SUST 320 Walking Tour of the Booming South Loop

Last Thursday, our SUST 320 – Sprawl, Transportation, and Planning course took a walking tour of the South Loop to check out some of the new developments in the area.  Blessed with 40 degree weather and sleet, we set out to uncover some of the concepts from urban planning and design that we have been learning about this semester.

The South Loop is a truly fascinating part of Chicago.  Stretching from roughly Congress Parkway to McCormick place, and bordered by the South Branch of the Chicago River and the Lake, this former center of industry has become a red hot residential and commercial real estate market over the past decade or so.  Places like Printer’s Row along Dearborn, once home to Chicago’s (you guessed it) printing and publishing industries offers a great example of the adaptive reuse of industrial infrastructure to meet different urban needs. The South Loop also boasts an extensive riverfront, albeit one that is largely unused by the public for recreation purposes due to a lack of access or many public amenities.  However, things are really changing in the South Loop – according to the website Chicago Cityscape, developers proposed 10,142 housing units and 2,500 hotel rooms for the South Loop in 2015 alone.

Our class set out to unpack some of these changes.  Having learned about elements of Complete Streets, New Urbanism, and Smart Growth, we wanted to see what these dominant paradigms of urban planning looked like in practice.  Having established a baseline for assessing urbanization, we put our critical thinking goggles on and set out on the following route, starting at RU’s Loop campus:Snip20160411_6

On our way to Dearborn Station, we stopped to observe some of the Complete Streets improvements that the City of Chicago has made.  Complete Streets refers to the creation of a range of mobility options, placing an emphasis on street designs that allow not just cars, but pedestrians, cyclists, public transit, and whatever these things are to SAFELY travel.  Harrison Street in between State and Dearborn offersa good example:

Jones & Bike Lane

Note the clearly marked crosswalk and high-visibility bike lane. Photo by Maria Cancilla.

Our first stop was Dearborn Station, a great example of the adaptive reuse of an historic building.  Dearborn Station is one of the oldest remaining train stations in the U.S., and although you can no longer catch a train from here to California like in the old days, the beautiful red brick building has been preserved and is now a mixed-used development.  The mixing of different land uses (residential, commercial, recreational, etc) is one of the hallmarks of smarter urban development, as this allows people to meet more of their daily needs without necessarily having to drive.  Dearborn Station, along with Dearborn Park (a new residential development where the old train tracks used to be – more on this later), has a small school, a bar (for the teachers of the school, presumably), and multiple offices in addition to housing.

Dearborn Station

Photo by Maria Cancilla

It also boasts a new rain garden, an example of green infrastructure that is intended to prevent and/or slow the rate of stormwater runoff into Chicago’s aging Combined Sewer System (which leads to the overflow of raw sewage into the Chicago river and basements during heavy rain events).

Stormwater Management

A ‘bioswale’ stormwater treatment feature at the new rain garden at Dearborn Station.  Photo by Maria Cancilla

From Dearborn Station, we headed over to the South Branch of the Chicago River to check out some of the new waterfront developments there.  The new Riverline project is absolutely massive; as the Chicago Architecture Blog reports,

Riverline is a joint development between CMK and Australian mega-developer Lend Lease south of Harrison Street, north of Roosevelt Road, and sandwiched between South Wells Street and the Chicago River.

It was designed by Ralph Johnson at Perkins+Will  and includes five skyscrapers ranging in height from 380 to 600 feet, three mid-rise buildings, and a number of townhouses.   In total the city approved 2,699 residences, about 16,000 square feet of retail space, and lots of public open space and pathways.

The implications of this kind of development are far reaching; the fantastic Sloopin blog (as in South Loop) speculated that the combination of the Riverline project, along with another proposed riverfront project south of Roosevelt Road, could make it possible to walk from Chinatown to the Lake on an uninterrupted waterfront.

One worrisome aspect of such developments, as our class discussed, is of course the question of access.  Will these waterfront promenades be public spaces? (Be sure to go the Chicago Architecture blog link to see the pictures of the Riverline)

After glimpsing the future, we took a brief step back into the past.  In 2007, just as the real estate bubble was bursting, developers broke ground on the mixed-use Roosevelt Collection site.  While it was miraculously completed in 2009, the building suffered for commercial tenants and had to move towards a rental (as opposed to condo-owner) market.  Now that the market is booming, we walked through the development to see what this vision of New Urbanism felt like.  We entered from the north, which sports a green roof:

Class on Green Roof

Roosevelt Collection

Roosevelt Collection’s green roof (with native plants and…turf).  Photos by Maria Cancilla

Roosevelt and Willis

The Roosevelt Collection with Willis Tower in the background. Roosevelt Collection is a mixed-use development, but feels a bit like a suburban mall. Photo by Maria Cancilla

From the Roosevelt Collection, we cruised around the Dearborn Park development and looked at it from Roosevelt Road.  While Dearborn Park sports features of New Urbanist design and a mixing of land uses, it is almost entirely disconnected from the street network.  There is only one entrance for vehicles (along State Street), and only one additional entrance for pedestrians (by Dearborn Station), which means this development is not a great neighbor (although it might be a great neighborhood).  As you can see in the photo, Dearborn Park is boxed in by Clark, Roosevelt, and State Streets:

Tennis Courts and Housing

Suburban Urban Development

Photos by Maria Cancilla


Dearborn Park is a great example of bringing a suburban style development and plunking it down in the city.

One of the things that was really amazing about this walking tour was that even though we only traveled a short distance, we saw a huge range of different features, from adaptive reuse, Complete Streets infrastructure, and New Urbanist developments.  Our urban walking tours continue later this week when we’ll visit the redevelopment of the Cabrini-Green site on the Near North Side.  Stay tuned!


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