A Cautionary Tale of Mega-Project Planning

"There’s a dramatic difference, Cityfront Center shows, between real estate success and building a great city."
October 18, 2018, 2pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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A statue of Marilyn Monroe, created by J. Seward Johnson, appeared just outside the Cityfront Center, between the Tribune Tower, the River Esplanade, and Pioneer Court, in 2011.
Phil Roeder

Chicago Tribune architecture critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Blair Kamin writes a large feature story that portrays the Chicago Cityfront Center as a cautionary tale of planning for mega-projects in urban settings.

Kamin's framing of the relevance of the Cityfront Center also makes the case study obviously relevant far beyond Illinois.

Viewed from the air, it’s a stunning transformation — in just 30 years, a gritty swath of cleared land and surface parking lots has become a glistening new part of Chicago.

But people experience cities on the ground, not in the air. Put the 60 acres between Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue under a microscope and what you see is a cityscape of great expectations and half-kept promises.

As for why the project has failed to live up to its promise, Kamin cites some obvious lessons:

Real estate busts, changes in property ownership and the absence of a firm timetable for improvements all share the blame.

So does a lack of effective oversight by the city’s Department of Planning and Development and the City Council’s zoning committee, which were charged with monitoring Cityfront Center.

But as for why those lessons are important important in Chicago, there are several mega-projects looming that have a similar mix of public space and massive scale:

Urban planning flops like these loom large as city officials review new megaplans from developers who pretty up their visions of skyscrapers with dazzling drawings of riverwalks, bike trails and other amenities teeming with smiling, attractive people.

The Chicago Plan Commission is considering the proposed redevelopment of the 25.6-acre Tribune Media site at 777 W. Chicago Avenue today, but there are even larger projects in the pipeline, like the 53-acre Lincoln Yards project on the North Side and a 62-acre project called The 78, located on the Near South Side. "The planner of both [those last two] projects, the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, co-designed Cityfront Center’s master plan," according to Kamin.

We've only shared the framing for this feature-length article. Kamin goes into fine detail about the ways the Chicago Cityfront Center has failed to live up to its promise. All of this criticism and analysis, with a focus especially on the public realm, is designed to ensure greater success the next time around. "Buzzwords like 'place-led' development mean little without the sharpening of outdated standards for human-scaled streets and vibrant public spaces," Kamin reminds us.

Full Story:
Published on Wednesday, October 17, 2018 in Chicago Tribune
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