Density, the developers' dream, can also fall flat

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2014-02-27

Ravinia of Highland Park, an early bucolic village stop on the rail line, one time artist colony that often served as a summer residence area for Chicagoans, still maintains its historic aesthetic character of a "village" -- the air there being at large, the place is healthy, the noise not much, lodgings spacious and roomthy, gardens and orchards very delectable." (public tract quoted in Louis Mumford, Culture of Cities, 1964)

Walking east on Roger Williams Street one can observe over recent years the changes in the streetscape, some changes with excellent improvement, and some areas much in need of improvement, such as the area in the redevelopment project for 515-555 Roger Williams Avenue.

But there are two major areas where I believe not enough thought or consideration has been given to the full scope, design, and final required purpose of this redevelopment project.

When most people are questioned about where in a suburban area they care to live, in addition to the usual quest for good schools and social compatibility, the overwhelming choice usually is: in a neighborhood that is of human or pedestrian scale, one of lower density, one with uncongested streets, with generous allotment of open space, without high-rise or imposing commercial construction or noxious traffic, and a neighborhood without too many cars competing for limited parking space, or lining up cheek-by-jowl along the edges of local or parkway streets impinging on the free view of parks and open green areas.

There is usually also a healthy aversion against acceptance of new zoning changes or variances that would change established and rational limitation on the traditional human-scaled lower height of buildings, zoning changes usually sought by developers to attempt to build higher, denser buildings, a change that would in time generate more congestion,and would also change the spacial design of the lower height local streets with suddenly outsized stolid city-type edifices, slowly altering the traditional bucolic character that had originally attracted them.

Mr.Klairmont has offered a plan (henceforth the "Plan") to erect a four-storey -- (the local zoning limit is three storey) -- multi-dwelling building housing 30 units. The parking places for each unit in the Plan would be outside; his Plan also requiring use of some of the existing already-crowded city-owned parking spots adjacent to the property -- and Mr.Klairmont has refused to provide underground parking for his planned building.

The proposal to change Ravinia's earlier established and rational building height limitation (from 3 stories to 4) is seen by some as "progress" and automatically "good for business" and that any height limitations are "arbitrary" and will decrease economic opportunity, i.e. opportunity for profit by means of sharply increased density.

As one witty British city planner critic commented, "Densification may be revealed religion to developers, but this faith is not well accepted by people who live nearby. And as Professor Louis Mumford, world famous city planning authority has said many times, "Human scale for building height is one to three stories...and limitations on size, density and area are absolutely necessary to effective social intercourse, and they are therefore the most important instruments of rational economic and civic planning." (From the Ground UP, 1974)

Responsibility also rests with the city planning agencies which should consider not only the financial, regulatory and development functions of a site. I believe the primary mission of city planning agencies is also to provide for the human physical and environmental needs and desires of the community -- by also preventing sudden growth of density such as is presented in this Plan -- which intends to grow density from zero units, in one fell swoop, to immediately 30 units in one single locale, with the associated permanently increased traffic needs it would draw and the congestion that it would entail with a tenanted new 30 unit building and its increased numbers of commercial stores.

There ought to be a better compromise for the city and for Mr. Klairmont. Perhaps a fine example could be taken from the building located on the south side of Roger Williams at 710 Burton Avenue where a 3-storey condo building has incorporated its parking needs inside the building (also increasing its individual saleability) Inside parking spaces could be rented or sold by the builder to recoup their cost if required.

Concerning the architectural design of the Plan's building (the 2nd problem) the impression one receives from the more detailed rendering in the news report is that the architect has ignored the universal idea that good architectural planning brings both aesthetic pleasure to the eye, and also integrates the building design into the best features of the surrounding buildings and streetscape composition.

In the Plan's rendering the building has no connection in height or scale or shape or design to the 710 Burton Avenue building which is just south and west of it across the street. -- a handsome brick building modern in design that has avoided the architectural sterility that is to be found in so many modern apartment buildings.

The 710 Burton building with its pedestrian 3-storey height, its wide windows, its contrasting projecting balconies jutting openly over the close sidewalk, its friendly gabled roof line, its mass and weight camouflaged by the varied angles and simple proportions, the covered and connected open and protected area outside of the shops on street level, with tables and chairs and plantings of rose bushes -- it is a total design built as one composition contiguous within a popular streetscape -- which seen from a distance or close by is mindful of some delightful surprises one can find in European towns where architects of former times found certain creative possibilities on site and knew how to use them.

The building design in the Plan, however, has a cumbersome facade, no street set-backs or sense of design balance, space or harmony with the street, only its undeviating monotonous and large shape rising high from the street edge and forcing its way into our view, a solid and stolid block front, offering a possibly scroll design element attached to the straight-across flat roof line end to end at the top, plus a rounded corner in differentiated color. Sadly, for me it almost has the outer resemblance to the standard abandoned tenement apartments of older New York, a discarded sterile style with a few pseudo modern details.

Developers may think that a multi-dwelling building can solve financial problems, and that aesthetic form and environmental design, while important, are only secondary. This is a short-sighted view of the community's overall needs.

I think the planning commissions should consider whether the plan and its architectural style must also create beauty and organic order with the streetscape, a type of visual synthesis while preserving its natural and healthy environmental needs as far as possible.

I believe the planning commissions should oversee the process where a Ravinia streetscape's new development should form a well-integrated harmonic composition which preserves the traditional human and elemental needs of its citizens.

Ravinia should continue to be a place where it is a pleasure and a convenience to live, a refuge from overcrowding, the small town, the small community, a bucolic tradition which needs to be preserved and which real estate interests should not be permitted to despoil with mindless, wrongly planned and arbitrary development and sudden spot zoning variances, changes that create unhealthy and unbalanced increases in density, with all the negatives that come with it -- and where economic factors are not allowed to take precedence over humane intelligent planning and design.

We should look to radical compromises, intelligent alternatives that conform to more human need and desires, particularly of families. A simple human approach would allow a shift from a purely market outlook towards smaller, less dense development in Ravinia where more people would end up wanting to live, and for good reason.

Finally, as Louis Mumford said many times, urban planning should not be defined by the egos of planners, builders or architects. Urban planning should be driven above all by what works best for the most people.