Both Barrett and Hussey provided distinct points of view regarding the transformation of cities. Barrett, with her vast experience in envisioning and facilitating relationships between public and private partnerships and in creating policies to aid the transformation of the city, brought a clear perspective regarding the ongoing and upcoming initiatives that Chicago is and should be exploring. Hussey, on the other hand, brought a designer’s perspective to the conversation, based on his work on multiple large-scale projects and visioning initiatives both in Chicago and internationally. With these multidisciplinary conversations, it is our goal to bring forward-thinking designs into policy conversations as well as understand the invisible but defining structures in place that facilitate or challenge promising design proposals in our cities. The experiences and perspectives they shared were invaluable in thinking about the challenges and opportunities that we face as we think about the future of Chicago.
The following text is an edited transcription of the conversation that took place.
Iker Gil: When researching the city of Bilbao, I realized that there were several issues that were similar to those found in Chicago, even though the two cities have different scales and contexts. For example, in Bilbao, there wasn’t an interest in discarding the industrial economy. However, because of advancements in technology (among other factors), industries needed fewer workers than they did in the past while being able to produce more steel than they did before. While industry continues to be an important contributor to the economy of the region, it no longer employs a large amount of people.
Chicago is going through a similar rethinking of its industrial economy in areas such as Goose Island and the North Branch Industrial Corridor. How is this transformation taking place in Chicago and how is the Metropolitan Planning Council approaching this process?
MarySue Barrett: There are uncanny parallels between [Bilbao and Chicago] despite the scale differences that you mentioned. When Mayor Emanuel was reelected in 2015 his transition process was streamlined. There wasn’t a whole set of committees and long processes that typically happen when someone is new. He brought a few people together and we came up with priorities, one of which was to take a fresh look at the industrial corridors in the city of Chicago. There are twenty-two industrial corridors and fifteen of them, called Planned Manufacturing Districts, have additional protections. One of the differences between Chicago and Bilbao is that [Chicago has] always had a diversified economy. While manufacturing has obviously been shrinking, it remains key. Metals manufacturing and food manufacturing remain really important components for the city. And yet the nature of industry is changing. It needs less space, it employs fewer people, and is much more technology dependent. You can imagine that, in different places in the city, there are different pressures and assets. The City of Chicago decided to start first with the North Branch Industrial Corridor. Most of us think of the former Finkl & Sons steel site, which is very highly charged and has drawn lots of attention. But there will be twenty-one more corridors that will get this kind of attention, such as the Pilsen Industrial Corridor and the Kinzie Industrial Corridor on the Near West Side. Each one of these is very different, but I would say what we have seen happening in Bilbao is very instructive. I hope that we have the chance to talk about industrial transformations to accommodate new types of clean industry, the maker economy, and mixed uses. What is interesting is that you can have a brewery in an industrial corridor in Chicago but you cannot have a tasting room for the brewery. That is how restrictive and dated some of these requirements currently are. Many of our industrial corridors are on the river, and I know we’ll talk about the role of the river.
IG: Related to the river, one of the key aspects in Bilbao was the regeneration of the river itself as well as its banks. The river was extremely polluted and the industrial uses located along the banks made it inaccessible to its citizens. Its regeneration in the last three decades has stitched the city back together. In Chicago, there is an initiative called Great Rivers Chicago that is aiming to create a vision for 2040 for the Chicago, Calumet, and Des Plaines rivers. You are involved in this effort, so it would be great to know about the initiative from both of you more and your respective involvement.
MB: We are both enthusiastic about Great Rivers Chicago. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has been a terrific partner with the City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), which, by the way, is a nongovernmental organization. We work everyday with government, business, and community organizations on… solving the messiest urban development challenges. The issues that we see are, in some ways, always the same, and yet, they are very different era by era, so I appreciate the way you broke your analysis of Bilbao down for us in your initial presentation into the four very different historical chapters. Great Rivers Chicago released their vision in August of 2016 and the tough work clearly lies ahead. There was a first segment of the Riverwalk downtown built many years ago going east to Lake Michigan, but it was not until 2015 and 2016 that the next few segments were opened in the central area. In addition to that area, which is wonderful and beautiful, there are 150 miles of riverfront in Chicago, considering the North and South Branches of the Chicago River, the Calumet River on the southeast side, and the Des Plaines River on the western edge of the city. So, even without looking at a metropolitan scale, which we care a lot about, within the city of Chicago there are 150 miles of riverfront plus 27 miles of lakefront. That has clearly been one of our international calling cards. People say it’s the last urban frontier for our city and our region. I believe that is true. [The river] needs to be productive, living, and inviting. All of those things can coexist, and industry is part of that changing transition.
There are a lot of places where private development either has occurred or is now occurring. They have a requirement to create a 30-feet-wide walkable/bikeable space similar to the one you just saw in the terrific video about Bilbao in the presentation. But then, what? You are at a dead end. You could not bike from the North Side down to downtown, or get from the 606 Trail to the central area and to the lake. It is not connected by a continuous trail. There are lots of things to be excited about, including the goal of the river being swimmable by 2030. There are also many specific sites that we can talk about, but giving people a sense of the big, audacious goal of a continuous trail is a very important place to start.
Tom Hussey: The river is an incredible underutilized asset that we have. We are finally discovering it and change is happening very fast. A big part of what we are trying to do is to take that energy of the main branch of the river and bring it to the North and South Branches, which is where we are in the middle of rethinking the industrial areas. It is a big opportunity to think about how we can stitch our neighborhoods back to the river, not turn our backs to the river. We can invite people to the river and use the river as a major spine of circulation, of civic pride, and recreation for the city. It was always a transportation corridor, but now we have the opportunity to think about it in new terms of new modes of transportation: it can be walkable and bikeable, stitching all of our neighborhoods together. We are involved with MPC, the Mayor’s Office, and eight other design firms that were invited to reimagine what the river could be in terms of a continuous network of trails, a collection of special spaces and activities along the river. We are trying to overcome some of the challenges happening in some cases where the spaces are constrained as the buildings and infrastructure butt right up against the river, simply because we turned our back to the river. We are very optimistic about what the river can become. Looking ahead in the future, I think it will become a major draw to Chicago for residents and visitors alike.
IG: Since the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao two decades ago, the transformation of the city has continued and will continue during the decades to come. One of the challenges of transformations of this speed and scale is that they can carry a loss of identity. Tom, in the urban design projects you have worked on, how do you balance the new development while trying to maintain the identity and the character that makes those spaces unique?
TH: We work in a variety of contexts, both in terms of urban characteristics as well as geographies around the world. The question we are often asked as an international firm bringing the best practices from around the world to our work is how to maintain the local character, heritage, and identity of a place. And that can vary from project to project. On one extreme, you have very large-scale, almost new cities that we are doing in places like the Middle East and China, where they are rapidly urbanizing and trying to figure out how to accommodate all this growth. In those cases, it is very challenging to uncover what that uniqueness is. We are always partnering with local firms who are directly engaged with clients, bringing in a lot of diverse perspectives, which helps in paying attention at the smaller scale. In our Tianjin Binhai master plan project that we have been working on for a decade, we are looking at a postindustrial future after they relocated their entire port facilities to a new location and there wasn’t much left there to draw upon. The city, which is aimed to become a financial center in northern China, is searching for its identity and I think about it in relationship to Bilbao because one of the strategies that they are using now is to try to import high-profile cultural institutions as anchors, as catalysts for development. In their case, it is the Juilliard School from New York that is looking to expand internationally and bring performing arts to what they see is an untapped market in China. They have been offered a prime riverfront spot, just like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, to do that, and it is a win-win situation for both sides as the city is able to establish itself with arts and culture, and it gives the Juilliard School an opportunity to rebrand itself and expand internationally. But, like you said, it is not magic overnight. You don’t just build a building and all of the sudden things happen. There are all sorts of elements that need to come along with that. There is a major investment in infrastructure such as high-speed rail and there is an economic basis for all of this. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a place like Detroit, where we have been working for several years, which obviously has gone through all sorts of hurdles in terms of its economic decline and rebirth. There, we have been working on a framework plan for the redevelopment of the East Riverfront. In that case, it is really not about large-scale redevelopment but about a much more sensitive approach. It is about understanding in depth the local context and the assets that already exist and how we can integrate those into a framework. We also need a surgical approach toward public realm, understanding how we can upgrade the streets and public open spaces. An important part of this effort is to bring the local community along. Public engagement is critical in a context like that, so we developed a framework plan that is responsive to the wants and needs of the community. That is an approach that we have been doing in Chicago as well. Another example to keep in mind in relationship to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is the Obama Presidential Center which was a highly sought after project by a number of cities because of the potential identity that it can bring to a city and the potential economic value that it can deliver to its surrounding neighborhoods. We have been working with the community of Woodlawn, which is immediately adjacent to where the Obama Presidential Center will be located, helping them understand the potential impacts that the project could have for their community and empowering them to make decisions that help make sure that this investment benefits their community in the long term. Again, it is an effort to engage the local residents and let the impact and interventions grow from within the community.
IG: Have you seen a change in the way people and the leaders in the public administration approach these transformations? Do they ask for an icon to lead that transformation, maybe as some still see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao?
TH: Some people look at the Guggenheim Museum and see its architectural value. There are places that put a strong emphasis in collecting a lot of architectural objects, becoming a sort of architectural zoo or theme park. You see that in places like Dubai and China. But there has been a shift in the mentality, and some people recognize that it is a shallow approach to bringing identity and culture to a place. A couple of years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping put forward a mandate that said, “No more weird architecture.” China had become a sort of international laboratory for architects to come and experiment with new ideas that perhaps they wouldn’t try in their own home cities. There is a shift to a more sophisticated approach to design that has a lot more substance beyond form making.
MB: I have seen that change as well, even the fact that we as a nongovernmental organization are invited by the City of Chicago to be the lead to gather public input on Great Rivers Chicago. We talked to 6,000 people over the last year in both online forums and in lots and lots of meetings, from those held at Chicago Park District field houses to [those with] kayakers, and everything in between. That is really what is reflected in the vision document. It is not a plan that is just aspirational with no traction. There is the design effort that Tom and SOM are involved with, along with other firms, and that will create a series of concepts by early fall. Along with that, the Chicago Community Trust has put $800,000 into a fund that they have seeded to create small grants aimed at neighborhood associations and anyone with an idea. They anticipate giving out small grants in the $25,000–$100,000 range for local activations. It is up to the combination of civic, public, and the design development communities to come up with the cohesive infrastructure. Think about the type of amenities that are on the lakefront. You can get an ice cream bar and many other things. If you go along the river, there is nothing. There are no trails, there is not a place to get something cool to drink, and there is not a park bench. It is very important to create a space that would have its own unique character, with each segment of the river having a different feel.
I am also excited about the potential of connecting other assets that are in the pipeline. El Paseo in Pilsen is this wonderful trail that currently doesn’t loop completely down to the river and part of the suggestions that came from the public was to do that, to create a continuous loop. Someone figured out that the completion of that loop would measure exactly 5 kilometers, which is a wonderful coincidence. This is definitely an area that has been mistreated in the past with its industrial history and it has been cut off. There are many communities, and many of them are Latino communities, that are adjacent to the river and that don’t have any sense that they are riverfront and waterfront communities because they cannot access it. The ideas do need to be supported by philanthropy and by government but there are also opportunities for individuals and local associations to do their part in creating the buzz and the demand for doing all these types of initiatives.
IG: In the last few years, there has been a lot of investment in and around the downtown areas of Chicago. There has been a rebirth of the Loop, the new Riverwalk, the new train stations located on the CTA’s Green Line that are supporting the new business. How do we make sure that when we talk about transformation and investment, we use it to create a more inclusive city and not just to serve a specific area or demographic?
MB: I do think that you used the right word. Inclusive growth and inclusive economic development is not easy to do. In a place like the city of Chicago that has lost population since 1950, except for a little blip in the 2000 census basically thanks to Mexican immigration, we have been sliding down. What many people are unaware of is that we are the slowest growing city and region of any in the top twenty. There is something that is not functioning the way it has the potential to function in our region. And that’s a shame. Obviously, we have so many assets that it’s about putting them together. I believe that one of the tough parts of those conversations is about targeting. We cannot bring back a community on the mid-South Side that has lost 60% of its population—the same thing is true for the next community, and the next community, and so on. We can’t bring all of them back. That might sound like a defeatist statement. That might sound like, “Boy, I thought you were a civic planning advocate.” I am, but I think we have to focus in an era of really tough fiscal climates and say, “Let’s put all the pieces together and then build outward from those assets.” Assets, of course, like the Obama Presidential Center or Pullman. Pullman is a great example of putting all the components together: a Method soap factory, a newly announced Whole Foods distribution facility, a Walmart, the extension of Lake Shore Drive, historic housing rehabilitation, the Pullman National Monument, antiviolence efforts, workforce training efforts . . . When we look at the recent economic and quality of life indicators in Pullman, they are dramatically outperforming their adjacent communities. To me, that says that we need to focus and make some tough choices. Not everyone is going to get major investment in 2017 but there is a game plan to build from those assets. And the transit network is similar to the river network that we have been talking about. We have to focus a lot of our attention and growth on those nodes that need help, not the Blue Line to O’Hare or the Red and Brown Lines going north. Those markets are functioning. The Green Line going south, for example, is a place that needs our help and needs really strong coordination and investment.
TH: I agree and I’d like to add that schools and education play a critical part as well. We want to make sure that we have a strong investment and a balanced approach to support communities and neighborhoods throughout Chicago. Hopefully, that would help alleviate some of the social and economic issues that certain areas of the city are facing in comparison to others.
IG: I’d like to focus now on one project that SOM has been spearheading during the last few years, which is the Great Lakes Century Vision Plan. It is a project that understands the Great Lakes as one megaregion. As I mentioned in my presentation, now that Bilbao is trying to access some of the international economic markets, they are not only presenting themselves as a metropolitan area but also as a network of cities that complement each other, some outside the Basque Country and even in France. It is interesting how in SOM’s project, you take into consideration an area that is much larger than the Midwest, spans two countries, and has two very different approaches and sensibilities to many things. What was the generator of that project and what are the findings and the challenges that you are facing?
TH: The Great Lakes Century Plan is a vision plan that began back in 2009 which was instigated by the 100-year anniversary of the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. The challenge put forth was to imagine what Daniel Burnham would do today. He was, of course, well known for thinking big. We looked at the great resource that we have in Lake Michigan, and we discovered that there wasn’t a holistic plan or vision to think about the region that surrounds the Great Lakes. We first started by redrawing boundaries. We broke down the boundaries of the US and Canada, states, provinces, and cities, and drew a boundary based on the Great Lakes watershed. Twenty percent of the world’s surface fresh water by volume resides within the five Great Lakes, and that becomes a major asset to us when we consider that, in the future, water will become one of the major sources of contention in the world, as there are projected to be increasingly more water-starved areas. How can we protect that resource in terms of quality and quantity and support the ecosystem that the Great Lakes region used to have? We presented a series of environmental ideas that can help strengthen our city’s relationship to the water and then we layered in economic strategies, recognizing that the economy has shifted for a lot of the cities within the region that formally had an industrial past. We started thinking about how by physically connecting these cities through new transportation infrastructure such as high-speed rail we can start to work more effectively as a region. As you showed in the case of Bilbao and the Basque Country, there is certainly a momentum worldwide to think beyond the cities and more about regions. If you look at the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States for instance, 50% of the GDP is generated by just by twenty-two urban areas right now. If you think about how you can connect those urban areas, then you can start to combine that economic power and do pretty substantial things by complementing one another. This is an effort to think holistically environmentally and economically and then gain consensus. We shared this plan with the mayoral association of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River and it was unanimously endorsed. The main goal of the plan was really to raise awareness and to get the discussion going. Now I think that the next step is to think about how we can develop a series of concrete plans that can be implemented and lead to change.
IG: At this point I want to open the floor for questions to our panelists.
Question from the audience: You mentioned how in these rapid transformations there is the potential of losing sight of what was already present in the communities or in the environments that you are building on top of. One thing that stands out for me is Theaster Gates’s projects on the South Side of Chicago and how they provide a sense of agency for the people who are already in those places and a legacy of what was there before. I’m interested to know if you see that approach as being an aspect potentially being incorporated going forward as part of these other plans that you have been discussing both in Bilbao and here in Chicago.
MB: I would definitely agree with that. Theaster, both in his own work and in collaboration with the University of Chicago, has an Arts Block concept that is just one of the number of locations where he has had a real impact. I remember when I first got to spend a little time with him, and he said, “You know, here is my secret: I don’t ask permission, I just do it.” When you think about the regulatory approval process, zoning, and everything else, it was probably pretty good advice. These areas weren’t having any activity before so he just did it. Of course, creating places for the dreams, desires, and needs of local residents is really what it is all about.
We are working with a number of organizations on some of those inner-city transit nodes. As I mentioned earlier, the Green Line south is one that I think has great potential. We can look at three of its stations: 51st has a food incubator component; Garfield has the Arts Blocks component; and Cottage Grove on 63rd Street is a node that has become a new south anchor for the University of Chicago, featuring an educational/retail/mixed-use component. Each one of those stations has very different conditions and is at a very different stage but it is important to start with what is organically happening. In this case, in Garfield there is a lot to build from and just stepping back and letting go a little bit is turning out to be good advice.
At Metropolitan Planning Council we are also big fans of placemaking, which can be an interim way to allow the community to put their stamp and to give voice to their desires. Maybe the development is not going to happen in five or eight years but there currently are vacant lots that don’t have to remain desolate until then. They can be locations for pop-up yoga studios, farmers markets, and all sorts of possibilities. That is the kind of effort that I think Theaster is particularly good at.
TH: I think that empowering the community to make a place their own is very much an important part of securing a neighborhood’s identity and managing growth responsibly and authentically. The more Theaster Gates we can have the better our communities would be.
IG: Responding as how it relates to Bilbao, the area of Zorrotzaurre is where some of these activities are currently taking place, as there is an opportunity to reuse large vacant or underutilized industrial buildings. Except for fourteen of them that will remain, the rest are waiting to be demolished in the future. Traditionally, these organic activities are not the way in which things operate in Spain. Usually, it is a much more structured effort led by the public administration that creates or supports specific programs that people can take part in. The question now is, once the urban redevelopment of Zorrotzaurre starts, how many of those activities will be able to find a place there and how many of them will be pushed out or disappear? It is important to discuss what the value of those activities is and if it is possible to include them in the new scenario.
I think it is important to keep in mind two aspects when we approach these types of initiatives. The first one is who the audience is. Designers and artists are well intentioned but sometimes you don’t know if they have an audience in mind for the work. You have to keep in mind how the space is going to be activated after the intervention is created. The second aspect is that we have to avoid oversimplifying how these developments happen. The way these initiatives are communicated sometimes is misleading, in the same way that the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was not the only element responsible for the transformation of the city. For example, sometimes an entity will donate a building or space for $1, but that’s not the total cost of the project. We can’t just say, “Look at what we can do with a $1 if we have a vision.” These initiatives require more money and resources of all kinds. We need to be more rigorous when we talk about these efforts, so we understand how they are done, how they get paid, and even what permits are needed. In the end, what you want is for people to replicate these efforts and have the tools to make them happen successfully in other places. We want to nurture residents and artists to be able to have an impact in the city. But to do that, people need to understand what it takes to make them happen. Sometimes we just get a short and beautiful headline of the project without the full story. It is the same case with Bilbao, if you make a building the city will change. Well, then you don’t understand all the things that had to come before the museum that might not have been easy or even popular but that were necessary to aim for a successful outcome.
MB: I really appreciated several articles of the Bilbao issue of MAS Context, and you emphasized it yourself here during your presentation—the transparent approach to the efforts. They specified the cost, who was contributing, and how people were going to benefit. That was baked right into the commitments and the structures that were created. We don’t really have that in the same way here in Chicago. If we had an approach of talking about the investment and the return on it, we would get out of this trap of the subsidy language. People say, “Oh well, the Englewood Whole Foods got a subsidy.” Yes, and think of all of the aspects that are in place in other markets that are functioning such that a grocery store like Mariano’s can come in and just step right into because the sewers are working, and the lighting is working, and so forth. We have to pay for that and wouldn’t you pay to attract more local employment, retail options, fresh food options and so forth so that then it can prime the pump of the market? It does cost something, but it is a much smarter investment than paying for all the social services chasing public safety and other ills that we know pop up when there are no opportunities, no employment, and no role models. We could all benefit by a more honest conversation. It is not like roads are free and transit is subsidized but I hear that language all the time. These public investments are a combination of public and private investments; they have a big price tag. If they reverse our population [loss] and if they attract more people and investment, it will be so worth it. We will look back and we will have a Millennium Park kind of a-ha moment or we’ll say, “That was so worth expanding the scope, investing more.” Because Millennium Park wasn’t over budget, the scope expanded. I don’t think any of us would say that we shouldn’t have done that. That’s the kind of conversation we need.
Question from the audience: The question that I have is related to the topic of narrative in Bilbao. I am wondering what the role of architecture is and what the exportability of architecture in Bilbao is to places like Chicago. We have been talking about a wide range of issues, but does it also involve architecture?
IG: Your question brings up an interesting point about what has happened after the opening of the Guggenheim Museum and who has been involved in the development of the city afterwards. The public administrations are very happy to boost that the city has several Pritzker Prize winning architects with projects in Bilbao. They are not necessarily talking in terms of the quality of the work. They are talking about them as figures, to brand and market the effort. In many instances local architects feel that they have been left out of this process, even at a time when there was quite a lot of work. I am not sure if that is an example that would be great to export to other cities. In this new phase of transformation, I believe things are shifting as the scale of the interventions has also changed. The city is also revising the General Urban Development Plan that will guide the future of the city. The projects will be more localized, with smaller interventions in neighborhoods. There have been great projects built in Bilbao, no doubt about it, but it is interesting to see the narrative that is shared by the city administration. Personally, I think that it is less interesting to measure success by who builds in a city or how many buildings are getting built versus the quality of those buildings or what those buildings are going to do for the city. In Chicago, I’d like to think that in thirty years, someone can look back at this moment and say that something special was happening in the city because there were so many great buildings getting built. Maybe the same way that we look at the turn of the twentieth century or later with Marina City, the Sears Tower, or the John Hancock Center. Maybe we need to change our metrics of these developments.
TH: Architecture can be a major draw. If you look at Chicago, it is known as a city of architecture. The most popular or the second most popular tourist activity in the city is the architectural boat tour. But it is important that we see architecture as more than the image that it conveys to the casual observer. It is also about the substance behind that image. For instance, it is the institutions that occupy the architecture that build the experience of the city for a visitor. They create a better quality of life and a better experience for its users.. Architecture is a significant part of the equation, but there is so much more to that. Design at all scales is integral to the pursuit of quality urbanism.
IG: Maybe the positive side of what happened in the last two decades in Bilbao is that the companies that needed to build new buildings or repurpose existing ones understood that they couldn’t get away with just anything. In a way, it opened the door to engage architecture in the conversation in a way that it most likely would not have happened before. I think it did introduce architecture to a wider audience in everyday life. Residents know the name of the architects of some of the new buildings, something that did not happen before. I think that awareness has been positive.
Question from the audience: Is there something that could be learned from Bilbao about the scale of these projects? We talk in Chicago about doing these massive “make no small plans” projects but it doesn’t seem that we have been able to do something really major. The riverfront is getting grand in scale and we can see how spectacular it is getting, but it is taking a long time for a lot of reasons. MarySue talked about the a-ha moment of Millennium Park, which was a huge project. Is there something just in the pure scale of these projects and ideas that is important?
MB: I make a case that scale is important for ideas and execution. Perhaps that’s the hangover of a couple of things. The recession and the uneven recovery means that certain sectors are doing very well. Industrial occupancy in our region is very strong right now, as well as the tech sector in general and the entrepreneurial sector. We also talk a lot these days about divisions or whole companies that have relocated their headquarters to downtown. There is a lot of buzz around a lot of things, but we also have this hangover that is fed by our state budget, pension budget, finance woes, and lack of action in resources from the federal government and the state government that leave cities with their back up against the wall. You have to be a creative, self-help kind of place and Chicago is pretty good at that, but we have never had to go alone. I would argue that we actually have quite a few big projects but sometimes there is that second city mentality that brings us down. I also think that we are also missing out. We have redone the runways at O’Hare Airport, which is fabulous, and now we need to redo our terminals. There is a game plan there that is huge in scale. We’ll see if high-speed rail access to the airport is an important recipe for success. I personally put other transportation projects higher on the priority list. There will be an announcement in the next few weeks about Union Station, with a team working on its redevelopment. The Old Post Office over Congress Parkway is finally being redeveloped. You have this no man’s land that could connect the South Loop and the West Loop. And we have been talking a lot about industrial transformation and river transformation. But we haven’t been thinking necessarily big about infill stations. The Morgan Street Station in the West Loop opened a few years ago and Google headquarters cited it as one of the main reasons why they chose that location. The new Cermak-McCormick Place station on the Green Line gained huge volumes of ridership immediately after its opening. Those are close and done stations, but it’s only recently that there has been another station announced by the United Center. I take it as an encouraging and hopeful sign that, instead of going safer on the east side, the station is located on Western, on the west side of United Center. Should we be having discussions about the next five—instead of one—infill stations as those can create nodes of hope, investment, and focus for other places? The reason why we don’t do it is because we say, “We can’t afford them, we can’t pay for that.” We kind of shoot it down before it gets started. I think that there are a lot of good pieces that are not generally understood holistically. For example, I think there is a huge opportunity to have the tollway, IDOT, and the CTA work together at the Eisenhower Expressway to remake this area, which could totally change the Illinois Medical District area and turn it into a main hub. We should green over and canopy over the Eisenhower and Kennedy Expressways. These are big projects that cities like Los Angeles have done. They have completed their Union Station. We are kind of slow in planning and Midwest modest in a way that hurts us.
TH: When you see large-scale interventions in cities, they tend to happen in areas of major transformation. To your point specifically about Chicago, overall growth has actually been relatively modest compared to some of these other cities—which may contribute to a perceived lack of progress—but the amount of noteworthy projects that have been done in recent years is pretty substantial. You have rattled off a few of them and you can add the Riverwalk, the 606, Maggie Daley Park, the Obama Presidential Center, and there is a lot of high-profile development underway or on the horizon. We are on the verge of accomplishing a lot more. That’s not to say that we can’t do more. We should be thinking about what the next five or ten things are.
IG: In the case of Bilbao, there were several major large-scale infrastructural efforts, like moving the port facilities outside the city, and they are still building more terminals. The construction of the new subway was also critical. It is important to understand why and how this type and scale of project can take place. One aspect is that they were planning beyond political terms. For example, cleaning the river took thirty years and everybody understood from the beginning that it would take that amount of time. Many of these projects outlast a single mayor, so there was a sense of long-term visioning. The other aspect is that the situation of Bilbao was critical, which is not the case with Chicago. If you talk to people in Bilbao now, you can point out things that need to change but there would not be a consensus on how to invest the resources because the situation is not as critical as it was in the 1980s. That was a very specific condition.
And I’d like to touch upon the aspect of resources. When I hear that cities don’t have money, I question that. In the case of Bilbao, the city has a population of about 300,000 people with a metropolitan area of about 1 million people. The population of Chicago’s metropolitan area is about 9 million. None of the major projects done in Bilbao were part of the annual budget of the city and some of them were very expensive, like the subway that was about 2 billion euros or the cleaning of the river that cost about 1 billion euros. Simplifying it, the way they were paid for was by creating a not-for-profit organization bringing together different institutions and companies to share the land that they did not need. What was not valuable for them could be valuable for others. The city and metropolitan area had vast industrial areas that were vacant and after remediating the soil from pollutants, they were sold for redevelopment and the profit generated would be used for public works. Due to those new collaborative structures put in place and the coordinated efforts, a city of the scale of Bilbao could tackle these large-scale projects. I think that we can be more creative and really think about what is specific to Chicago, the untapped assets that the city has. Maybe there are new funding sources that can be added to the more traditional ones coming from the state and federal government. It is not an easy process and you shouldn’t copy Bilbao as the contexts and assets are different, but there might be interesting lessons in ways to approach the situation.
MB: Last year the Metropolitan Panning Council hosted a forum with our counterpart organizations in the Bay Area and in New York. One of the questions posed in a similar type of panel to the three organization leaders was, “What’s the thing that you most admire about of the other places that you’d like to grab?” And the folks from New York and the Bay Area said, “Vacant land in Chicago.” They don’t have that asset—while we say that our problem is that we have 15,000 vacant lots. The San Francisco/Bay Area has always had this land-locked problem, but twenty-five years ago, New York had areas of devastation that were very similar to our South and West Sides today and that no longer exist. It is key to set the bar high, monetize the assets, think very creatively about targeted investments, and have a multi-decade plan to do so. You have to be committed beyond political terms and be patient about it. I think those are very applicable lessons from Bilbao to Chicago.