Ashland and Division: An Environmental Perspective

by Scott A. Rappe

For ten years EVA’s Planning, Preservation & Development Committee has battled developers bent on overbuilding in areas where such density would strain City services, create traffic congestion and make the neighborhood less livable. We were not always successful, and the results are all around us.

Now, for the first time, the East Village Association has actively called for a site to be developed beyond what its current zoning would allow. This is an unusual position for a community organization, yet, ironically we are still met with opposition by an ignorant and stubborn developer.

View west from Polish TriangleA gateway to a transit-oriented development (view west from Polish Triangle)


In this era of growing environmental awareness, dense urban communities like West Town are the most promising models for sustainable living. Just living in renovated buildings in the center of the City puts all of us at the cutting edge of sustainability, in a way that driving a hybrid vehicle to a solar powered house built
out of recycled materials in suburbia never could. To paraphrase a common sentiment among architects, the most sustainable building is the one you don’t build.

Continued occupancy of vintage buildings conserves construction materials and embodied energy. The density of these multifamily buildings preserves land and provides the critical mass of people necessary to create a sense of community. As in East Village, this density, concentrated in an area of ½ mile by ½ mile (Chicago to Division, Ashland to Division) provides enough patrons within walking distance to sustain many vibrant businesses. City lots are modest in size, small enough to be maintained with minimal effort, while large enough to provide light and air to the dwelling, a small garden and perhaps even a rain barrel and a compost bin.

Although Chicago’s public transit system in woefully inadequate, East Village is a good example of a community that relies on it. Its perimeter is served by five major bus lines and the Blue line passes right by it northeast corner (where Walgreens is proposing its new building). It is amazing to see the pedestrian traffic to and from the subway station during morning and evening rush hour.

These transit options are easily walkable and concentrate huge numbers of people on the community’s perimeter creating a synergy between residents and businesses. Prominent properties like those occupied by Wendy’s and Pizza Hut have civic value; they need to be utilized in a way that gives back to the community, rather than just taking away.

Unfortunately, automobile focused uses like the proposed Walgreens, Wendy’s, and several large parking lots on the north side of Division create a retail "dead zone" that strangles what could be a vibrant termination of Division Street on the Polish Triangle. Here, multiple parking lot curb cuts displace lively retail storefronts and disrupt the pedestrian character of the street. This retail "dead zone" is certainly a contributing factor to the sorry state of the Polish Triangle.

Recently, in a meeting with the alderman, representatives of EVA were shown a site plan and elevations for a new freestanding Walgreens proposed for the Pizza Hut site. It was exceedingly disappointing to realize the opportunity this developer is intent on throwing away. The drawings show a modest variation to the typical Walgreens prototype.

The design deviates from the norm only in its use of precast concrete rather than brick (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume its a naïve attempt to pay homage to the natural stone of the MB Bank) and its small footprint (8,000 SF), made possible by a stockroom mezzanine above the sales floor. As would be expected, the building sits in a sea of asphalt and has a gaping two-story-high entrance foyer showcasing Walgreen’s trademark mortar & pestle in neon.

This building is about establishing brand-recognition for Walgreens rather than mending the urban fabric at a historic corner. Contrast this approach with the landmarked MB Bank on the opposite side of the street:

Here the bank takes its identity from the building, not vice- versa. The time for fast food franchises and national chains at this prominent corner of our community has passed.

In selling its property, Pizza Hut has acknowledged this; Wendy’s and now Walgreens
need to do the same. Paying an obscene $4.85 million dollars for this real estate and
then keeping it from serving its highest and best use is like an art patron purchasing the Mona Lisa for their own personal enjoyment.

Interra-Vision, Walgreens’ developer, can build what they are proposing ‘as-of-right’
but that doesn’t mean they should. Prominent locations like this come with the moral
obligation to act with civic responsibility. This site, and West Town, deserves a developer who will build accordingly.