(Photo: Lifeless Monroe Street beyond Nichols Bridgeway.Credit: Aaron Renn.)
This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.
In May, I threw down the charge for local bloggers to set aside starchitect fandom in their reviews of Renzo Piano’s new Art Institute of Chicago Modern Wing. This week, Aaron Renn, author of the widely noted urban-analysis blog, The Urbanophile, took up the challenge. A fan of the Modern Wing’s exterior, in an epic post, Renn considers the elevated Nichols Bridgeway and Monroe streetscape, below, in the same copious detail for which his blog has become known in national planning circles. And much like the mood of one local critic after reading my original post, Renn does not come away happy.
Renn faults the Bridgeway that spans across Monroe Street from Millennium Park to the top floor of the Modern Wing in three main areas:
- visual obstruction; and
- pedestrian disengagement.
While he admires the vistas of and from the Bridgeway, he questions its bumpy, uneven metal decking and awkward lower terminus. Standing beneath the structure on Monroe, he interprets an uninviting pedestrian environment including a barren, concrete-laden streetscape adjacent to the Modern Wing, uninspired “afterthought” entrances and emergency exits, and the broken view caused by the Bridgeway, itself.
However, Renn reserves the bulk of his criticism for the lifelessness the Nichols Bridgeway engenders on Monroe Street, writing:
“The Nichols Bridgeway is nothing more than an open-air gerbil tube…it drains people from the street and is an implicit rejection of the value of the streets over which it passes.”
Renn sees in the Art Institute’s decision to opt for an elevated main siphon for Millennium Park visitors a capitulation to the generally sorry state of Monroe between Michigan Avenue and the lakefront.
He goes on to detail off-putting elements of Monroe Street’s pedestrian environment he found on a walk east from Michigan, including substantial stretches of blank stone and concrete walls, lots of cracked and broken sidewalk pavement, an unlabeled pedestrian underpass, paint peeling from traffic lights, bent fences and chicken wire, and an abrupt lakefront terminus at a chain-link fence abutting a poorly maintained public restroom–a lakefront terminus with no view of the actual lakefront or obvious pathway to reach it. Writes Renn:
“I’m not going to say this is the worst street ever. There are plenty of worse places to be in this world. But this is the Chicago lakefront for goodness sake. This one of the primary corridors people would take to get to the lake from the Loop. Walk out there one afternoon and see a few hardy tourists – but not that many – standing out on that wide, cracked sidewalk with cars whizzing by on Monroe and LSD and it’s pretty pathetic.”
He goes on to suggest a civic competition to re-imagine the street to create improvements consonant with the city’s recently updated Central Area Action Plan, including:
- Significantly upgrading the pedestrian experience along Monroe;
- Improving connectivity between the Loop and Lake Michigan;
- Linking commuter rail stations to the lake;
- Establishing a protected bicycle corridor to channel West Loop and West Side bike traffic safely through the Loop; and
- Creating better, innovative design standards for public spaces.
Read much more at The Urbanophile, and while you’re there, browse the right sidebar for links to many other detailed discussions on urban design, place making, civic branding, and economic survival strategies dealing with cities across the midwest and beyond.
I expect the blogosphere–not to mention the civic leadership and urban planning communities–to hear much more from Renn in the future. For fullest disclosure, I’ve been tapped to help him rebrand his existing Internet presence. (And I’m sure he’d love it if I actually started writing that project instead of scribing about his own words here.)
Speaking as a trained urban planner (you did read my bio, didn’t you?), the freshness of Renn’s urban analysis is astonishing, as much for its clarity as for its lack of close competition. If you’re a planning wonk, like me, or someone keenly interested in what makes cities tick–be that city Chicago or any other–read Renn’s blog.
Then kick yourself for wondering why you didn’t came up with some of the city-supportive ideas you find there.