Ed Lawrence's neighborhood: a downtown tour | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Ed Lawrence's neighborhood: a downtown tour 

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If you think you know the Loop, you should take a walk with Ed Lawrence, founder and executive director of Friends of Downtown. Lawrence, a dead ringer for Frugal Gourmet Jeff Smith, gives what must be the most informative walking tour you can get of the downtown area. He walks with an elegant glide, and peers with the sharp eyes of a rare bird into streetscapes that most of us can't fully see.

His fresh way of sizing up the familiar; his wry commentary, studded with information you might not read in the newspapers until six months later; and his outspoken critique of new downtown development are offered by no other tour of the city. More than design assessment, more than economic or architectural analysis, more than sociopolitical commentary, Lawrence's tour weaves all these elements into an ever-changing critique of the downtown that we don't really know.

Lawrence knows downtown Chicago as well as longtime residents of Chicago neighborhoods know their communities. To Lawrence, downtown is a neighborhood that belongs not just to him and the growing numbers who live there, but to anyone who goes there. Lawrence devotes his life to Friends of Downtown because he thinks downtown needs someone to look after and protect it. He believes that it's too important to leave to developers, retailers, and powerful political types. And too big for the standard residents-only neighborhood protective association.

Lawrence and Friends of Downtown want a downtown that is user-friendly, accessible to all, diverse, lively, interesting--all the things that big cities are supposed to be. Lawrence feels that downtown development, as in other neighborhoods, needs citizen review, public input--in short, an active, involved, and informed neighborhood organization.

These days, downtown is booming, or so it seems from a quick glance at the bottom line. The 80s have seen more new development downtown than any other decade in the 20th century. There have been some 350 projects costing $7 billion, with more on the drawing boards. The growth is staggering with no end in sight. But as Lawrence knows so well, more may be less. Dollars--even millions--spent on development do not guarantee a lively and stimulating environment.

Curious to see if the Loop renaissance is all it's cracked up to be, we asked Lawrence recently to take us on a tour to check on downtown's vital signs. What we saw was both heartening and depressing.

Lawrence met us in his office in the Stevens Building, at 17 N. State--one of his favorite buildings, by the way, where ten floors up, beyond the Chas. A. Stevens store levels, the elevators turn into brass cages that float past a melange of small one-of-a-kind stores and offices: here a costume jewelry boutique, there a fountain-pen shop.

As we noted a few vacant shops, Lawrence pointed out the down side of the downtown boom--what we might call the commercial gentrification of the Loop. Lawrence worries that rising downtown rents will force many of these operations--like the store that repairs Ronson lighters--out of the Loop. Lawrence has put together perhaps the only complete census of Loop businesses, and many--drum shops, bead sellers, specialty book stores--help distinguish the Loop from bland, modern shopping malls dominated by franchise retailers. Lawrence believes that whether we are aware of it or not, we could all use the rich potpourri of downtown retail choices, but there are no public policies designed to protect the small specialty retailers from being priced out of the market.

Outside the Stevens Building it was sunny and hot, and lunch crowds thronged the State Street Mall. Clerks and office workers were eating brown-bagged goodies perched uncomfortably on the edges of planters along the mall. The lack of benches on State Street has long bothered Lawrence, but this time he started the tour by contrasting the empty Wieboldt's store on the northeast corner of State and Madison with the busy and elegant Carson Pirie Scott building, the Louis Sullivan gem across Madison Street.

"Here's a perfect example of why the city needs some kind of design review," said Lawrence. "Until ten years ago or so, Wieboldt's had a beautiful terra-cotta exterior that for some reason was torn out to make way for this ugly aluminum and lannon stone. The city has no provision for urban design review--so when Wieboldt's changed it ten years ago, no one could block it. Of course, Carson's owners would never try to do something similar. Carson's is a landmark, designed by a famous architect. But what about the good old buildings that are not landmarks?"

Carson's may look good, but that day it sounded like a tacky, old-fashioned disco. The amplified big beat assaulted our ears, adding sonic aggravation to the heat. The lunchers usually out front had been driven to quieter spots on State. Lawrence winced, "I've complained to Carson's about this. Friends of Downtown wants a ban of all amplified sound downtown. Both for the spoken voice, like that preacher across the street, and for music. Orators and musicians can come down here, but they shouldn't be allowed to amplify their sounds."

To Lawrence the "malling" of State Street has been more like a mauling, so he is delighted that the city and property owners want to change it. "The hexagonal tiles are inappropriate, there's no place to sit down, and the endless stream of buses makes the street somewhat noxious. Why not get rid of the buses and replace them with electrified trolley cars that transfer to various bus lines at either end of the Loop? And why not benches with backs?" he said, sounding a theme he would repeat throughout the walk. Lawrence could think of only one good thing that has happened recently to State Street, "the appointment of Sara Bode as head of the State Street Council; she is terrific, sensitive to our concerns."

Next Lawrence ducked inside the Palmer House, leading me to its plush golden lobby. "Interior spaces like these are as important as exterior spaces in keeping downtown vital and healthy," he said. "We need more places like this, a civilized, quiet place to wait and read without being hassled to buy something. I often meet my wife here."

Gesturing to the Empire Room, the onetime nightclub turned lunch spot, Lawrence said, "I'd really like to see them bring back the nightclub. Right now, it can be rented out at night for private parties. But it should be open and used on a regular basis." For full health to return to the Loop, nightlife must return, he said. Theaters, clubs, and music rooms are needed in the Loop to keep it healthy and interesting around the clock. For that reason, he said, the best thing to happen downtown in recent years was the restoration and reopening of the Chicago Theatre--which is now closed again.

Outside the hotel, Lawrence headed down Wabash, which he proclaims to be in glowingly good health. "In many ways, Wabash has outperformed State Street in attracting quality retail stores," he said, pointing out Crate & Barrel, some bookstores, and Eddie Bauer's and other specialty clothing shops.

At Wabash and Adams he pointed to Miller's Pub and asked, "Do you see a parking lot there?"

I didn't, though I spotted its entrance a half block west on Adams.

"Well look above the first-floor level," he said, gesturing to rows of dingy glass brick windows above. "There's your parking lot. Some of our critics think we [Friends of Downtown] are against all parking in downtown. Well, it's not our highest priority, but we are not against all parking--only surface parking lots. They create vast, empty spaces, dead-ening street life around them. This lot is a well-planned parking facility and it's definitely an asset. The cars are parked on upper levels, camouflaged by these walls, and shops and the restaurant occupy the street level."

We rounded the corner at Adams, turning west, and caught sight of the block-long desert of dirt and debris on Adams between State and Dearborn that formerly held the Montgomery Ward store. Like an infected scar in the heart of downtown, the dingy vacant lot is an example of the results of careless ownership.

"This is a mistake of the worst sort," said Lawrence. "The city should have never let it happen. The city should as a matter of policy never let owners tear down a building unless they are ready to immediately build something else. And they should not allow a building to be demolished so that the property is so unusable. At least they could have kept the old structure and allowed temporary retail uses until a new building was ready to go up. The city should oversee demolition also to make sure that it's never done like this. They tore it down in the cheapest way. You can't even use the property for parking.

"A Canadian developer bought this land to build yet another office tower--when, we're not sure," Lawrence said. "They are waiting for the market to improve. They are waiting for the glut of vacant office space to be used up. And they can afford to wait. This is a safe place for investors to dump their money. They don't really want a quick return. They can afford to wait for the market to make development more attractive. Meanwhile, we all have to look at and walk past this ugly hole in the heart of the Loop."

Lawrence turned left on State and pointed out the block between Jackson and Van Buren. Its array of small stores include a Radio Shack and State Street's only neighborhood bar.

As we headed upstairs to check out the State Street Pub, on the second floor at 320 S. State, Lawrence grumbled about the library board members who want to level this block and build a vast, empty plaza--this one leading up to the grand new library. "Another vacant plaza here would be a big mistake," said Lawrence. "It would actually separate the library from the rest of the Loop."

The State Street Pub had a good-sized lunch crowd. About 40 to 50 patrons--most of them beefy men who looked like truck drivers--were eating sandwiches and downing glasses of beer. It could easily have been a beer-and-chili joint near Belmont and Western or Archer and Damen. "Some people say there are no neighborhood bars in the Loop; others think that Billy Goat's is the only one," said Lawrence, "but here's one that has escaped the attention of the media."

Not only would the State Street Pub be demolished by the plaza promoters, but the tattered Rialto, the last single-room-occupancy hotel in the Loop and the home of the Blues Brothers, would also bite the dust.

"Yes, it's blighted around here," said Lawrence as we passed the seedy hotel and the dilapidated shops on Van Buren west of State. "But this is what happens when an area is designated a blighted area; like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes blighted. Who wants to spend money on something slated to be torn down? The Rialto may not look beautiful, but SRO hotels like these do provide a service. Studies show that their residents are not primarily bums and alcoholics, but pensioners, dishwashers, and other laborers needed for the downtown labor force."

We turned north on Dearborn and were soon passing through the shadowy canyon created by the two giant federal office buildings on either side of Dearborn just north of Jackson. Lawrence says he's concerned about plans for a new 600,000-square-foot federal office building to join the other two. "Friends of Downtown was the only civic group that attended a hearing on the new building. You would think there might be more interest in the building.

"You can see here what kind of impact a building of that size can have on downtown. The Calder [sculpture in front of the Kluczynski federal building] may be great, but look at this sea of concrete, those useless blocks of marble. You can't call them benches. It's sterile, forbidding, dull, with nothing of human scale at street level. It's the kind of development we don't need any more of.

"We would like to make sure that the new building requires no demolition of existing structures; we've identified 16 locations where there's enough vacant land to build," said Lawrence. "If they really must have a plaza, we want benches with backs, retail uses at street level, not any more bland, boring empty space."

At Adams and Dearborn, Lawrence stopped and gestured east to the Berghoff Restaurant. "Here, side by side, are two contrasting faces of downtown development," he said. "On one hand, you have the Berghoff, human scale, interesting architecture, one of the few cast-iron fronts in the city. It generates business in the evening and on weekends. It helps keep downtown lively. Next to it is this massive, oversized federal office building, a single-purpose office factory that adds nothing to the vitality of downtown," Lawrence said. "It offers jobs, but adds nothing to the aesthetics or diversity of downtown. When the workday is done, it's dead; the block it occupies dies also."

We head west a block, and are soon under the misnamed "arcade"--which is more like an overhang--above the sidewalk next to the Atrium Office Plaza at 33 W. Monroe. It's the home office of Chicago's largest architectural firm, Skidmore Owings & Merrill. SOM also designed the building, but Lawrence doesn't think much of it. He thinks its massive marble lobby overpowers the people who enter it, and he criticizes its lack of on-street retailing. "This arcade or plaza adds nothing to downtown but a place to walk when it rains and you don't have an umbrella."

Kitty-corner from the building, however, is one of Lawrence's favorite outdoor spots--the First National Plaza. "This plaza, unlike so many, attracts people. It has multiple levels, lots of little enclosed spaces, and entertainment." At lunchtime, it is thronged with people--even though, Lawrence says, the seating could be better. Again there are no backs on the benches. But here, he says, pointing to a man sitting on some stairs against a wall, "the stairs and the multiple levels allow sitters to improvise."

Lawrence also is delighted by the bank's having transformed one of the buildings on the Clark Street side of the plaza into a restaurant. "That's a good example of an adaptive reuse of an existing building that improves downtown. Friends of Downtown gave it an award for adaptive reuse. You see, adaptive reuse can work with newer buildings too; it's not confined to the old buildings."

We head east on Madison and Lawrence points out--inconspicuous, unheralded, and at the moment unsat upon--downtown's only benches with backs. They have been installed in front of a hedge that lines one of those hated surface parking lots.

"The McVickers Theatre used to be here" said Lawrence, as we sat back on the benches. "The owner wanted to replace it with a surface parking lot, which you know is anathema to us. We opposed the move but could see we were going to lose, so we dropped our opposition and negotiated the installation of some greenery, some fencing, and these benches."

As we sat on the benches, Lawrence dismissed most of the new construction in the recent downtown building boom as "undistinguished and unimpressive."

"Last year Friends of Downtown gave no award for new construction," he said. "In fact, the last winner of the award occurred three years ago when we gave it to 333 N. Wacker. At least we got a restaurant on the ground floor and interesting design. It's not just another gloomy, glassy box."

Other new buildings, like 1 S. Wacker, don't add much to the vitality of the street, said Lawrence. We don't really go downtown to see reflections of ourselves, he said, but "walk by 1 S. Wacker, look in the window, and you see your own reflection.

"The worst new building in the Loop is the new addition to the Board of Trade building, behind the old one," Lawrence added. "The building goes up the curb line, wiping out the sidewalk. There is absolutely no sunshine. There are some retail shops, but they don't open up to the street. It's a dreary place for pedestrians."

Lawrence is generally encouraged, however, by the residential development in and around the downtown area. "The new housing near the Loop is good because it adds residents, and that adds to downtown vitality." But, he adds, "the Presidential Towers design does nothing to contribute to the vitality of the area. The streets are dead. One whole block is given over to a parking garage. The only good thing about it is it adds residents."

Lawrence mentioned another development in the same West Loop area that will have a significant impact on the streetscape, as well as the way the city traditionally does business: "There's a firehouse at 540 W. Washington that the city has put up for sale. There were two bids. The high bidder wants to build a restaurant--a good way to liven up street life in the area. The low bidder--who has good political connections--wants to build yet another office building. The low bidder got the project, unbelievably enough, even though it would make the area less vital, less attractive, and less economical. The restaurant bidder sued, but the court said there was nothing requiring the city to accept the highest bid. There could be a restaurant in that fire station now."

As we passed Chas, a women's apparel store at Dearborn and Madison, Lawrence pointed out that no one seemed to notice its display window. We watched pedestrians walk past the window and only a few of scores of passersby glanced inside.

"The window is ineffective because of its design," said Lawrence. "First of all, it extends to the sidewalk. The mannequin is on the same level as the pedestrians on the sidewalk. It should be raised, closer to eye level so we notice it. Not only is the framing wrong, there is no background, no stage, no lighting, no attempt to give a pedestrian anything to see. Across the street--at Florsheim's Shoes, the window is at eye level, the shoes are on a stage, and see, just about everyone looks in."

We moved north to the plaza outside the Daley Center at Dearborn and Washington. Lawrence noted that the vast, empty space fails where First National Plaza succeeds. It lacks multiple levels, visual interest, places to sit, and, hence, people.

But what's happening across Dearborn Street from the plaza is even worse, said Lawrence. "That block, called Block 37, which extends to State Street and Marshall Field's is, believe it or not, considered to be a blighted block. To encourage its redevelopment, the city has sold it for $32 million less than it is worth to a developer, called FJB Ventures--which proposes still more office towers and a retail mall.

"The subsidy was supposedly justified by the fact that FJB would save the historically significant McCarthy Building, on the corner of Washington and Dearborn. But now the developer--with city permission--intends to tear the McCarthy Building down.

Debate has broken out over whether the McCarthy Building is worth saving or not. What the argument overlooks is the $32 million subsidy. Whether we save the building or not, should we give $32 million to developers who are doing the same kind of thing elsewhere in the Loop without a subsidy?

"I'm not saying there is anything underhanded going on here, but I can't believe that we would permit the city to subsidize yet another office-retail complex and get nothing in return. It makes no sense, architecturally or economically."

Lawrence then gestured to the Greyhound Bus Station across from the Daley Center on Randolph Street. "In 1981," he said, "the city was ready to subsidize the relocation of the bus station to the West Loop to get another office-retail complex. We objected because we felt the bus station provided a downtown service, and we felt the subsidy was out of line. They didn't relocate the station; now a private developer has come along who wants to redevelop the Greyhound property and will move--without public subsidy--the station to a West Loop location. The developer is willing to do without subsidy the same thing that the city is subsidizing FJB to do in Block 37."

We headed back to State Street and Lawrence's office. "Downtown does not glow as much as the gold that is going into it," Lawrence said. "In some ways downtown is doing well, but in many ways it could be much better."

I had trouble hearing him after that; we were passing the preacher on the corner of State and Madison again--his amplifier was turned up to a screech and he was yelling something about how we were all going to hell.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris De Zutter.

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