Closure of Pizza Hut Presents a Rare Opportunity

by Scott A. Rappe, AIA

The Polish Triangle, where Ashland, Division and Milwaukee meet is one of the City’s most historic six-corner intersections. Unfortunately, for decades, the southwest corner of Ashland & Division has been underutilized as a fast food restaurant and denied its highest and best use.

The closure of Pizza Hut earlier this year offered a rare opportunity to correct this indignity and develop the site into one which more appropriately reflects its importance.

Threatening this opportunity is recent news that a developer is in the process of purchasing the property for the purpose of building yet another one-story national chain, a Walgreens. At its July meeting, the East Village Association Board passed a resolution calling on Alderman Flores to demand something better.

The concern is not that a Walgreens will occupy the site, but rather that it will be nothing more than a Walgreens. The motivation of chain store architecture, no matter how well designed, is to create an iconic brand identity, a threedimensional logo, as it were.

While national chains such as McDonalds and Walgreens rely on the high visibility and accessibility of corners, this ‘building as billboard’ concept is wholly inappropriate in a location so critical to community identity. Just compare the MB bank on the West side of the Polish Triangle, to the Fifth Third Bank, on the North. MB bank was designed to be a good civic citizen and is a treasured landmark that has come to be identified with our community. Fifth Third Bank is not architecture; it is advertising and it is reviled.

The Near West Side is filled with unique, one-of-a-kind businesses from old corner taverns and Hispanic grocery stores to upscale boutiques and hip nightspots. While other areas of the City are increasingly homogenized, our community has thrived precisely because of the diversity of its people and businesses.

While Walgreens has a traditional and welcome place in the community, the prominence that this particular site would give a national chain is an affront to the individuality and unique character of the area.

The Ashland, Milwaukee and Division intersection is the first major landmark one encounters traveling west out of Old Town. A building of the stature and quality of the MB bank would ‘bookend’ Division Street and create a gateway to the vibrant and diverse businesses and communities beyond.

What is done on this site will impact the character and perception of our community for decades to come; a bad development will be a detriment for at least forty years, but a good one will be beneficial for more than a century. We must demand that what is built there live up to the example set by the builders of the MB bank building!

This special location deserves a well designed, high quality building of a scale similar to the historic MB bank building to the North. The property is ripe for development as a multi-story mixed use building. The base of the building could certainly accommodate Walgreens and perhaps other businesses; its upper stories could offer office space and a variety of dwelling unit types and sizes.

The proximity of the site to public transit (the subway and three bus lines), three major thoroughfares, and the Kennedy Expressway, as well as prime shopping and service amenities makes it the ideal location for a major Transit Oriented Development.

Walgreens may be able to build what they want ‘as-of-right’, but the community should demand something better than another generic retail chain; it deserves real architecture. With zoning concessions, the proper developer and a sensitive architect, this would be a win-win situation for all involved. It is incumbent upon Alderman Flores to make Walgreens and their developer see this.

These days, community involvement in these sorts of developments is fairly routine, though the results are not always entirely successful. Take for example the new grocery store being constructed at Damen and Chicago Avenues, which despite extensive community input, will never be anything more than a Dominicks.

In a letter to Alderman Flores, the East Village Association makes its position clear: This is not just about getting Walgreens to design a better building, this is about making the Walgreens one piece of something larger and more beneficial to our neighborhood than a simple drugstore. It is about creating a piece of architecture of which Walgreens is one part.