln Yards’ character: Will proposed entertainment venues backed by big corporate outfits like Live Nation be allowed to overpower beloved small music venues like The Hideout, in the 1300 block of West Wabansia Avenue?

The Hideout Supporters of The Hideout, in the 1300 block of West Wabansia Avenue, fear the venue could drown in a sea of generic urbanism brought on by the Lincoln Yards project. (Courtney Pedroza/Chicago Tribune) The Hideout Chicago poet, activist and educator Kevin Coval reads a poem onstage Feb. 21, 2017, at The Hideout. The Lincoln Yards development's plans for new Live Nation-run concert halls concern supporters of The Hideout. (Ting Shen/for the Chicago Tribune)

Sterling Bay says it wants The Hideout to remain a neighbor, allowing Lincoln Yards to benefit from the venue’s authenticity. Still, the risk is that The Hideout would drown in a sea of generic urbanism.

As Tribune music critic Greg Kot has written, “With each sell-out of its small but essential indie institutions, Chicago diminishes itself and blurs its essence not just as a metropolis made up of big buildings but a beehive of communities that make and share their creativity.”

Music and cities both benefit from a variety of voices, not the dull monotone of the safe and predictable. As the great urbanologist Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Does Sterling Bay get that?

The developers seek an enormous power: A green light to shape an entire swath of the Chicago’s North Side.

Yet the zoning change it seeks is a privilege, not a right.

The company still has to earn that privilege by demonstrating it can deliver the great urban place that Chicago deserves.

Until then, City Hall’s message to Sterling Bay should be simple and direct: “Do better.”

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.


Twitter @BlairKamin




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Il y a 6 heures, acpnc a dit :

Comme nous avons le nez souvent trop collé sur Montréal, nous ne voyons pas vraiment ce qui se passe ailleurs. Plusieurs médisent la métropole avec mépris, en utilisant cette expression: typiquement Montréal ou quelque chose du genre. Comme si Montréal était une exception. En fait les montréalais sont comme la majorité des autres citadins du monde. Ils contesteront certains projets jugés inappropriés à l'instar de Chicago, Paris etc. 

Morale de cette histoire: dans les sociétés libres on a généralement les villes que l'on mérite.

Raison de plus pour demeurer vigilant, ne pas se laisser imposer n'importe quoi simplement pour le fric et surtout tout faire pour améliorer les choses. 

Tout a fait! Je n aurais pas dit mieux ACPNC!

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