No more architecture at Lane Tech… pity

Lane Tech, the mammoth high school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, is a presence in the city. Although the school’s 4500 plus student body and iconic façade complete with 6-story clock tower dominate its fame, the unique experience the school offers certainly plays a big role in the school’s legacy. Part of this is of course the massive course offerings available. In many ways, it is more collegiate than secondary and more one of a kind than any of the city’s other major high schools. The recent announcement that Lane Tech will be ending its architecture curriculum came as shocking and disappointing news. For many, the curriculum was a life changing experience that pushed them into their future professions and for others it was an endearing carry-over from the school’s days as a tech hub. Either way it is a loss for the school, CPS, and to an extent the city as well. It is a curriculum change that carries incredible symbolism and deserves the attention it is getting.

The current Lane Tech principle, Christopher Dignam, said in a statement that the program is being cut because of low attendance, the retirement of a teacher, and competition from other elective and AP courses. Indeed, the school is offering a dizzying array of courses and from a notice on the principle’s page they’re aimed at not just pushing, but shoving students into the 21st century with abandon. More power to them. Perhaps this is what helped push architecture into the realm of school history. It is impossible to claim the school isn’t being innovative or working hard to make the most of its resources or advance education in the city, however it is disappointing that the school didn’t work to creatively retain architecture as part of its curriculum.

As Krisann Rehbein points out in another blog post on the topic, the loss of architecture means fewer opportunities for students to explore different mediums of design and construction. Although the school is providing students with numerous alternatives I think the point to take home from this is that now there is one less medium, one less option to explore. It is great that students can work in 3D printing, robotics, and digital photography at Lane Tech, but for students who become inspired by the building itself or the great views of the city’s skyline afforded by the school’s location there is no outlet. The school’s diversity become ever so slightly less impressive.

Rehbein points out too how more and more schools dropped architecture as an academic option over time. A field that needs diversity got it in the student body of city schools like Lane Tech, where not only is there a wealth of academic, but also human diversity. Again, that is lost and at what cost? There seems to be a push for more and more science and technology schools every day, which is great, but this is at a loss for design and aesthetics, which we all know can inspire and ignite a fire in our souls. Engaged and driven students will no longer get an opportunity to explore the field and fall in love. A classmate of mine, Fariha Wajid, was probably one of the smartest people I knew in school. She was part of the architecture curriculum and points out in a blog post she wrote how the passion she got for the field at Lane Tech helped drive her to architecture. It is those experiences, the little funny quirks of life that lead us to our passions that get lost.

Most importantly though is the failure to remember that this is an important field. Architecture is in my opinion an oft overlooked profession that deserves more credit. There is no other form of visual expression that is more public and more integrated into our lives than architecture. Quite literally we live our lives in and around architecture. Chicagoans are lucky to exist in the presence of some of the greatest works of modern design and thought and it seems only appropriate that one of the gems of the city’s school system still maintain a program that introduces young people to the field. It is also the field where science, technology, and art all met in harmony. This is so valuable in fields that are often so distant. The future needs smart architects who will design thoughtfully in a way that is economically, sustainable, but also aesthetically pleasing and hopefully uplifting too. Lane was unique in that it offered students the chance to start young. It also offered students who might not go into architecture the chance to better appreciate the worth of our built heritage. That too is lost.

Sadly it is in loss that we often are reminded of the importance or value of things. For a lot of Lane’s hundreds… thousands of students architecture may mean nothing. But for some it was an important academic opportunity to discover something they could be passionate about. For others taking it merely as an elective it was a way to become aware of architecture’s role in society and perhaps become more engaged citizens through this medium. Citizens who care about cityscapes and the built world. For others it is a new perspective on design and a means to explore the diversity of expressive mediums. Perhaps what Lane offered was like a drop in a bucket, but drops collect over time.

Removing architecture from the curriculum of a school known for having this as a key component of its academic choices is disappointing because it gives students less diversity of choice and experience, but it is also disappointing because of what it says about societal perceptions of architecture: it is unimportant and plays less value in our lives than other topics. Sadly we must now bid farewell to architecture at Lane Tech. Hopefully, the impression it left on students while available lives on for many years to come.

Transit Oriented Development: Great and working, but how well and where?

It is commendable that Chicago recently initiated a policy called “Transit Oriented Development” or TOD, which allows developers to avoid the 1:1 ratio of parking spots to rental units in residential buildings and build less than otherwise required. The success and popularity of the new ordinance has proven many skeptics wrong. Indeed a new set of TOD projects going up in Chicago indicates there is no intention for developers to ignore the ordinance. Like so many new steps being taken in Chicago, this is one worth celebrating, however there is a clear lack of creativity in how the ordinance was designed and in its implementation. As more developers look to take advantage of the ordinance and more community advocates seek ways to increase economic viability in their neighborhoods and make for more sustainable living patterns revisions in the ordinance should be considered allowing maximum advantage.

At a community meeting I attended recently it was brought to my attention that because of urban geography some areas that might be ripe for TOD projects will get cut short because of the 600 foot entrance-to-entrance distance limit for TOD status. The limit means the entrance from the transit stop must be no more than 600 feet to the entrance of the development. In a place like Jefferson Park for example, the entrance to the transit stop at the Jefferson Park Transportation Center, is behind a large bus terminal with multiple stops eating up a good chunk of the 600 feet range for TOD projects.*

The 600 foot range for TOD (1200 feet combined with a “p-street”) is quite frankly not a creative enough design for this ordinance. It needs a level of malleability that allows for more customized TOD projects appropriate to the area they are built in. The TOD requirements should go beyond just asking “is there an “L” stop or a Metra station” to asking “is there also Divvy available? If not, will there be in the near future or can there be Divvy available in the near future?” as well as “what non-Divvy bike infrastructure exists?” The ordinance should take into account an area’s “p-street” status, the ability to incorporate that status into other transportation projects, and current walkability scores. Adding new Divvy stations or bike infrastructure could be contingent for TOD projects. The availability of parks or schools, bus routes, and service frequency should all be considered as well. Asking such questions could be used to create an ordinance with multiple possible TOD project area ranges.

This map shows the lots where TOD is possible around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago's Northwest Side.

This map shows the lots where TOD is possible around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

This map is the CTA's transit map showing the same area around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago's Northwest Side. The red circle shows the TOD area around this stop. The blue circles show TOD areas around other nearby transit stops ("L" and Metra). Notice how all the others include one or more CTA and/or Pace bus routes.

This is the CTA’s transit map showing the same area around the Forest Glen Metra station on Chicago’s Northwest Side. The red circle shows the TOD area around the Forest Glen station. The blue circles show TOD areas around other nearby transit stops (“L” and Metra) for comparison. Notice how all the others include one or more CTA and/or Pace bus routes.

In all instances the current ordinance should be kept in place (basic TOD, an “L” or Metra stop, but no other explicit transit options), but with extensive expansion.

A potential model could look like this: the lowest common denominator (TOD Level 1) of combined transportation models needed in one location to justify TOD designation should be access to a Metra stop, at least two bus routes one of which is a Night Owl** route, and ideally a Divvy station. At the most basic level the TOD ordinance would apply like it currently does. The key difference is a “p-street” or buffered or barrier-protected bike lanes would allow that range to extend to 1200 feet, not just the “p-street” designation. In instances when one or more additional bus routes pass within a 1200 foot range of the node transit stop–that is when there is also a “p-street” or bike lanes–the potential range would be allowed to extend an additional 600 feet (to 1800 feet).

The next level (TOD Level 2) would be any “L” stop with one or two adjacent CTA bus routes passing one of which being a Night Owl route. In this case, the TOD area may be extended along the Night Owl route up to 2400 feet from the “L” stop. A “p-street” designation and/or buffered or barrier protected bike lanes would still extend the TOD range to 1200 feet and one or more additional bus routes would allow an additional extension of 600 feet (to 1800 feet total). If the latter circumstances exist, the range along Night Owl bus routes could also be extended another 600 feet to a total 3000 feet from the node transit stop.

This chart shows the progressive expansion of TOD ranges depending on the mix of available transit options. Green = current TOD ordinance; Orange = TOD Level 1; Blue = TOD Level 2; Red = TOD Level 3

This chart shows the progressive expansion of TOD ranges depending on the mix of available transit options. Green = current TOD ordinance; Orange = TOD Level 1; Blue = TOD Level 2; Red = TOD Level 3

The largest TOD areas (TOD Level 3) would be centered on spots where a CTA “L” is adjacent to at least two bus routes, including one Night Owl service, and a Metra station. In this area designation, the automatic range for TOD developments would be 1200 feet. If a “p-street” and/or buffered or barrier-protected bike lanes exist that range would extend to 1800 feet. Along regular service bus routes that run “late night” (until 12:30 AM) Monday to Saturday the TOD designation could be extended up to 3000 feet from the node transit stop with or without a “p-street” designation and/or said bike lanes. If TOD Level 3 applies, TOD areas could extent 3600 feet from the node transit stop along Night Owl bus routes. At least two Divvy stations within 1 mile of the node would be required for this designation.

The fact of the matter is that all these areas exist already. The intersections of Fullerton and Pulaski adjacent to the Metra Milwaukee District North line in Hermosa, Western and Grand near the Western Metra station, and the Brainerd Metra stop (two blocks from Ashland and two south of 87th) along the Metra Rock Island all posse the combination of transit options described for TOD Level 1. The intersection of 63rd and Ashland adjacent to the Green Line, the intersections of Pulaski and Cermak along the Pink Line, at the intersection of Division, Milwaukee, and Ashland in Wicker Park all have the prescribed mix for TOD Level 2. The area around the Irving Park stops at Irving Park and Pulaski and the area around the Jefferson Park Transportation Center all fall into the TOD Level 3 category.

The aim of the models I propose are intended to work with what exists and mark the areas where the best possible combinations of transit allow TOD to not just succeed, but thrive. Realistically, it is unreasonable to think TOD will work in places like Forest Glen along the Forest Glen Metra stop on the Milwaukee District North line. Trains stop once hourly, there are no bus stops immediately adjacent, and unless more transit options or better connections are established it just doesn’t seem like a place where TOD development will happen successfully. If you look at “L” stops along side streets though, such as in Ravenswood Manor along the Brown Line, the availability of other transit options is unnecessary to make TOD functional. Train run frequently, they run through very walkable and dense areas close to more active areas with entertainment and shopping. Recognizing this fact, I think, is important in adjusting the ordinance to work in different urban environments. Malleability, creativity, and a recognition of life’s realities will make a more impactful ordinance.

The last point I made here, that TOD simply will not work in some areas because other transit options simply are not available should not be seen as a defeat for TOD, but rather act as an impetus to push even further. The end goal should be to recognize how to both maximize the areas where TOD is effective and maximize the development possibilities while simultaneously acknowledging areas of weakness then looking to improve that. Areas with extensive transit options spread over large areas, like Lawrence Avenue from Kimball east to the Union Pacific North Ravenswood stop could be turned into entire TOD disctricts–or, let’s say, the entirety of the Loop! This might also include requirements that improved bike infrastructure will be included, expansions to the bus system, increased train frequency along Metra routes and so on. The surface has only been scratched, but the momentum is there like never before to really push forward better TOD options and calls for better transit options in in at least some areas of the city.

*This is based on how Alderman John Arena, 45th Ward explained the situation.

**These routes run 24/7.

Where did Chicago’s population decline?

michaelpodgers:

This is interesting. I look forward to what else Daniel has to say on this in City Notes.

My questions include: are the areas in the historic Black Belt down to more sustainable population densities? That is, should we really be concerned about population loss here?

How will population in areas like Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park/Bucktown be sustained over time if smaller and fewer families are living there? Can and should we expect, or should we embrace, waves of young people, singles, and childless couples to reinforce the loss of families and children with long-term roots in these areas? Is the city taking into account zoning changes that restrict higher density? Are these areas becoming too much like NYC or London with housing shortages that drive up prices?

The areas with population growth are also areas with noticeably less access to mass transit: how will the city contend with this and make sure they become progressive less car-oriented or don’t revert to that in the first place?

Originally posted on City Notes:

Recently I’ve been doing a bit of digging into Chicago’s population figures, with the general research question being: what parts of the city have seen their population fall the most? There are a number of reasons that population matters, beyond civic pride: tax receipts, for example, as well as a consumer base for local businesses. Because jobs generally follow people, a shrinking center city also means that a larger percentage of jobs will be out in the suburbs, far from public transit, making that transit worth less and less to people who would like to use it to commute. As a result, people either a) just don’t have access to lots of jobs, b) spend a huge amount of time commuting, which they can’t spend, say, taking night classes or caring for their kids, or c) spend a bunch of money on a car, which is money they’re not spending on…

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