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Saturday, March 13, 2004

A New Urbanist Glen

Earlier today, WTTW, the local PBS television station, broadcast Chicago's North Shore, a documentary covering the history, architecture and people of the city's well-known northern suburbs. One suburb covered that concerns me is Glenview, located about twenty miles NNW of downtown Chicago.

Growing up next door in Northbrook, as a child if I heard the word Glenview I thought of the Glenview Naval Air Base. Located just across Willow Road on the border of the two 'burbs, the base was a huge, over 1000-acre presence that one could only travel around except during the Chicago Air and Water Show when it would open its doors to the public. Then we were allowed to walk around parts of the base and get close to the jets and other planes and vehicles present. Moreso I enjoyed when my family would drive to Willow Road and park on the side of the road to see the planes leaving and returning from the show, the planes always wiling to put on an extra performance for the parked cars outside and the paying visitors inside.

Well, the Naval Air Base is gone and in its place is The Glen, a 1,121 acre mixed use district with over 3,000 residences, offices and retail space. Additionally it contains parks, a lake, prairie land, a golf course and a commuter train station. What is unique about the project is not its size and scale, nor the site's previous use (all that remains of the old base is the part of the control tower, now being used as a shopping center), but Glenveiw's decision to develop the land itself using the tenets of New Urbanism.

According to the Congress for New Urbanism, the design movement aims "to reform all aspects of real estate development...[supporting] regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing...to reduce how long people spend in traffic, to increase the supply of affordable housing, and to rein in urban sprawl." Regardless of its good intentions, in many circles New Urbanism is seen as a white and white-collar movement that embraces traditional design over progressive contemporary architecture. But I don't want to argue for or against New Urbanism since personally I think the movement has many positive aspects but just as many shortcomings. Instead I would like to briefly analyze The Glen as an example of New Urbanist principles.

Aerial rendering of The Glen
Aerial rendering of The Glen

Firstly, the PBS special mentions that Glenview's choice to develop the land itself was driven by the desire to preserve open space. This is evident when traveling by train along the edge of The Glen, its lake, parks and some prairie land visible from the station. Its questionable location (the northwest corner near the railroad tracks and Willow Road overpass) fell to the masterplan designer, Skidmore Owings and Merrill. On their web site they indicate five basic principles for the masterplan (pdf link):

1. The creation of a town center
2. Walkable neighborhoods that surround and support the center
3. A connecting system of streets
4. Connected open spaces including the prairie,the golf course and a great park
5. A flexible plan that maintains a level of control and direction for future growth

Briefly addressing each principle:

1. The town center uses the site of the old control tower and is, not surprisingly, a retail center.
2. "Walkable neighborhoods" is not only a design issue but one that is dependent upon the residents and their habits, among other variables. SOM located garages in alleys and kept the front of the houses free of driveways, using porches to foster community and walkability, a choice that may or may not be successful since the residents still have the option of driving into their garages and going straight into their houses, failing to interact with their neighbors. Increased commuter train ridership would definitely help to create a walkable neighborhood.
3. Patriot Street is the major street that passes through The Glen from Willow on the north to Lake on the south, with curved, secondary and tertiary streets off of Patriot feeding primarily residential areas. This creates a hierarchy of streets but avoids the creation of through traffic (outside of Patriot) that might increase activity like gridded layouts tend to do.
4. I would hardly refer to the golf course as an open space since its limited access does not make it truly a public space, but the prairie, park and lake are great amenities for residents and non-residents for free outdoor enjoyment.
5. It's difficult to ascertain where the flexibility in the masterplan lies, but hopefully the open space that has been created will be maintained.

Of course, the success of the project cannot be fully judged until construction of all parts is complete, which is slated to be ca. 2010, and then that would be early to judge. For now it is (in my very cursory view) a beautifully flawed example of New Urbanist principles on a large scale within an existing (sub)urban fabric.

When I first heard about the closing of the Glenview Naval Air Base, I thought of the enormous potential to create something unique that would both preserve elements of the base and refer to its past in the new uses and designs. While the end product is far from what I imagined, I'll admit that it could have been much much worse, had the Village given in to developer's interests and motives. Instead they've created a response that bravely questions the typical suburban condition.

For informaton and perspectives on New Urbanism, try the CNU link above, New Urbanism.org and City Comforts, a blog by David Sucher, author of "City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village."