Block 37 is evidence of urban planners' failed utopian vision

Block 37 in the heart of downtown across State St. from Macy’s  (nee Marshall Field’s), for more than a decade was an open sour that has metastasized  into an ugly scab.

As Blair Kamin laments in the Chicago Tribune in his superb analysis: “Block 37 represents a painful missed opportunity”:

Block 37 gives us ordinary architecture on an extraordinary site; a vertical mall that’s not close to full almost seven years after opening; an atrium that fails to form a focal point for the downtown pedway system; and an unfinished subway “superstation,” which cost more than $250 million, that was to have served as the hub for nonstop rail service to O’Hare International and Midway airports.

Block 37, as Kamin explains, was a victim of an unfortunate series of “Byzantine”

The beloved Stop and Shop that gave way for the disastrous Block 37.

The beloved Stop and Shop that gave way for the disastrous Block 37.

developments. But more significantly it is the a demonstration of the misplaced vision and arrogance of urban planners who, like the Obama administration with its blockheaded health care “reform,” thought they could micromanage a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

Block 37 had been  a pain in the ass for many downtown interests who saw it as a blight on the Loop’s vitality. Its perceived problem was that it was a hodgepodge of marginal, speciality shops and a broken down theater that was attracting the “wrong kind” of customer.

Never mind that it was the site of the legendary Shop and Shop, one of the most vital grocery stores in the entire downtown area. People loved it. (here and here) Never mind also that the block was a perfect example of the kind of activity that Jane Jacobs in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities described as the heartbeat that gives urban life its vitality.

It had to go, just as  planners conceived the disastrous idea of turning State St. into something akin to a suburban shopping mall. From the first day, the mall  failed and produced even more vacancies, until the city came to its senses and reopened it to the hustle and bustle that once had made it that “Great Street” of Frank Sinatra fame.

And then there was the awful political decision by former Mayor Richard M. Daley to plunk down almost $300 million for a grand and glorious station in the basement that would whisk airline passengers on “express” CTA trains to O’Hare and Midway airports. Except that the express service still hasn’t happened because it is demonstrably technically and financially impossible–something that was clear from the first day that Daley unfolded his plans. But it was a part of his grand and glorious vision to turn O’Hare International Airport into the most efficient airport in the world. Another plan that has utterly failed.

Doesn’t it all come together?

Nothing’s to be done about any of it. The failures–in Block 37 and at O’Hare–are cast in concrete and steel. There’s no money to fix it. Nor is there the will; who wants to be the one to man the shovel after this horse shit covered on the street?

There is a lesson, though. It has to do with understanding that the grand vision of urban planners  sometimes resemble little more than grand mal seizures. That the political bending to monied self-interests (hear this backers of  George Lucas’ gawd-awful and egoistic plop on the lakefront?) need to be resisted.

Although I’m no let-the-market-run-everything disciple, here’s a perfect example of allowing common sense, individual vision and the market to perform a faster and better job than this “painful, missed opportunity.’

Read why Americans need to learn about the nation’s most ignored war.

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  • Urban planning in Chicago (especially in the Daley era) is/was never about successful outcomes, it's more about 'robbing the process blind.' In that vein it was successful.

  • The truth, that.

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