Wednesday, May 27th, 2009
Chicago’s urban core has boomed in a way that makes most other cities jealous. Every time you turn around, it seems, another gem is added to it. The Renzo Piano designed Modern Wing at the Art Institute recently opened its doors to general, if not universal, acclaim, for example.
But while this boom is to be celebrated, and clearly it has been necessary to sustain the animating life force of the city as a whole, there are long term threats that need to be considered.
The first is that all booms tend to contain within themselves the seeds of their own collapse. We’ve seen that with the dot.com bubble, the real estate bubble, and the finance bubble, the last two of which are really weighing on Chicago. Growth feeds on itself in a type of positive reinforcement loop. If it hits a certain point, it can really take off, as in a typically “hockey stick” diagram. The problem is that some point the trend reaches the point of exhaustion, and the hangover can be a bear. Most stable systems employ negative feedback controls or stabilizers to “take away the punch bowl just as the party is getting started”.
The real challenge, however, is what Jane Jacobs called the “self destruction of diversity”. Thriving urban districts require a mixtures of users and uses acting to mutually sustain and energize a neighborhood. But what has a tendency to happen is that, as an area becomes popular, land values go up and rents go up. There is greater demand for and competition for the space. Because of this, the most economically successful use of the moment tends to become increasingly dominant. This is particularly the case if that use benefits from face to face interactions among multiple players in the space and clustering economics.
Jacobs also talked about the requirement that neighborhoods contain buildings of a mixture of ages, such that they require differing levels of economic rent. New enterprises, particularly in wholly new fields, often require space that is available at low cost. So if there are no low cost buildings in an area, tomorrow’s new industries can’t often get started in a place at all. While she didn’t quite put it this way, this notion is often paraphrased as “new ideas require old buildings”.
The boom in Chicago causes concern on both of these fronts. Firstly, the great Loop area is increasingly dominated by two uses: financial and business services for the global city function of Chicago, and entertainment/tourism. To some extent, the Loop has always had these characteristics as a typical CBD. And in many respects, the streets are far more active today than they were in an era not that long ago when the streets in the Loop really did roll up at 6pm.
The real problem is that the boom in the Loop has generated enormous opportunity for profit in the redevelopment of older buildings. Many older buildings have been demolished completely, or preserved only the form of the “facadectomy”. A number of vintage office skyscrapers have been converted to residential use. The high rent district, which used to apply mostly to the core of Loop, now extends far to the West and South instead of just the traditional north. The number of places where one can obtain low-rent space in the greater Loop area would appear to have declined significantly.
The same forces are operating in residential areas, which are increasingly taking on the cast of New Urbanist suburbs. Housing prices keep out all but the already affluent in many places. Rents have followed suit, leading to a predominance of swanky establishments catering primarily to consumption by the upscale: restaurants, clubs, boutiques, spas, etc. A number of formerly industrial districts have been reborn as more or less single use large format retail strips.
What will the long term affect of this be? I don’t know. I do think it is something worth of consideration. Affordable housing is obviously something that is on the radar of many groups. But the idea of affordable office or industrial space less so. We want the Loop to be successful, but also I think there should be policies developed that are designed to actively sustain its diversity over time.
The danger is that the Loop becomes increasingly concentrated in ever most high value specialized services. (I’ve even suggested how we might encourage this through cross-regional collaboration). This can be good in that it keeps Chicago a player at the pinnacle of the global economy. But it also exposes Chicago to the risk of niche exhaustion. And with the global city functions an artifact of globalization as we know it today, any disruption or further evolution of that model could seriously hit Chicago.
As I’ve long argued, in an ever more rapidly changing, uncertain world, it is critical for cities to have a diversity of strategies and future options for success, and not put all their eggs in one basket. Chicago needs to continue reinforcing its success, but it also needs to look at how to diversify that success so that when, as it inevitably will, economic needs change, Chicago is right there with the next new thing. While picking winners and losers is a problematic concept, at a minimum the city should be looking at how to preserve the conditions necessary for success.
Interestingly, the city has already taken some steps here. It created the concept of a “Planned Manufacturing District” to prevent residential encroachment into surviving manufacturing zones like the Kinzie Corridor. A good move. While mono-use isn’t always a good thing, for a traditionally manufacturing area, I think this is a decent strategy. We should be looking at similar means of preserving the favorable economics for new ideas in the urban core as well.