Is Chicago Union Station Redevelopment Soldier Field 2.0?

The company redeveloping the headhouse of Chicago Union Station just unveiled renderings of the project that are not exactly earning rave reviews from the critics. The proposal involves plopping a modernist box addition top of the existing station. Here’s the rendering.

To give you a sense of this, here’s a photo of the existing station.

Photo Credit: Thshriver, CC BY-SA 3.0

This sort of combination is reminiscent of the much-maligned renovation of Soldier Field, in which a contemporary “space saucer” bowl of seating was added on top of the neoclassical colonnades.

Photo Credit: Ken Lund, CC BY-SA 2.0

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin isn’t willing to go that far, but he panned the design, saying:

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of putting a 330-room hotel in the upper floors of the station’s historic main building, especially if you’re a railroad buff in search of an atmospheric spot to stay overnight. The trouble is a planned apartment addition that would plunk a squat modernist box atop the existing structure’s neo-classical pedestal. They go together as well as Rauner and Pritzker, the City Council and ethics reform.

The seven-story addition and its 404 rental apartments would bring to the forlorn but grand train station all the grandeur of a Holiday Inn.

Worse, its exterior, a skeletal metal and glass grid is at odds with the station’s carefully-composed classical aesthetic. Despite the architects’ best efforts, it’s as though one era of architecture had been piled, willy-nilly, atop another.

The juxtaposition of past and present isn’t as violent as the spaceship-like seating bowl that’s plopped atop the classical colonnades of Soldier Field. It’s just banal, which Burnham buildings never are.

And local architectural writer Lynn Becker called it “Plop Architecture Revival,” saying:

The Elbphilharmonie it’s not. It’s what you’d see in a dying, middle-tier rustbelt city desperate for development.

Are we that desperate?

If the Landmarks Commission doesn’t reject this design, they should fold up shop and put a big “Just Kidding” sign next to their mission statement.

With Union Station being such an important building in the city, it will be interesting to see if this design goes forward (or even if the developer seriously wants to build it, or is just using it to set the stage for what it really wants).

from Aaron M. Renn


Public Art and the Privatization of Public Space

Photo Credit: Bengt Oberger, CC BY-SA 4.0

There’s been a lot of controversy over the so-called “POPS” – privately-owned public spaces – that are increasingly part of the urban landscape. Zuccotti Park, the location of Occupy Wall Street, is one such POPS. It’s not technically a public park, but instead controlled by Brookfield Properties.

This kind of semi-privatization, and the privatization of public space generally, has raised a lot of alarm bells in certain circles. But there’s another type of privatization of public space that has received much less scrutiny. That’s the proliferation of public art.

Public art de facto privatizes anyplace it is installed because the artist often retains a copyright in the work, and thus can veto any picture or video that includes his artwork.

This does in fact happen. Just last week there were reports that Anish Kapoor, the creator of the Cloud Gate (“bean”) sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, is suing the NRA for including that sculpture in a video.

The NRA is hardly a sympathetic defendant here, but that sculpture is in a public park. The idea that an individual artist can simply decide who can and can’t film a public space in the city is privatization far greater than any POPS.

It’s pretty well established that public entities have to provide open access. Parks can’t refuse to host events based on viewpoint. Transit agencies can’t refuse ads for politically disfavored groups.

Similarly, it’s not clear why it shouldn’t be a principle of law that there can’t be viewpoint discrimination in who can and can’t take pictures or film in a public park. It might also suggest this should apply as a matter of zoning to private land along public rights of way. (Signs can already be regulated in a similar manner).

Any city installing public art should ensure that the agreement with the artist provides for unconditional royalty free pictures and videos, or the art shouldn’t be installed. Courts should also be scrutinizing whether cities have been improperly transferring property rights in their public land to private parties like artists.

from Aaron M. Renn

More Midwest Businesses Moving Back Downtown

Michigan Central Station. Photo Credit: Albert Duce, CC BY-SA 3.0

A couple more big companies just announced major relocations into signature downtown (or near-downtown) structures in the Midwest.

The big news is in Detroit, where Ford Motor Company is buying the decrepit Michigan Central Station, planning to renovate it into the heart of a campus that will include as many as 2,500 employees. It does not appear this will be the headquarters, but a home for the company’s new mobility services endeavors.

The symbolism of this is hard to overstate, given that the rotting train station served for so long as a visual emblem of everything wrong with Detroit. As Detroit Free Press columnist John Gallagher wrote:

Trying to sum up the significance of Ford’s plans for the Michigan Central Station, a quote by Winston Churchill seems apt.

“Now, this is not the end,” Churchill said of an early Allied victory in World War II. “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

That’s what Ford taking on the old train station means for Detroit. Years of hard work lie ahead for the city to truly come back. But Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.

Victory no longer seems so remote. The issue is no longer in doubt.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the hulking former main Post Office – a huge structure that straddles the Eisenhower Expressway – is coming back to life as Walgreens signs to be the first anchor tenant, moving 1,300 new jobs downtown from suburban Deerfield and apparently consolidating 500 others from elsewhere in downtown:

Walgreens has eyed the Post Office as an office destination before. It was negotiating a deal in 2014 with the building’s previous owner to move its headquarters to the building, but the agreement never materialized and the owner, British investor Bill Davies, died in 2016 just as his venture was selling the property.

Since Walgreens began those talks to move to the city, a flurry of companies have uprooted from their suburban homes for new downtown headquarters. Among the big movers have been Motorola Solutions, Kraft Heinz, Hillshire Brands, GE Healthcare, Beam Suntory and, most recently, McDonald’s. Smaller companies such as FTD and Peapod have also relocated to the city.

Again, my impression is that the quantity of suburban to downtown moves in Chicago is far higher than any other city out there. Unlike the out of town firms moving in the HQs, which tend to be smaller “executive headquarters” type operations, some of these suburbs to downtown relocations involve significant numbers of jobs.

These are both jobs moves within the region, so aren’t really net gains. In fact, it will be interesting to see what the over regional impact is. Neither Chicago nor Detroit is growing that much at a regional level. Chicago has significant suburban office vacancy problems. The Loop is a world class business destination but the Chicago suburbs are not especially competitive. It’s too early to tell but if these trend keeps going the changes in intra-regional economic dynamics will be interesting to watch.

from Aaron M. Renn

A Look at Rust Belt, USA

Last week I joined City Journal’s 10 Block podcast to talk about the latest trends in Rust Belt cities. This was prompted by jobs data out of New York that show virtually all of the state’s job growth coming from metro New York, and much of it from within New York City. I’m including the audio in my own podcast feed as well. If the audio player doesn’t display for you, click over to listen on Soundcloud.

Subscribe to podcast via iTunes | Soundcloud.

from Aaron M. Renn

Manufacturing a Comeback in Grand Rapids

Buildings on Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile (Photo by WMRapids)

My latest piece for City Journal is a major feature article on Grand Rapids that appeared in the Spring issue and is now online.

In the piece I look at the astonishing turnaround in Grand Rapids’ economic and demographic performance since 2010. By some measures Grand Rapids is beating every other Midwest metro area of one million people or more, a group Grand Rapids just recently joined. I examine the city’s industrial history, its Dutch demographic legacy, and the major institutional realignments it undertook in the last two decades or so that have contributed to its current performance. The question is, are there lessons from Grand Rapids other cities can apply?

Here are some excerpts:

Yet coming out of the Great Recession, and particularly since 2010, Grand Rapids has become a surprising economic star in the Midwest. Its job count has swelled 19.8 percent since 2010—the fastest rate of any major midwestern metro area, more than making up for the previous decade’s loss. Its regional population growth has also been more robust, rising by 5.8 percent, putting it in the top tier of midwestern cities. The city’s population also reversed its 2000s era decline, growing by 4.5 percent since 2010, according to Census Bureau estimates. Grand Rapids accomplished this while remaining heavily dependent on manufacturing. The region has the highest manufacturing-job share of any major midwestern metro, at 20.5 percent. It’s also the only one of those regions that has more manufacturing jobs today than it did in 1990.

Perhaps even more important was the city’s diverse base of small firms, recognized as a major strength long ago. A 1946 study by sociologists C. Wright Mills and Melville Ulmer contrasted Grand Rapids with Flint in this context. At the time, Flint was more prosperous, but the authors saw storm clouds on the horizon. GM-focused Flint was dominated by a few large employers, whereas Grand Rapids was more diversified, with many small firms. In 1940, Flint had 42 industrial firms, with an average of 1,270 employees each; Grand Rapids had 409 industrial firms, with an average of 83 workers. Flint had more jobs but was vulnerable to the decline of even a small number of large employers. Mills and Ulmer found that on many measures, cities dominated by small businesses had greater civic welfare than those with large employers.

The Dutch who settled western Michigan came to the United States much later than their predecessors, the colonists who founded New Amsterdam. They first arrived in the area in the mid-1800s, with a familiar story: they were religious dissenters, fleeing persecution. Originally bound for Wisconsin, they were forced to winter in Detroit when the Straits of Mackinac froze over. Michigan boosters persuaded them to stay in the Wolverine State rather than move on, and they established their settlement in what became Holland. Later waves of Dutch followed this migration path but with economic, rather than religious, motives. By 1900, about a third of all Dutch immigrants to America lived in Michigan. Other locations in the U.S. heavily settled by the Dutch have also done well economically. A separate group of Dutch religious dissidents, for instance, wound up in northwestern Iowa at nearly the same time as those who settled in western Michigan. A recent New Yorker feature branded the town of Orange in northwestern Iowa “the place where the small-town American Dream lives on.” And though there are few Dutch there today, the former Dutch colony now known as New York City remains the world’s premier metropolis.

The charitable habit has been especially notable in the Van Andel and DeVos families. Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos founded Amway in 1959. Today, Amway is a multibillion-dollar company that generates 90 percent of its revenues overseas, but it remains headquartered in the Grand Rapids area, where it employs about 4,000 people. Van Andel and DeVos became billionaires. Too often today, local billionaires are more likely to extract value from their communities, via tax-subsidized transactions, than to put money back in through investment. While the Van Andel and DeVos families have done their share of public-private deals, they have clearly invested in and donated heavily to the community. The historic Pantalind Hotel was renovated into the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in 1981, with an adjacent tower added in 1983—a $60 million investment at a bleak time for America’s downtowns. More recent years have seen the construction of the Van Andel Arena, the DeVos Place Convention Center, the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and other projects.

With its beefed-up hospital cluster and independent research institute, Grand Rapids persuaded the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine to relocate from East Lansing to Grand Rapids in 2010. (The college retains an East Lansing campus and others throughout the state, but its main campus is now in Grand Rapids.) In 2012, Ferris State University, based 55 miles north of Grand Rapids in the town of Big Rapids, opened an extension of its College of Pharmacy on the Medical Mile. All third- and fourth-year students in its pharmacy program attend classes on the Grand Rapids campus. More than half the pharmacists practicing in Michigan went to school at Ferris State. Unsurprisingly, “eds and meds” job creation has soared in Grand Rapids. Positions in these sectors have more than doubled since 1990 and grown by nearly 20 percent since 2010. The city trails only Minneapolis and Columbus among major midwestern regions in eds and meds growth since 1990.

There’s much more so click through to read the whole thing. At least for now, Grand Rapids is a major Midwest success story.

from Aaron M. Renn

Half Paved Street Shows the Case for Merger

Last year I put out a study called “Merger May Rescue Declining Suburbs.” One of the ten specific places I highlighted was Norwood, Ohio, about which I wrote:

Norwood is entirely surrounded by the city of Cincinnati. Enclave suburbs such as Norwood may prove especially politically challenging to merge, as their identity in part comes from having resisted historical annexation attempts. Norwood is losing population (down 8.3% since 2000, to 19,876) and its poverty rate, 22%, is up 9.1 percentage points. Inflation-adjusted median household income ($27,270) has declined by 15.4% since 2000. Last year, the state auditor declared a state of fiscal emergency in Norwood, after 12 years on fiscal watch. The tax base was once supported by a General Motors plant, with payroll tax revenues providing 28% of Norwood’s budget in 1987, the year the plant closed. Since then, the city has struggled. The city’s financial condition is not dire, but it is finding it hard to provide services.

Last week WCPO-TV in Cincinnati ran an interesting story about a street on the Cincinnati-Norwood line that was half-paved. Here’s a screen cap from that:

The report says:

The road sits on the Cincinnati-Norwood city line. A year later, the half of the road owned by Norwood remains bumpy, cracked and uneven. “It’s definitely uncomfortable,” Ryall said. “And your kids, if they’re asleep, they’re waking up for sure.”

Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams said it’s the result of a fiscal emergency and the city having no funds to spare. “Ask them, ‘How are you going to pay for that?’ Where are you going to get the millions of dollars?” Williams said.

Last week, a similar issue popped up on Section Avenue. City of Cincinnati contractors repaved the Rhode Island Avenue side of the street. Norwood’s side remains worn down.

Click over to watch/read the whole thing.

The mayor of Norwood reacted badly to my merger proposal when it was released:

77-year-old Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams has lived in the city his entire life and says he won’t be the one to tell residents that Norwood isn’t Norwood anymore.

“We’ve always been independent,” Willams said. “It’s not going to happen.”

He scoffed at the idea of a New York think tank telling Norwood what it should do.

“Any time you hear the word think tank, that should discourage you right there,” he said. “Tell them to think on something else.”

Nobody should compel Norwood to merge, but the city can’t provide basic services because of fiscal problems. Might the citizens of Norwood feel differently about merger if they received a major infusion of capital spending, upgraded services, and some type of legal assurances about representation? Regardless, this problem of smaller inner suburbs not being able to provide basic services is not going away.

from Aaron M. Renn

The New Basis of City Diplomacy

I was in Chicago last week for the Chicago Forum on Global Cities. One of the panels I was looking forward to seeing was about city diplomacy.

People have been talking for a while about cities conducting their own foreign policy. But it was very clear at this forum that in the United States at least, the entire basis of that idea has shifted radically in a very short period of time.

Here, for example, is an article in the Chicago Tribune about the topic in advance of the 2015 edition of the Chicago Forum:

It’s one example of an outward-looking strategy that has been labeled “foreign policy for cities,” “city diplomacy” and by some academics, “paradiplomacy.” Sao Paulo, London, Hong Kong, New York and other megacities are swapping information and forging powerful alliances with far-flung counterparts in new and strategic ways.

The efforts go beyond traditional business attraction moves, branching into collaboration in the arts, education and urban issues, from pollution to poverty. If done well, a city can gain a reputation as a hotbed of innovation, a team player on pressing urban problems and a prime location for foreign investment, business partnerships and tourism.

“In a world where national governments are negotiating more and more trade agreements that make national borders much less relevant, it is essential for cities to have a strategy for international relations,” said former Toronto Mayor David Miller. Otherwise, he said, “they risk becoming insular and isolated.”

We see here that city diplomacy is focused on position cities to thrive in a borderless world, focusing on building global networks, attracting investment, sharing ideas, building the brand, etc.

This year’s panel on the topic was very different. I don’t have an article for it but will embed the video below. If it doesn’t start at the right place, skip to 3:10:20 for the start of the panel. It’s worth watching how Peter Spiegel from the Financial Times frames the discussion even if you don’t watch the entire thing. (If the embed doesn’t display, click over to watch on You Tube).

Here we see something completely different. City diplomacy is now about explicitly attempting to subvert national government policy on the global stage. The three issues Spiegel highlights are climate, immigration, and trade. This has obviously been driven by a global trend towards more populist governments, such as the election of Donald Trump or Brexit, along with developments in other countries.

Listening to the Americans at the conference, the older ideas of city diplomacy have fallen by the wayside. I didn’t hear talk about them. Those from other countries not experiencing a flashpoint domestic conflict with the national government continued to conceptualize things more in the previous way.

It makes me wonder if some of these cities are taking their eyes off the prize to engage in short term political squabbles that have little tangible upside. In any case, the shift in focus is clear.

Cover image by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0

from Aaron M. Renn